Hitchin Town v Hednesford Town: When a club becomes trendy

WHEN you can draw over 600 people to your home game when your club is languishing in the foothills of the league, you know you are doing something right. Hitchin Town met Hednesford Town on a cold, bright day and although the Premier League was having a winter break, which may have contributed to the impressive attendance, the growing interest in the club is starting to become very noticeable.

When I was involved with Hitchin, the demographic at Top Field was worrying. The average age of the regulars was as old, if not older, than my own age, there were few young people and the ground was damp, shabby and ill-equipped for the modern age. The clubhouse leaked, the floodlights were out-of-date and matchday catering was poor. Furthermore, Top Field was a place for ageing men, there were few women around. The club did not represent the modern, diverse audience.

However, the club has changed remarkably in the past few years and things look much healthier and more future-proofed. They seem closer to the idea of “community” than ever before, people bring dogs to the ground, for Christ’s sake. Furthermore, the club has its own dedicated chaplain and there are murals created by children depicting what looks like angel’s wings. Cynics will see it as gentrification (Hitchin has become a smashed avocado town, after all), but it is obviously enabling the club to appeal to a broader section of the public.

One long-time exiled supporter returned to Top Field for the Hednesford game and didn’t recognise the club he had followed for decades. “Have we become hip all of a sudden?,” he asked. The truth is, the perception of the club has changed for the better. 

Hitchin Town have moved on, out of necessity and also in recognition the future isn’t about crumbling terracing, dangerous corrugated metal and leaking roofs. People eulogised about Top Field and its quaint appearance, but I always felt it was just downright shabby. Today, the ground is better than it has ever been, thanks to a new sweeping bank of portable terracing, proper fencing and a coat or two of paint. 

There is a very positive movement in progress, but hopefully it will not become political or get lost in idealism, but I actually noticed the presence of a well-known local political activist sitting in the ground.

You get a sense that results don’t seem to matter too much anymore. The 2021-22 season has been poor for Hitchin, but there’s no calls for the manager to be sacked or claims the club lacks ambition, sentiments which were often the soundtrack of the past. Indeed, any criticisms are usually unwelcome, not necessarily from the club itself, but from supporters who urge people not to break the spirit of community. In many ways, that’s a very good thing, but that isn’t just what football is all about – all said and done, the game is about competition, healthy combat and rivalry. Being positive is all very well, but when you pay for your ticket, you expect a certain amount of quality for your money. If clubs want people to be true stakeholders, they have to expect criticism and comment and they have to be accountable for what they deliver to their audience. 

Hitchin lost 2-1 to Hednesford and they really didn’t deserve to be beaten. Their team is looking better than just a few months ago when relegation looked a certainty. They may still go down, but I don’t think it will affect the new-found affection people appear to have for the club. The mood has changed and Hitchin Town are creating a new model for the future, one that plays to more than a platoon of middle-aged men. Clearly, the only thing to look forward to is not the past at Top Field.

The non-league condition – Hednesford v Hitchin

THERE ARE times when watching non-league football makes you question your sanity, especially when the weather is cold and damp, the facilities are spartan and the football very primitive. Poor toilets, drenched in stale urine, catering that defies all the rules and a social club that is far from sociable – all too often that’s what presents itself. Not so at Hednesford Town, whose Keys Park ground is one of the best stadiums in the non-league game.

For over 25 years, I travelled up and down the country watching Hitchin Town, sometimes wondering what ever possessed me to commit myself to what was a very average level. Occasionally, an outstanding game would make it worthwhile, but more often than not, the football fan experience of being let-down would be the outcome of a 10-hour round trip to the Midlands or way out west. One now departed fan summed up the non-league condition quite well: “We have a good day out, a few beers, a bit of a laugh, then the 90 minutes is the worst part of the afternoon.”

Hitchin travelled to Hednesford with modest expectations. They had lost all their away games in the league and had won just twice in eight games. The FA Cup run had ended cheaply in the second qualifying round and they had lost at St. Neots in the league cup. A certain level of dissatisfaction had crept in among some fans, although in typical fashion, very few would grumble loudly. Following Hitchin now seems to have become a habit of quiet acceptance and fierce loyalty, but then wasn’t it always like that?

The current team is very young, as it always seems to be in recent years and lacks solid experience. There’s skill and a bit of pace, but the team is lightweight and comes second in physical combat. Unfortunately, they recently lost their best player in Callum Stead, who signed for South Shields. He was a decent forward, but not in the same class as some of Hitchin’s forwards of the past.

After a sequence of poor results, Hitchin produced their best display for weeks at Hednesford, against a team third in the table and unbeaten at home. Before the game, fans were predicting 3-0, 4-0, maybe 5-0 but the Canaries could have come away with all three points.

They went ahead after half an hour, much to the surprise of the travelling fans, a low drive from Luke Brown after Lawrie Marsh saw his effort blocked. Proud Dad Stuart Brown, who played for the Canaries in the early 1990s and was a talented striker himself,  was there to see his son’s goal. Interestingly, Hitchin’s two at Keys Park were almost ignored by the tannoy man, who delighted in shouting the home side’s own strikes.

Hednesford equalised right after the interval, a cross from the left flank turned home by Andre Landell. “That’s it, we’ve had it now,” said one Hitchin fan, introducing a little gallows humour to proceedings. But in the 63rdminute, Hitchin regained the lead, this time Stuart Brown’s other son, Alex, scored with a low effort. Brother Luke almost made it 3-1 when he struck the woodwork and this proved costly as Hednesford equalised with 20 minutes to go with a header from Lewis Ludson-Ison.

A 2-2 draw was just about right and the level of entertainment made it all worthwhile. Hitchin needed a reasonable result and they got it, deservedly. A good crowd, too, almost 700. A proper ground, an atmosphere and some good goals. It made one realise, what’s not to like about non-league when it’s like this?