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 The clubhouse leaked, the floodlights were out-of-date and matchday catering was poor.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 experience: Sour for Stour, joy for Jake

IT’S easy to have affection for a non-league home like Stourbridge’s War Memorial Athletic Ground, even if it only has three sides. There’s a peculiar atmosphere as you look across to the cricket boundary and on windy days, it can be bleak, but there is something quite unique about Stourbridge.

The town is renowned for its glass industry, but it considered the most affluent part of the Dudley Metropolitan Borough. It was also where Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, Robert Plant was educated and the birthplace of Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham. 

Stourbridge FC play in red and white stripes, a classic football strip, although it’s a kit that belongs to the past – the last club whose colours were red and white stripes to win anything in England was Southampton in 1976, although they actually wore yellow the day they lifted the FA Cup. The last team to win a major honour wearing red and white stripes? Sunderland in 1973.

Stourbridge FC date back to 1876 but didn’t make the Southern League until almost a century later. In recent years, they have forged a reputation for being FA Cup fighters, reaching the first round or beyond five times since 2011. The 2021-22 season has been a mixed bag so far for the club and they’ve experienced some strange results – losing 8-4 at Peterborough Sports and 5-1 at Alvechurch, as well as 6-2 at home to struggling Nuneaton. So it wasn’t perhaps that much of a surprise that Stourbridge should come a cropper against relegation battlers Hitchin Town just two weeks before the festive season.

Hitchin themselves have struggled this season and despite the margin of defeat often being just a single goal – eight of their 13 losses before travelling to Stourbridge were by 1-0 or 2-1, their team appeared low on confidence and lacking firepower. However, if their season reached a low point when they were beaten by Needham Market at home by six goals to one, since that miserable afternoon, they have lost five times, all by a slenderest of margins and conceded 10 goals in 10 games. Earlier in the campaign, Stourbridge had won 3-0 at Top Field.

A seasonally low turnout from Hitchin didn’t expect much from their team. Gallows humour was very much in evidence, but their fans didn’t need to be so gloomy. The return of 19 year-old Colchester United striker Jake Hutchinson for a second loan spell provided a big boost to the shot-shy Canaries. Hutchinson had earlier been on loan at Tonbridge Angels and is still waiting for his chance in the Colchester first team but has been part of their under-23 squad.

And what a difference he made to Hitchin, scoring a first-half hat-trick and going close to netting a fourth in the second period. Hutchinson was a class apart from the rest of Hitchin’s team. Nobody anticipated the first goal in the seventh minute in what was the visitors’ first attack. Charlie Horlock, Hitchin’s keeper, stemmed the early onslaught from Stourbridge and then turned creator with a long ball to Callum Stead who found Hutchinson and he did the rest.

Hutchinson was at it again in the 25th minute, stunning the regulars who had seen their team dominate the game but get caught twice. And the tall forward grabbed a hat-trick inside 35 minutes to send some home fans into the bar for a consolation pint. 

The second half was mostly played in Hitchin’s half, but their defence held firm and was comfortable. Three minutes from time, they added a fourth goal from substitute Josh Coldicott-Stevens who blasted his shot spectacularly high into the net when it looked more likely to head towards the town centre. Who was more surprised, the travelling Hitchin contingent, the Stourbridge fans or Canaries’ manager Mark Burke?

The implications of such an emphatic victory may not be fully revealed until a few weeks. Hitchin are still bottom of the league, but on the evidence of this display, there’s at least one team with bigger problems. Stourbridge and their friendly fans took their defeat well, but Burke and his team will know that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. It’s a good start, though, and they need to keep hold of Hutchinson for as long as possible. He may be the difference between Premier Division survival and a stint at step four in 2022-23.

Good game, good game – the Generation Cup gets underway

EVERY now and then, an event comes along which reminds you why you like football and why local clubs provide so much pleasure to so many people. Player reunions can become a little “all our yesterdays” but in an era where non-league football seems to have fewer characters, even fewer clubmen and a lack of continuity, the Generation Cup provided an opportunity to catch a final glimpse of some old favourites.

At Hitchin Town, present day descendants of the first Hitchin club hosted a three-team group in the innovative competition devised to commemorate the very first FA Cup of 1871-72. The group comprised Crystal Palace (a modern version of the team from Sydenham Hill that played in 1871) and Maidenhead United.

Top Field has staged many FA Cup ties over the years and Hitchin’s cup history has had some high points, notably in the mid-1990s when they disposed of Hereford United and Bristol Rovers in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Some of the heroes from those teams, such as Ian Scott, Jon Bone and Lee Burns, not to mention skipper Mark Burke, now the Hitchin manager, were rolled-out to represent the club. Waistlines might be thicker, hair conspicuous by its absence in some places, but it was a pleasure to see some of the old boys on the Top Field turf once more.

It was also good to see Brian Talbot, formerly of Ipswich Town and Arsenal and twice FA Cup winner, don the Hitchin shirt as a special guest at the age of 68. He has winners’ medals from 1978 when Ipswich beat Arsenal 1-0 and 1979 when he featured in Arsenal’s 3-2 victory against Manchester United and scored the Gunners’ first goal.

Talbot was an excellent midfielder who arguably deserved more than the half dozen England caps he won between 1977 and 1980. He moved from Ipswich to Arsenal in January 1979 for a very sizeable £ 450,000 and in 1979-80, played in every one of Arsenal’s 70 games. Brian’s son, Danny, also turned-out for Hitchin as a guest.

The competition kicked off with a 3-3 draw between Hitchin and Maidenhead, the home side throwing away a three-goal lead. Comebacks were very much part of the afternoon, for Crystal Palace, losing 2-0 and 3-1 in the second 50-minute game against Maidenhead, scored twice and also drew 3-3. There was no lack of entertainment, even if it was at a slower, more deliberate pace! It was a pity more people didn’t drop by Top Field, but if there is criticism of the event, it is that the publicity was a little scant.

The final game in the group, with everything up for grabs, saw Palace easily beat Hitchin 4-0. The fuschia-shirted Hitchin team had lost its legs by then while Palace, whose team was somewhat younger and fitter, strolled to victory. This meant the south London side had won the group and therefore moved on to St. George’s Park for the finals in March 2022.

The competition continues in November with another six teams (Reigate Priory, Clapham Rovers, Upton Park, Royal Engineers, Wanderers and the Civil Service) taking the field at Reigate Priory on November 7.