Amid Boxing Day’s cobwebs…opportunity lingers

 

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Photo: Peter Else

BOXING DAY is a strange football occasion. People hand out greetings as if they haven’t seen each other for decades, talking about a single day’s eating and drinking to excess as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event and men bring their wives to football for the one and only time in the season. It’s an odd ritual, especially when the previous game might have been just a few days earlier. And when kick-off times are altered, in this case, 1pm, everyone wanders around bleary-eyed and disorientated. “So this is what the ground looks like before 3pm?”.

Boxing Day matches were supposed to be all about Dad and his kids going to the game with their Christmas presents on display – new scarves, gloves and maybe a nice pair of sturdy boots to kick through the slush. Today, if the kids unveiled their haul, it would involve something electronic with the power cable trailing behind them. In some ways, Boxing Day football is a hindrance when you’ve got FIFA or Call of Duty to play. Generally, the romance of Bank Holiday football – I especially recall David Webb of Chelsea being called upon to play an entire 90 minutes in goal at Christmas due to snow delaying the club’s third choice keeper – has long been compromised by public transport.

But more locally, Hitchin entertained Dunstable at 1pm on December 26, 2016. I say entertained but there cannot have been many people in the 600-plus crowd that considered 90 minutes on the wooden terrace to be the most engaging part of their day. But never mind, these are title-challenging days for Hitchin and it is results over performance. Points are points after all, no matter how to grind them out.

It’s the first time this season that I have come away from a Hitchin game wondering what all the fuss is about. But equally, the 1pm kick-off, not long enough to digest the turkey or wash away the effects of Jack Daniels & Coke (or whatever players quaff these days) may have had a lot to do with that.

Hitchin and a robust and agitated Dunstable side failed to shake-off a day on the sofa watching TV and eating for England. But it all started to change when Dunstable’s extremely angular Josh Oyinsan allowed his elbow to floor Hitchin’s Dan Webb. Oyinsan was immediately shown the red card and strolled off to kick his way back to the away dressing room.

It helped change the game, but Hitchin were too sluggish to take full advantage of the extra man. But cometh the 82nd minute minute, cometh the man. Mason Spence was replaced by Kieran Barnes, a diminutive fellow who has been out on loan at Histon. Within a minute or so, Barnes sent a mis-hit shot into the net after the ball had bounced around the Dunstable area with little purpose. Barnes was buried by his team-mates, it was literally his first touch of the ball.

With the Dunstable dam breached, Hitchin went in search of a second, and in the 87th minute, they grabbed a spectacular points-clincher. Ben Walster must have been more than 20 yards out when he hit a free kick into the top corner of Jamie Head’s net. “Worth the money just to see that,” said one fan, and he wasn’t wrong, it was a goal that belonged to a higher level. Two-nil was just about right.

And a higher level is what Hitchin should be looking at right now. There is genuine reasons to believe that the club can move up a gear – not just because of their on-field resources, but also because Hitchin, as a town, may be changing. Various surveys and “lists” have placed the old Hertfordshire market town among the top places to live. Hence, house prices are rising, which is not necessarily good news for young locals wanting to get onto the monopoly board that is the property market, but also brings a certain affluence to a town as well as gallons of Farrow & Ball paint.

The website rightmove suggested that Hitchin is the ninth “happiest” place to reside – whatever that means. I was also reliably informed that Hitchin is slowly becoming a so-called “hipster” destination and the early signs are already there – a craft beer shop, vinyl records and artisan coffee – all of which makes the town a more appealing place. At the Boxing Day game, it was noticeable that there were a few people around who fit the stereotypical idea of a “hipster” – more likely just similar to the new breed of supporter that recognises non-league as something that provides an alternative to the sterile, corporate and expensive world of Premier League football.

This might be tomorrow’s audience for Hitchin, but it is also an audience worth reaching out to. Things like “craft beer” may or may not be passing phases, but Hitchin Town has a compelling offering for a number of reasons.

Hitchin is the number four non-league club in Hertfordshire. Boreham Wood, St. Albans and Bishop’s Stortford are ahead of them. Remember that the immediate circle around Hitchin – Stevenage, Luton and Bedford either have a Football League club or a non-league club in decline. Where can you go to see non-league football at a good level in a town that offers quite a lot of social and cultural attractions? The answer is Hitchin.

The status of Stevenage and Luton, and Bedford’s current malaise, is a big plus for Hitchin in attracting fans looking for an alternative, an antidote if you like.

Moreover, these are good times for Hitchin. They have a young team that has grown together over the past couple of years, they play positive football and they could finish in the top six for the second consecutive season – something almost unknown in post-war history.

At present, Hitchin’s crowds are sub-400, but they have an acceptable crowd/population figure of 1.11%. On Boxing Day, they attracted 613 and the vast majority were there to support Hitchin. There’s been a lot of new faces in the crowd in the dozen games I have seen in 2016-17 and it may just be that there’s a new type of fan waiting to coming through. Hitchin Town a trendy club? – now that would be something.

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Questioning the gamble of “full-time”

Photo: Peter Else
Photo: Peter Else

BASINGSTOKE TOWN have always struck me as a good club, mildly ambitious and reasonably well supported. Basingstoke itself is a sizeable town of more than 100,000 people, which makes it comparable to a handful of Football League locations. You would assume there’s upside potential.

In April this year, the club announced that it would be going “full-time” with effect from 2016-17 with the aim of recruiting the best young players released by Football League clubs in the south of England. Quite what “full-time” really means is anyone’s guess, but given that over the past decade, Basingstoke have averaged gates of 460, it does make you wonder how such a commitment can be sustained at Step 3 of the non-league pyramid.

At the time of the announcement, the club’s manager, Terry Brown, always a highly respected football man from his time at Hayes, among other clubs, said that the move was all about making Basingstoke more financially viable and removing the need for the club to rely on individuals pouring money into the coffers.

Sustainable growth is an ambition that every non-league club should aim for, but is “full-time” not the road to disaster? It depends how you define it, but enough clubs find it tough enough to maintain semi-professionalism, let along the real thing. The timing is also an eyebrow-raiser.

Basingstoke were relegated in 2015-16 after being in the National League South since 2004-05. Terry Brown was appointed in March with the remit to stave off the drop, something he had never suffered in his long career. Unfortunately, he was unable to prevent Basingstoke falling out of National South, just one year after they had finished in third place.

Basingstoke turned up at Hitchin after a mediocre start to 2016-17. “They’ve gone full-time, you know,” said one regular. “How the hell can they afford to do that?”. “Yeah, but it’s a bunch of kids…academy lads…they will sink like a stone…hang on, they’ve got Terry Brown as manager…he’s no mug…there’s Paul Fairclough, he’s looking at one of Basingstoke’s players, they must have a couple of decent youngsters in their line-up.”

Certainly, Basingstoke looked fresh-faced and energetic as they warmed up, but after seven games, they had won just twice and had eight points. After dropping down a level, attendances at the Camrose had fallen by almost 10%.

Hitchin’s record was similar. They had not quite recaptured the form that took them into the play-offs last season, but a 4-2 FA Cup win revived their spirit after a Bank Holiday defeat at Dunstable.

Autumn had arrived as the Top Field pitch, slippery and fast-moving, was showered with leaves from the trees that fringe the stadium. The first half was fairly one-sided, with Hitchin moving the ball around well but not really testing Basingstoke’s impressive goalkeeper, Alex Tokarczyk.

It wasn’t until well into the second half that Basingstoke conjured up something worthwhile, a header  from Aaron Redford. But then Hitchin, for all their possession, didn’t overdo things in the creativity department. Robbie Burns tried his best to threaten Tokarczyk, peppering the goal with some long-range efforts.

The game was finally settled with a minute to go and it was a textbook header from Brett Donnelly, who rose to meet Sam Barker’s cross and send his effort beyond the keeper. A little touchline skirmish added some drama to the occasion, but it was a goal worthy of three points.

It was another day of disappointment for Basingstoke and merely gave the home fans some ammunition: “Not a good advertisement for full-time,” said one Hitchin die-hard. “They didn’t look any fitter than us…shouldn’t they be fitter?”.

It’s going to be a keenly-watched experiment, but on their showing at Hitchin, patience may be something that’s also needed at Basingstoke to accompany bold ambition. The first-time promotion that some crave may prove too much of an ask this time around.

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Citizen Kane…back for good?

Photo by Peter Else
Photo by Peter Else

FOOTBALL LEAGUE scouts were queuing up for a glimpse of Kane Smith, Hitchin’s talented wing-back/full back last season. Most people expected that the talented youngster would be snapped up in the summer, but he’s back at Top Field after Coventry City failed to take up an option on him.

Smith is Hitchin’s prize asset and some over-zealous pundits were predicting a big fee coming Hitchin’s way. West Bromwich Albion, Bristol City and Ipswich were all interested at some point – I spoke to a scout from Wolves at Slough last season who was taking a look at him. But the big move hasn’t materialised yet.

Is Smith worth a punt? I think so – he has pace, tenacity and the ability to get past his man and send in dangerous crosses. He has to be worth £20,000 of anyone’s money, one would imagine.

For the time being, Smith is plying his trade with Hitchin, and after a shaky start to the season, that can’t be a bad thing for Mark Burke’s team. Hitchin lost two of their best players in the summer, and it showed – Jonny McNamara defected to Hemel Hempstead and goalkeeper Charlie Horlock signed for Eastbourne.

Hitchin won just one of their first five games and straight away, the purveyors of doom and gloom at Top Field started to ask questions. A lot of Hitchin’s attacking impetus over the past year or so came from the dashes of McNamara and Smith, while Horlock emerged as an outstanding keeper. When any Hitchin side is successful, the usual next step is that the best players get snapped-up by other clubs. It has happened this way for decades and the momentum of 2015-16 meant that other clubs started to pay attention to what was going on in North Hertfordshire. It was no surprise when McNamara departed and Smith was being courted for some months. Like many Hitchin managers in the past, Mark Burke had to regroup following the loss of key men.

When Banbury United arrived at Top Field, Hitchin fans were looking forward to seeing Smith start a game for the first time this season. He had appeared briefly at Stratford Town a week earlier – a 3-2 defeat in Shakespeare country. Hitchin’s new goalkeeper Zac Barrett was still sidelined, allowing Michael Johnson to continue between the sticks and Burke also started with Brett Donnelly up front.

Banbury were promoted to the Premier last season and had started the campaign well but had lost their last two games. Life was starting to get more difficult for the Puritans. You sensed that Hitchin were eager to get a good result after four games had passed since their opening day drama against Cinderford.

The fans didn’t have to wait long for some relief. Following a corner, the ball pinged around the area and Brett Donnelly applied the finishing touch.

Hitchin’s confidence grew and before too long it was 2-0, Brett Donnelly’s shot parried by the goalkeeper and Matt Lench followed up to score. “Hitchin are very technical and it’s causing problems for Banbury,” said the radio commentators from Oxfordshire, and you couldn’t really disagree.

Banbury did have a resurgence and their tall centre forward Ricky Johnson’s aerial power did cause some trouble. Generally, though, Hitchin’s neat passing and energy was too much for the visitors. With four minutes remaining, Kane Smith showed again what Football League clubs are missing, a beautiful cross into the centre and Robbie Burns dived headlong to score a quite spectacular goal.

Banbury pulled one back in the 90th minute, Leam Howards working his way through and touching the ball past Johnson. Final score 3-1, which was just about a fair reflection.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we played a lot better today,” said Hitchin manager Mark Burke. “We’ve got a few things to sort out in defence, but scoring goals is clearly not a problem for us.”

Knowing Mark Burke as I do, he’s not one to single out individuals, but I couldn’t help feeling that the return of Kane Smith had much to do with Hitchin’s comfortable afternoon. Perhaps somebody will take another look at him soon.

www.gameofthepeople.com