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.

Digging-in for those dugouts

WHEN the people of Hitchin marched in support of Top Field, the ancient home of the local football club, it was with one eye on a new stadium being constructed on Fishponds Road. It will be six years in December since that memorable afternoon took place, but there has been some movement on the playing fields of Hitchin. New dugouts.

When you consider it is not so long since the club installed shiny new floodlights, the ground has not seen such a wave of activity in decades. The old dugouts, built in 1989 by two former stalwarts of ground control at Top Field, John Moon and Richard Bunyan, cost just £ 30 to put together and fix in place. Times have changed – whereas the timber structures were tributes to the DIY prowess of two loyal club workers, the new dugouts are distant cousins of municipal bus stops. But they are in corporation (Hitchin Town) green and look very “continental”, a tag that Brexit-supporting residents of North Herts may not be too keen on.

They’re smart, no question, and very contemporary. Given it was £ 30 for 30 years, does that mean that the current structures, costing several thousand pounds, will be in place for several thousand years?, quipped Richard Bunyan over his post-match pint.

It was a good day to unveil the new dugouts. Stourbridge, the league leaders, were in town and supping the local ale. Red scarves were seen around Hitchin, which hinted at a large contingent of fans, but they must have got lost, or distracted by one of the pubs in town.

Long faces dominated pre-match discussions. Stourbridge would surely wallop a Hitchin team low on confidence and nursing a seven-game run of defeats. “Never mind the dugouts, it’s what’s inside them that matters, we need new occupants of the dugouts,” said one cynic. “We’ve got a new player…from Stevenage,” said another. “That’s a start.”

Stourbridge take the lead, despite a spectacular dive from Michael Johnson. Photo: Peter Else

Stopping the rot was the order of the day but the task looked doubly difficult when Luke Benbow accepted a gift and volleyed past Hitchin keeper Michael Johnson. He had no chance of stopping that one.

But Hitchin did not collapse and played with more purpose than in recent weeks, with a little more vigour up front. New man Harry Draper (whose name sounds like something out of  Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly  circa 1956) had a good debut, running hard and showing confidence. Johnson, as ever, was dependable and took care of Stourbridge’s first half energy.

Isaac Galliford has impressed in recent weeks, so much so that a couple of Stourbridge fans suggested he would “fit nicely in our team…may have a word with the gaffer”. Hitchin would do well to look after this lad. He did it again in the 35thminute, controlling the ball and hitting it home from close range.

Were Stourbridge a little complacent? It certainly looked that way and it was hard to tell which team was top of the league and which outfit had been handed Len Goodman’s “7” when they lost at St.Ives a week earlier.

Stourbridge just couldn’t get going, despite bringing on the ominously-named Tommy Tonks (wasn’t there a brand of tough kids’ toys called Tonka?) to add some muscle.

Draper netted a second goal in the 71stminute, making it a debut to remember. Memories of the AFC Rushden game were still fresh, but the Canaries held on to win 2-1, thanks to a couple of Johnson saves. The rot had most certainly been stopped.

Johnson was the man of the match, but the star performers, as far as shelter enthusiasts were concerned, were those dug-outs. There’s some adjustments to be made, installation of aircraft-style seats with Hitchin crests – we understand – and the obligatory “Home” and “Away” signs, but a new era of substitute comfort had been launched at Top Field. If it all endure as well as the late 1980s handiwork of Messrs Bunyan and Moon, the club will surely be satisfied.