More crowd tension for non-league football?

MOST non-league clubs are quite friendly places, very few have fans that carry an air of menace with them. At many stadiums, the atmosphere is sleepy, welcoming and sedate. That’s not to say some clubs could do with a more youthful demographic to liven up the place, but nobody wants supporters who fancy a punch-up.

Alcohol has a lot to do with it – it always has – but there’s also an element of beligerance about some fans not normally associated with the non-league game.

Banbury United was always a decent ground to visit, a peculiar stadium close to the railway station in a prime spot. Little wonder that property developers have always liked the look of it. Banbury were never particularly well supported, 10 years ago they averaged less then 300 people for their home games. But something has changed in their little corner of Oxon. Not only have they run away with the Southern League Central Premier, they have also attracted more fans. With more people comes the potential of more troublesome individuals being among the crowd. At some Banbury games this season, there have been some problems, including an artificial pitch being damaged by a flare.

When Banbury arrived in Hitchin for their game on April 16, there was a police van parked outside Top Field, an image more in keeping with the miners’ strike in the 1980s. There was also a plethora of high-vis clad stewards, more than usual at Hitchin games. Interestingly, while the Banbury numbers were modest, they made plenty of noise, the script not always in keeping with the sort of family environment Hitchin have been encouraging.

Just after half-time, the peace was broken, but it was not entirely the fault of Banbury’s travelling support. Indeed, there were about a dozen Luton Town fans at Top Field who decided they wanted to antagonise the Banbury crew. There was some ritualistic throwing of beer, lots of pointing, aggressive posturing and a few blows were exchanged. The high-vis team swung into action and police arrived on time to disperse the problem, ejecting the Luton fans from the ground. Hitchin’s chairman and his matchday staff did well to quell the problem.

Non-league needs more fans, but the question is, where will they come from? The game at this level needs younger customers, but clubs may have to get used to more energy, aggression and the occasional fracas.

One of the comments I have often heard from young people is that non-league football is passionless, lacks a certain atmosphere and is a game for older people who don’t want to go to Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs. To a certain degree this is true, because it is the crowd that makes the stadium experience at a higher level. The noise, emotion and passion is fuelled by the people watching the game. A stadium doesn’t have an atmosphere with no people, no matter how people try and romanticise the vision of floodlights towering over empty stands. Therefore, more people means a more intoxicating atmosphere. For all the discomfort created by those Banbury fans, a big percentage of the near-600 crowd at Top Field were watching the situation as if it was something of a spectacle. It’s rather like the Atlético Madrid-Manchester City game, everyone was complaining about the antics of the home team, but they could not help but rubber-neck the action.

I am not advocating Football Factory-type scenes in the Southern League, but it could certainly do with a little more passion, singing and influence from the terraces at the majority of grounds. What it doesn’t need is needless scrapping and foul-mouthed day trippers who are not really non-league fans. There’s a big seam of disenfranchised football fans out there, non-league has to make sure it draws the right type of follower, but it also ensure it encourages rather than deters. It’s a bit of a challenge.

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.

Young, gifted and green

THINGS haven’t gone particularly well for Hitchin Town this season, the first three games yielded just one point and a refashioned team was heavily beaten 5-0 at Alvechurch. Famously loyal, the fans have kept very quiet – there was a time when such a start to the season would have prompted calls for the manager to be sacked, but there’s no sign of #burkeyout among the sexagenarians that prowl the wooden terracing at the Fishponds Road end of the ground.

Non-league has always been a game of constantly moving toy soldiers, players coming in, moving out, playing the odd game and then finding a new club. Some clubs use 50-odd players a season, not generally successful ones, but the workforce is very transient. The Canaries team that reached two play-offs a couple of years back has all but broken up. The club got a lot out of Burke’s first team, but the question is, how many of the players he is currently fielding will be with the club in two, three or six months? The two best players on show were loanees.

On the evidence of game four against Rushall Olympic, a team that plays away from home in a very fetching “aquamarine”, Hitchin could be in for a tough season unless they find the experience that can bring some stability and savvy to their team. No shortage of enthusiasm or endeavour, and one or two players are clearly skilful, but it’s all largely harem scarem with no obvious pattern.

Hitchin are no strangers to putting out young teams – in the 1980s, they often had very inexperienced and raw sides, but this also coincided with a lean spell that lasted some years. Invariably, teams that go down this road are either idealistic or they’re short of money, Hitchin probably don’t fall into either category – they must surely have enjoyed a windfall in 2018-19 from a successful FA Cup run. The smart new dugouts and some much-needed work on the clubhouse roof would have accounted for some of that, but Hitchin appear to have moved on from claiming to be paupers. Most notably for those that care about these things, the media team has done a great job remodelling the press box!

On the pitch, their current team is possibly the youngest they’ve ever had, certainly since the 1980s. Most truly successful teams are a well-constructed mix of youth and experience, but this Canaries squad is long on promise and short on achievement. Of course, there’s the impressive and dependable Dan Webb, but there are few who have any sort of CV. To add to the air of transition, Hitchin also lost their two best players in the summer in goalkeeper Michael Johnson and  winger-cum-midfielder Isaac Galliford, who went to Braintree and Hemel respectively.

It is doubtful anybody had heard of most of the new recruits before they arrived at Top Field, but Mark Burke brought back Brett Donnelly to add some zing to the dressing room. Now in the phyllosan stage of his playing career, Donnelly is a popular figure whose “run through a brick wall” approach is highly appreciated. He’s an honest broker of a player – you get what you see – and loves Hitchin Town. He is more representative of non-league of old rather than the academy outlet it is rapidly becoming.

Rushall arrived at an intensely heated Top Field in second place and unbeaten after three games. Although this was not the first time the clubs had met, Rushall is still a place people have trouble in identifying – “where is Rushall?” – although the slightly diluted Peaky Blinders accent of the visitors reveals it is in close proximity to Birmingham.

The game was fairly even in the first half, Hitchin energetic and creating some half chances, but you sensed Rushall had something in reserve – a predator waiting to pounce, perhaps. One player who caught the eye was Hitchin’s left back, Jordan Norville-Williams, who is currently on loan from Cambridge United. The 19 year-old’s composure set him apart from some of his less assured team-mates. Harry Draper, the force of nature signed on a season’s loan from Stevenage, also looked good.

Draper put Hitchin ahead from the penalty spot in the 62ndminute, a decision that looked debatable but compensated for an obvious handball just seconds earlier. Draper has scored all of Hitchin’s goals this season, underlining his obvious potential.

But it all changed suddenly, and there was a feeling that Rushall had decided to spring into action after going behind. Two quick goals, both raising question marks about the solidity of Hitchin’s defence, put Rushall in front – Levi Rowley and Jonathan Letford netting after 66 and 68. The game then went back to its familiar pattern, Rushall had done enough.

Hitchin tried to get back into the game, lots of possession and pressure, but the Rushall defence was sound. The 2-1 victory put them top of the table as leading scorers in the league, while Mark Burke’s side is one off the bottom. The Canaries looked crestfallen, especially the management team, but it is early days and Hitchin have been here before. No need for gallows to be constructed on the training pitch!