The rug is being pulled from under Hitchin Town thanks to a deal with property developers by the club's trustees. No fans were consulted and on Saturday an estimated 1,300 attended the Save Hitchin Town day. Layth Yousif is a reporter for the Hitchin Comet, he explains more below...
“Say something” - Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Could You Be Loved’.
The market town of Hitchin, in North Hertfordshire, is mentioned in the Doomsday Book, and can trace its roots back to the seventh century. Between 1292-96 the Manor of Hitchin was ruled by the King of Scotland.
Henry VIII is alleged to have practiced Archery on a public common in the town, as well as attempting to pole vault across the River Hiz, which runs past the evocative 15th century St Mary’s Church still standing proudly at its heart. (Apparently the Pole snapped, and the sizeable monarch was soaked. History, unfortunately, does not record his reaction).
Hitchin Town Football Club, although not as old as any of the above, is only one of three clubs who competed in the inaugural FA Cup in 1871-72 who still do so now. Formed in 1865, (the current club dates back to a refashioned 1928 version) the club even contributed to the cost of the original FA Cup Trophy. In 1905, Hitchin FC was the first away team to win at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. The Canaries, as they are known, currently ply their trade in the Southern League, effectively the 7th tier of the English footballing pyramid.
Their home, Top Field, which hosted their first FA Cup Tie over 140 years ago, and overlooks the Common where Henry VIII fired his bows, is a snug 4,000 capacity ground with a tree line. It is flanked by homely, if ramshackle low stands dating back to the late 1920’s.
On matchday, through a wooden entrance with timeworn timber, reminiscent of a row of allotment sheds, past creaking cast-iron turnstiles - the type of which disappeared from most league grounds after the epoch-changing Taylor Report - a knowledgeable and welcoming crowd of locals congregate to watch their yellow and green clad heroes (hence the nickname Canaries). By doing so they lay claim to the one of the highest average attendances in the Southern League.
The area housing the tea hut, club shop, turnstiles and clubhouse is known as Canary Corner. The spot behind the terraced structure holding the dugouts accommodates a convivial car boot sale every Sunday morning rain or shine (pitches £8, all welcome).
The club runs thriving community programmes including youth diversionary activities, youth football, disabled football, schools, forces and ladies days, coaching for various young-age groups and charity-oriented activities. Many current and past players have played for the club in different spells, and Top Field has always provided a sizeable group of long serving alumni loyal to club and area.
Quite simply Hitchin Town, tumbledown but venerable Hitchin Town (the oldest club on the planet was formed only two years before Hitchin Town’s antecedents), is a blueprint for what a local non-league club should be for its local residents and supporters: accessible, community orientated and situated in its heart of the town it represents.
But it is being stalked by a property developer which threatens its very existence, in a deal done in private by the club’s trustees which saw not a single supporter, or resident of the town consulted.
As local Labour councillor and passionate advocate of the town Judi Billing told the estimated 1,300 people: “If a councillor had done a deal like this behind closed doors we would be lynched.”
There was a certain irony the good natured crowd met at Butts Close – the land opposite iconic Top Field, and where Henry VIII was reputed to have fired those archery butts – because parts of the land are actually owned by the Cow Commoners – the very body many in the town are accusing of having sold them down the river.
Campaigners from the club succeeded in raising the profile of Save Hitchin Town on the day. The BBC and Sky Sports were there. The man from The Times ran a thousand word piece on the club in Saturday’s newspaper. Yours truly managed to get The Evening Standard’s legendary Patrick Barclay and The Guardian’s impressive Amy Lawrence, and Sky Sports Johnny Phillips to tweet their support and share my newspaper's links on the story. (Not to mention the Football Pink, The Inside Left and Sabotage Times - all of which was nice, as the bloke from the Fast Show used to say.)
Sky Sports broadcaster and Hitchin resident Guillem Balague, who happily gave up his time to speak to the crowd before the march, said: “Hitchin Town FC is part of the fabric of this town. We want the Cow Commoners to talk to us and take note of the hostility towards the plan.
“There is a revolution happening in non-league football. Everyone needs to discover the people behind the scenes at HTFC because this campaign is just kicking off. There is a harmony in this town - and a character which draws people here.
“As a football lover I also speak on behalf of Hitchin Town which have played on Top Field since their foundation in the 1860s. They are part of the fabric of the town and have a right to be consulted over the future of their home ground” – before telling the crowd passionately: “Let’s go for a walk!”
Club secretary and stalwart of 50 years support Roy Izzard told the assembly: “Save Top Field, save Hitchin Town, save the town of Hitchin. There are massive consequences for the town. How can allowing a supermarket to be built on Top Field show ‘special knowledge’ of Hitchin from the Cow Commoners?”
Editor of the respected football website Game of the People, Neil Jensen, told the crowd: “We do not want any abuse of the Cow Commoners.” Unfortunately for the Cow Commoners (none of who turned up) his request was met by significant hoots of derision and bitter laughter…
Hitchin Town midfielder Callum Donnelly said: “My grandad, dad, uncle, and two brothers have played and managed this club. I am Hitchin-born and bred – I love this club. Well done to everyone for turning up.”
Hedley the Hedgehog, Hitchin rugby club’s mascot added: “I am very proud to be supporting this campaign. We are a community club supporting another community club.”
There was a symmetry to Hedley turning up as Hitchin Town were featured nationally in October after the world’s only recorded instance of a hedgehog halting play during a home match. The story was made even funnier when the recalcitrant creature bit the linesman for having the temerity to try and escort it from the Top Field playing surface.
There was also a candidate for protest placard of the year when a man held up a sign saying: “Down with this sort of thing.” At first it was assumed it was mild natured middle class irony until it was pointed out the line came from Father Ted – which gave it a doubly ironic relish.
There were other animals on the march. Fan Geoff Wren and his dog Alfie, clad in a Hitchin Town football shirt said: “The support here is indicative of the feeling in the town.” Nodding to his lovely and well-behaved Golden Retriever he added: “And Alfie supports it too.”
Mel Blackmore, captain of Hitchin Town’s women’s team said: “I am here with my young son Lucas to support the march – there are a lot of supermarkets in town – but there’s only one Hitchin Town.”
Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hitchin, Rachel Burgin said: “There are a number of issues at stake. Hitchin Town is at the heart of the community.”
Musician Alex Bay, brother of Brit Award winner James Bay played the Bob Marley song ‘Could you be loved’ in the club car park before the game, which included the lyrics: ‘Don’t let them fool you’.
He said: “I’m sure some great things have been achieved today. As a Hitchin boy I wish the club all the best.”
Vehicles driving past the march through Hitchin tooted their horns in support, and Christmas shoppers broke into spontaneous applause for the marchers. A large number of other football fans from teams as diverse as Luton Town, Stevenage, Newcastle and Arsenal were in attendance taking part in the march and watching the game afterwards.
Speaking of which the match ended 1-0 to Hitchin against Poole Town with an 89th minute goal by Dan Webb to send the bumper crowd of 1,606 home happy.
As a beaming manager Mark Burke said afterwards: “It was the perfect day.”
Whether Hitchin Town has many more perfect days at its historic ground of Top Field is another matter entirely.
Layth Yousif is a reporter for the Hitchin Comet. He has also written on football for Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, and penned the book 'Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures'. Follow him on Twitter @comet_layth.
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Thanks to Alistair Lockyer for the image.