It is probably little more than a mere fact of life that, for a football club plying its trade six divisions below the bright lights and hyperbole of the Premier League, national headlines are likely to be thin on the ground. Any attention from the mainstream media is likely to be welcome, even if the story is of a “man bites dog” variety. When a hedgehog escaped onto the pitch during a recent Red Insure Cup match between Hitchin Town and Arlesey Town, leading to a short minute delay as officials tried to remove the interloper from the field of play, this story might have felt like little more than so much fluff, but hidden away towards the bottom of the BBC’s piece was an almost throwaway line of considerably greater significance than anything relating to spiny pitch invaders: “Developers want to build a supermarket on Top Field and move the Canaries, residents there since 1865, to a new site on the edge of the Hertfordshire town.”
If it does often feel as if professional football in England is being denuded before the very eyes of those watch it, two of the most significant remaining consolations for those who sense the loss of the game as a sport in favour of a form of broadcast entertainment are that the strength in depth of the game in this country remains as strong as ever, and that this country retains its position as the most historically storied of all football nations. It is at this intersection that Hitchin Town Football Club meets. Formed a little short of one hundred and fifty years ago, Hitchin FC was one of the competitors in the first FA Cup in 1872, but a fire in the main stand at the club’s home ground, Top Field, in 1911 proved financially ruinous and it folded around four years later. The new club, Hitchin Town, was formed twelve years later, but is widely considered to be the natural successor to a club that existed for more than twenty years before there was such a thing as league for any club to play in.
At this level of the game glory days are hard to come by, for most clubs. Supporters of Hitchin Town had to wait for almost sixty years, between 1935 and 1993, for a league title of any sort to come to Top Field, but the mid-1990s did at least see the club make the national press a couple of times thanks to surprise FA Cup wins against Hereford United and Bristol Rovers, both then of the Football League. Overall, though, to seek to understand a football club of the size of Hitchin Town through its most celebrated moments feels like missing the point of the club in the first place. Hitchin Town is a part of its community, sitting on the edge of the town centre, occasionally winning a few more games than it loses, occasionally doing the reverse, but ultimately providing a meeting place for a few hundred locals on a Saturday afternoon. Top Field is a place to meet up with a friends, drink a pint of beer, and match a game of football. A perfectly civilised way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Top Field itself is a little on the ramshackle side, though none of this detracts from its charm. Lined on all sides by trees, it is painted in the yellow and green colours of the club and has wooden terracing, the likes of which has almost completely disappeared from the homes of English football elsewhere. Having been the home of football in the town for almost a century and a half, it is unsurprising that it retains such an emotional pull for supporters of the club. In 1880, the site was entrusted as common land through an organisation Cow Commoners’ Trust (CCT), an unelected body of local businessmen, who decided the land should be reserved for charitable and/or charitable sporting use. And so it remained for over one hundred years, but the expiry of a twenty-one year lease signed in 1977 brought a more fractious edge to the relationship between Top Field’s landlords and the football club that called it home, and when the last lease for the ground expired last year, the CCT submitted plans to redevelop the site of the ground to build a supermarket on it and move the club to a new site on the outskirts of the town, with the land having been deregistered as common land in January 2012.
Protest against the move has been growing since the start of this season, but the club’s managing director Andy Melvin, who is spearheading these protests, has been quick to understand that the three hundred or so regulars who turn out at Top Field every other Saturday or so will not on their own be enough to persuade those with the power to quash this development that they should do so. Hitchin is an attractive market town thirty miles to the north of London and, like so many other towns the length and breadth of the country, its town centre has struggled to survive in the grim post-recession environment of the modern economy. Melvin is, therefore, turning this into an altogether more symbolic battle than merely that of being the football club versus its landlords. The fight for the future of Top Field is rapidly becoming a fight between the town itself and the property developers and conglomerates that would seek to benefit in order to line their own pockets.
A public meeting held at the ground a couple of weeks ago at Top Field, at which Maggie Dyer, the current chair of the Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust, was heckled from the building after seeking to put her side of the story to an unsympathetic audience in spie of having issued a press release the day before the meeting stating that no-one from the CCT would attend, whilst the Labour Party’s Prospective Party Candidate for the next general election, Rachel Burgin, offered a degree of support in stating that, “I am interested in local issues and am behind you every step of the way.” More than two hundred people attended the meeting, and it worth pointing out that a good number of those in attendance were not regular supporters of the football club itself, but representatives from local businesses who are alarmed at the idea of having a large supermarket parachuted onto their doorsteps.
This, however, is surely what Melvin and those others who are behind the protest want. There has been, in recent years, significant disquiet in this country at the position in which town centres have found themselves as supermarkets and the rise of online retailing have bitten into the profitability of smaller businesses. The battle for Top Field might even be framed as a battle for the soul of the town of Hitchin itself, rather than merely its football club, the fortunes of which, for better or for worse, may not necessarily be at the top of the list of priorities of even too many local residents. By calling to mind the possible ramifications for the town beyond what may or may not happen to the football club, however, the club is tapping into a deeper cause for concern over what may happen to the centre of an idiosyncratic town.
The club has set up a £150,000 fighting fund in order to continue the protests, but where exactly they go from here is not a question that is easily answered. When we consider that the plans to move the club out of town were, according to club secretary Roy Izzard in his post-meeting write-up of events, presented as a “fait accompli” into which the club was offered “no input,” it might be considered that the levels of intransigence between the football club and the CCT are almost irrelevant, when the decision to move the club on has already been taken. This isn’t, however, to say that any protests against the development should cease, and that those who care about the future of Top Field should meekly acquiesce to the will of the property developers and the supermarket chain. Far from it. Top Field, Hitchin Town and the future prosperity of small businesses in the centre of the town are all worth fighting for, and it certainly seems as if this battle is far from over just yet.
There are more details on the fight to save Top Field here.
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