Hitchin Town 1 AFC Totton 1 (11th Jan 2014)
Were it not for the low sun, looking low enough to clip the chimney pots of any houses to the west, and the plunge in temperature as it fully set, it would have been easy to mistake this mid-winter’s afternoon for the onset of spring. It was certainly mild and welcomingly bright as I arrived at he ground, parking up and nipping into the club bar.
The bar unusually had the look and feel and a transport cafe (pronounced “caff” naturally). Full of double-the-usual-volume pub-style laughs, and people who could be pigeonholed into “salt of the earth” or “derisively common” depending on which side of the working/middle class divide you fall. The Hitchin Town FC boardroom was also there, located behind a locked door next to the dartboard, while Andy Gray and Richard Keys smiled down from their Qatari exile on the Al Jazeera backed BeIN Sports channel on the TV on one wall.
If the bar represented a modernity of sorts, Hitchin’s ground was in parts like a relic of a bygone age. It’s a ground I’d gone past several times, on a cut through from the M1 to the A1, and there aren’t too many clues from the outside. Through the turnstiles though, and the first thing you come to is the back of the all-wooden end terrace. Five rows of wooden planks, slightly springy to the step, and ever so slightly slippery to the step as well, curved behind the goal at this end, with a flat propped wooden roof over the centre. The back wall, looking like wood that would be more at home on a garden shed, completed the end.
Past a tea bar and club shop in the corner, to the right is another long wooden side terrace. This time the cover is metal, but everything else is still wooden. Such terracing was once common, but the only time you ever see it these days is in photographs of how football grounds used to look in the 1920s. It’s easy to imagine the same stands being viewed in Sepia-tinted footage, full of people in cloth caps, with the car park behind full of Model T Fords and the odd charabanc. If only the stands could have has adverts for Woodbines and Bovril, it would have been perfect.
The main stand, built in 1928, dates back to round about that era too. Five rows of very shallow old Wembley style bucket seats are clearly newer editions to a much older structure. The corrugated iron sheeting had probably at least doubled in thickness having been repainted in yellow and green so frequently. Popping round the back, where the stand extends to include the changing rooms, it’s easy to get a sense of just how “cosy” these rooms must be. In this back section, the only room which has any windows (other than the toilets) is one which probably had some function once, but now appears to be a storeroom filled with old office equipment and other junk.
The final end is also pleasing as it features a surprisingly large terrace. This one is concreted with a double row of crush barriers. Clearly once just an earthen bank, the terracing looks relatively modern, or at least modern in the sense that it was built in an era when colour tv, rather than tv itself, was a novelty. Why they decided to build such a substantial terrace is a mystery, but I’m glad they did. It must be one of the biggest terraces left in England now. Several sections of the back fence here had collapsed, as if the massed brambles behind were trying to claw their way in.
It was at this end that I watched the first half. With Hitchin kicking this way, and Totton 2nd from last, goals seemed most likely here. The game open brightly, with the home side having a look of a team who could go on to rack up four or five if they got that breakthrough. Unfortunately the forwards were not having one of their better days, and a succession of poor decisions meant Totton were holding out far easier than they ought to have done. The growing frustration of not taking advantage of near total domination began to take its toll, and it started to take on a “it’s one of those days” feel.
It wasn’t a poor game, but I got the sense that the home fans were enjoying it less than I was. Walking in the direction of the bar at half time, one young girl announced to her dad that they should go home after she’d got a burger. He had to tell her that they actually were going to stay and watch the second half as well, but sounded like he was trying to convince himself as well as her.
Hitchin were still looking like the side most likely to break the deadlock, but Totton did start to show signs that they’d been a map to find where the Hitchin goal was at last, growing in confidence as Hitchin got more and more frustrated.
Almost inevitably, with Hitchin being so wasteful, Totton scored first. A close range scramble in the six yard box saw the ball take a deflection past the keeper, sending the players and four Totton supporters behind the goal wild.
The lead only lasted two minutes. An almost too simple through ball result in a chase for the ball on the edge of the box between attacker and keeper. The keeper lost, and could only watch as it was nicked past him to bounce into the middle of the goal.
With 20 minutes left, the stage was set for Hitchin to get a winner, but instead they went back into the “lots of attacks but very few shots” style that had blighted the previous 69 minutes. The nearest was a set-piece with about a minute to go, where a Hitchin head got to the ball before the keeper, but it was cleared off the line. In any case, a foul had been given, and with resignation, most seemed to turn their thoughts to getting into the warmth of the bar.