by Jamie Whitehead
Hitchin Town vs Sittingbourne
FA Trophy, First Qualifying Round 29/9/12
The FA Trophy allows semi-professional teams the opportunity to play at Wembley. Like a Non-League FA Cup, the FA Trophy sees teams from stages one-to-four in the Pyramid system of the English league system drawn against one another without any seeding or protection.
Non League Day is a concept that occurs a number of times each season. With the Premier League suspended during international breaks, the idea of Non League Day is to attract people to go and see their local non-league side. The brainchild of Queens Park Rangers supporter James Doe, and ironically featuring Sky Sports Commentator Martin Tyler as its Ambassador, it aims to show supporters that there is life outside the Premier League.
The next Non League Day takes place on Saturday October 13th, sandwiched in-between England’s home fixture with San Marino and a tricky trip to Poland. With this in mind, I headed down to Top Park, home of Hitchin Town, to see the start of their FA Trophy campaign with the First Qualifying Round tie at home to Sittingbourne.
Hitchin Town is not a club without history. The Original club was formed in 1865 and competed in the inaugural FA Cup; they were also the first side to win away at Chelsea, winning 3-2 in 1905. Sadly, the club folded in 1911 and in 1928, Hitchin Town Football Club were born. Adopting the nickname of The Canaries in a similar fashion to that of Norwich City.
Situated in north Hertfordshire. The picturesque market town of Hitchin has plenty to offer. With it’s excellent selection of shops, cafes, bars and delicatessens, it’s the perfect way to spend a relaxed afternoon with the other half, as well as throwing in the opportunity to catch a game of football whilst you are there.
Situated a ten-minute walk outside of the town centre, Hitchin Town’s Top Park offers many a treat to the discerning football supporter. With it’s wooden terrace reminiscent of Aston Villa’s old Trinity Road enclosure and a seated Grandstand along one side of the pitch, Top Park offers both a safe and welcoming environment not only for the more dedicated supporter, but also for parents introducing young children to the game as a live spectacle. With the nearest Premier League side, Arsenal, being a forty-five minute train journey away and throwing in the high ticket prices The Gunners charge, Hitchin Town offers a good value alternative for all the family, with the top priced ticket as £10 and children under eleven getting in for free. In fact, on Non League Day, Hitchin Town will be allowing season ticket holders of Premier League clubs reduced admission of £6 on production of a current season ticket, a move being replicated amongst non-league sides up and down the country.
We arrived at the ground at 2:15pm, allowing ourselves enough time to catch the end of the Arsenal vs Chelsea game in the club’s bar. The differences between non-league and the Premier League were instantly identifiable, with both sets of supporters enjoying the game together with the friendly ribbing you would expect from intelligent football supporters. Upon the final whistle, glasses were exchanged for plastic cups (yes, you can enjoy a pint at this level) and we made our way around to the turnstiles. The arrival within the ground is impressive, with three terraces and the aforementioned Grandstand surrounding the pitch.
With no segregation at this level, all supporters were free to choose their own vantage point for the game; we took the opportunity to stand behind the goal with the home support.
There’s a common myth that watching non-league football is something akin to that of watching Wimbledon in the mid-90’s. Whereas Sittingbourne would live up to that billing, Hitchin Town make an attempt at playing a free-flowing passing game. The first thirty minutes were fairly open, with no side having a clear-cut chance before Hitchin Town cut through Sittingbourne’s defence before unluckily hitting the bar.
Unlike football at the highest level. You are offered a unique insight into the game, as the shouts and cries of both managers, players and referee and clearly audible. With Sittingbourne being reduced to ten men in 33rd minute, Hitchin’s Callum Donnelly pounced from a well-worked short corner to put the home side 1-0 up going into the break.
With the changing of ends for both players and supporters, the second half started off as a scrappy affair. Sittingbourne equalised through a sixty-sixth minute penalty courtesy of striker Ryan Golding. Hitchin needn’t have worried, though. Restoring their lead eleven minutes later with a well taken goal from a superbly executed move finished off by Man of the Match Josh Bickerstaff, it was now a case of Hitchin running the clock down.
The final minutes were not without drama, though. Sittingbourne had a goal disallowed for offside before being reduced to nine men, defender Aaron Gough being sent off for his second bookable offence. Following this, Hitchin Town striker John Frendo ended the tie as a contest putting Hitchin 3-1 up with a low, powerful shot from outside the area.
With a friendly atmosphere within the ground, we found ourselves happily mixing with the supporters of both Hitchin Town and Sittingbourne, with an excellent and reasonably priced hot dog seeing us through the second half. One of the highlights of the afternoon was visiting the Club Office after the game, which had an excellent selection of football biographies and programmes on sale, with all proceeds going to the club.
Non League Day does not encourage you to turn your back on the Premier League, just to give you the opportunity to see what is available to you just around the corner. For more information on your local side, please see www.nonleagueday.co.uk
Jamie Whitehead is Co-Host of the football podcast 3for3, which can be found on both Mixcloud and iTunes, he is also a Producer for the BBC World Service. Follow him on Twitter @jamiewh_
With special thanks to Roy Izzard.