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The Joy of Non-league

Wednesday, May 30 2018

Recent Canary convert Nick Kelsall has written this article to sum up his feelings about Hitchin Town in particular and non-league football in general. Thanks, Nick!

As an avid Arsenal supporter and season ticket holder for fifteen years, the goings-on at Top Field had never really felt relevant to me up until I stumbled upon them by chance in early 2017. My nephew was a mascot for the Hitchin Town home game, as he plays for Hitchin Town Youth, and I attended the match to watch his special day.

It is difficult to pinpoint the moment I became hooked. Was it the instant I entered the ground through the historic turnstiles? Or was it the moment my eyes caught sight of the resplendent wooden stands? Perhaps it was the closeness I felt to the players and the pitch? Not just in terms of distance, in hearing every shout the players and coaching staff made I really felt a part of the game. Far from the lofty heights of the upper tier at The Emirates stadium where there is a clear divide between supporter and multi-millionaire player, at Top Field I experienced a sensory overload. With every crunching tackle, with every thud of the ball from a goal-kick, with every yell of delight when a goal was scored I truly felt part of the match.

From that moment on, it took a really serious excuse to deny me attending a Hitchin home game. Nothing felt beyond the call of duty whether it was friendlies, mid-week games, even away games – driving to Rushden on a Tuesday night for 90 minutes of 0-0 football and extra time was made worth it with Michael Johnson’s winning penalty save. I returned home past midnight that night, with a sneaky sense of delight and devilment. Only 222 supporters attended that game, but they all did so with a feeling of unity. We were all part of it.

The closeness I felt towards Hitchin Town grew week by week and after the Royston Town away game I realised I was well and truly addicted! At first glance, the Boxing Day fixture with my girlfriend off work appeared to be a tricky match to attend. Surely I couldn’t justify it to my other half. Easy for this creative (deceitful) mind! To my girlfriend’s delight I promised to take her shopping in Cambridge. She was a little underwhelmed when she eventually found out what I actually meant was I would drive her to Cambridge, drop her at the shops, drive back to Royston’s Garden Walk to watch Hitchin lose 2-1, then drive back to Cambridge to pick her up, before eventually heading home. Goodness me, that Trey Charles consolation goal made it all worth it!

As a Hitchin resident for all of my life, I cannot justify why I had never been to any Hitchin Town games before. I had always loved football, I just never really thought about going to my local club. My trips to watch Arsenal seemed to quench my thirst for live football. But once I discovered Top Field, the cheapness of entrance and the sheer joy of feeling part of the club, there was no going back. I couldn’t resist looking back on the archive match reports to discover more about these mysterious non-league players.

Far from the saturation of the Premier League with Sky Sports News and BT detailing every possible fact about each player, the members of Hitchin Town’s squad were complete unknowns to me. Game by game I learnt their favoured positions, their strengths and weaknesses and their characteristics. I felt like I knew them all individually.

Having found such delight at Top Field, I spread my wings further into the depths of non-league. Biggleswade (Town & FC), Stotfold and Baldock were visited, each with their own slightly different, charming environment. Yet none captured my heart to the same degree as Hitchin Town. Maybe it was the distinctive yellow and green kit, as I had always had an affinity with The Canaries of Norwich City. But most likely it was simply that non-league football is just as much fun as the Premier League, it is after all the same game, just a fraction of the price and with a lot more connection to the players and manager.

I look back to that mascot day with great fondness as the day I discovered the joys of non-league.

Nick Kelsall

Photos by Peter Else

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