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IDNet - Leased Lines, Broadband & Telecoms - IDNet Studio. Bridge House, 30A Bridge Street, Hitchin. Herts SG5 2DF. Tel: +44 (0) 1462 659 350.

FPM Facilities Services Ltd - 35-37 Hastings Street, Luton, LU1 5BE. Tel: 01582 484020

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1980-81: Small by name, big by nature….

After the highs of the 1970s, characterized by some exciting cup runs, the 1980s saw Hitchin Town fall into decline, climaxing in relegation in 1988.

It was no surprise when the Canaries dropped out of the Isthmian Premier in 1988, but what was disturbing for the club was the fall in attendances, the constant change in strategy and management and the apparent loss of faith from the town.

In 1979-80, the signs of decline were evident, encapsulated in a 10-0 debacle at Slough. Hitchin finished 12th in the league, but a drastic cut in wages at the club meant that the Canaries went into the summer of 1980 downcast.

 “We are three to four years behind the times,” said secretary and long-time club stalwart Cyril Buck as the club prepared for the new season. In the summer, there had been several changes to the management structure of the club. David Morgan became chairman and Gerald Lincoln was appointed financial director. “People have to realize that the club has to be run as a business,” said Lincoln, adding that he felt there was a lot of untapped potential at Top Field.

Despite restricted finances, manager Ray Freeman had been ringing the changes in his squad. New arrivals included Bobby Folds – father of future Hitchin captain Liam Folds -  from Bedford, Peter Adnams from Harlow Town,  Steve Mahoney from Hertford Town (right) and the experienced Terry Mortimer.

On the debit side,  Bill Baldry and Steve Hodge had left for Barton Rovers, George Cooper had returned to St.Albans City and former captain Ray Brimson had moved to Milton Keynes.

Despite the gloom,  the new-look Canaries began the season in tremendous form. Carshalton and Boreham Wood were both beaten by three goals and when Hitchin recorded their first ever win in the Isthmian League Cup – against Southall & Ealing – Top Field regulars could be forgiven for expecting a memorable season.

In the FA Cup, Hitchin explored foreign territory when they began their campaign in the first qualifying round for the first time in seven years. Rushden Town (the forerunners of Rushden & Diamonds, one of non-league’s first ‘super clubs’) were beaten 3-0, setting up a tie with Gorleston that the Canaries won by a single goal, scored by Paul Giggle.

 To add firepower to the Hitchin attack, Freeman brought in a young forward  named Micky Small (left) from Luton Town.  The Hatters’ manager, David Pleat, was keen to test the ability of a raw and untried youngster in senior football and sent him out on loan to Hitchin until the end of 1980-81. It was a move that would prove fruitful for both player and club. Small scored on his debut against Harrow, earning the headline, “Small is a big hit”. He also linked up well with Giggle and Mahoney. Suddenly, Hitchin’s season had a different look about it.

The FA Cup run continued with a rousing game with Bedford Town at Top Field.  Hitchin won 3-2, a scoreline that flattered the visitors after the Canaries took a three-goal lead, allowing the troubled Eagles two late consolations.

This meant Hitchin were one game away from reaching the first round proper again and were drawn at home. Their opponents were Sutton Coldfield Town, the West Midlands League champions. On a dismal day, the visitors netted a last minute goal to go through. Hitchin’s Terry Mortimer had earlier missed a penalty. “It was easy to understand why Hitchin’s dressing room was like a morgue after Saturday’s fourth qualifying round tie. They simply threw away the chance of a plum draw in round one and a chance to get back to the glory days of the mid-70s,” said the local press.

Three days later, Hitchin bounced back with one of the most startling performances in their Isthmian League history, a result that “sent shock waves racing through non-league football,” as they visited the impregnable fortress that was Enfield’s home ground.

Enfield were beaten 5-2. They were the reigning Isthmian champions, unbeaten at home and one target for another title. Hitchin were in 17th place and at a low ebb after tumbling out of the FA Cup.

Enfield even took the lead before Small (2), Mortimer and Mahoney (2) scored the goals that beat the Middlesex side. “Brilliant Canaries,” said one headline, while Don Birdsey called it “our finest ever Isthmian result.”

Another impressive performance followed when Hitchin beat ambitious Billericay Town 3-0 in the FA Trophy. “We played like a dream,” said Freeman.

Off the field, the four leading clubs in North Herts – Hitchin, Baldock, Letchworth and Stevenage  - announced an innovative lottery scheme that would benefit the consortium. Unfortunately, the scheme was short-lived.

There were also problems with the returning winger Colin Barnes, who came back from a stint in Australia and began touting his services around local clubs, despite being under contract to Hitchin. The issue had to be decided at the Football Association, but Barnes, who was top scorer in 1979-80, would never play for Hitchin again. A couple of welcome league victories raised spirits before the FA Trophy tie with Dover, a game that was won 5-2, thanks to a hat-trick from Mahoney.

A superb away display was lapped up by the media. “Hitchin have the scent of Wembley in their nostrils.” But cup success could not disguise the fact that Hitchin were struggling in the league. Two days before the end of 1980, Harlow won 1-0 at Top Field, sending the Canaries to the bottom of the table. This seemed to spur the team on, for results improved almost immediately.

There was a major new signing in the form of Andy Pearson, who joined from Luton Town. A winger with an eye for goal, Pearson was a contemporary of Gary Sisman and Micky Small and a host of other future Hitchin players.

Needless to say, more Trophy progress was made with a 2-1 victory over Tooting & Mitcham. It brought a return trip to Boston United, the scene of Hitchin’s 1973-74 FA Cup defeat. This time, Hitchin came away with a 1-0 win, claiming a place in the last 16. It was a brave performance by Freeman’s men, with Folds needing 17 stiches in a head wound and Kevin Hammond limping off injured. The winning goal, ironically given the events of 1973-74, was an own goal. Freeman was buoyant. “Our defence was magnificent….we simply don’t fear anyone in the next round.”

The draw brought the Canaries a tie with Bangor City of the Northern Premier League. Bangor feared Hitchin’s striking power, notably the way in which Small, Mahoney and Pearson played together. A run of seven league games without a win came to an end at Harrow, who were fourth in the table. All three strikers got on the scoresheet in a 4-0 win, sending Hitchin to Wales in fine spirit.

Like Boston in the previous round, Bangor were old acquaintances, having experience two battles with the Welshmen in the 1976-77 FA Trophy. Hitchin won through that time, but they lost this meeting by a single goal. As in 1977, the road to Wembley ended in the last 16. “Bangor deserved to win, but they did not look as good as the Boston team the Canaries beat in the last round,” said one report.

An injury-hit Hitchin side lost to a 26th minute goal. Leaving them with the vital task of improving their league position. Two more names had since arrived from Luton in Les Harriott and John Woodward, with the former being the subject of a small fee.

At the end of March, it was announced there would be no relegation from the Premier Division due to Dagenham and Enfield, both defecting to the Alliance Premier Division (Conference to be). Perhaps it was just as well, for Luton Town, receiving rave reviews on their player, recalled Micky Small to Kenilworth Road. His last game was a 1-0 win against eventual champions Slough, a game in which Mahoney scored his 34th goal of the season, the highest total by a Canaries forward since 1969-70. The league programme ended with no wins in four games and a final placing of 13th.

There had been some high spots, some great games and some fine individual performances. Hitchin fans would forget the games with Enfield, Dover and Boston in a hurry. 

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