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1938-39: Close to great things

THE 1938-39 season was Hitchin Town’s last in the Spartan League. By the end of the campaign, a period overshadowed by concerns about war, the club had applied, and had been accepted to join, the Athenian League. The Canaries’ team was a settled one, and the summer of 1938 had seen few new significant signings by Bert Smith. Indeed the team was little changed from the previous season. There was a huge amount of confidence at the club and the early weeks of the season did little to dampen enthusiasm.

The prophets of doom began to predict a slump in the club’s fortunes owing to Luton Town's promotion to Football League Division Two. This, they said, would affect attendances at Top Field, but crowds at Hitchin were never better, regularly topping 2,000.

A total of 15 goals rained down on Letchworth in the first week of the season, Hitchin beat their local rivals three times, 3-1, 10-0 and 2-0, two league games either side of a 10-goal mauling in the Herts Charity Cup. Strangely, after handing out such comprehensive defeats to Letchworth, the same side pulled off a shock 4-3 win at Top Field in the FA Cup. Stevenage felt the brunt of that defeat, for Hitchin beat them 8-0 in the FA Amateur Cup. This was a curious game, for Les Clarke had to take a penalty four times before the referee finally allowed a goal. Hitchin had not quite clicked into gear in the league, however, and when they lost 2-1 at Slough in mid-October, it was their second defeat in five league games.

Hitchin were still one of the toasts of amateur football and talent scouts queued up almost weekly to view their players. George “Joe” Goodyear was the next to leave, with Luton Town signing him on after an impressive start to the season. His last game was yet another meeting with Letchworth, who were beaten 4-0 at Baldock Road in the FA Amateur Cup.

Goodyear’s place was taken initially by Harold Walker, who had joined the club in the summer from Arlesey. But it was an old favourite, Les Bland who returned to fill the gap left by the 21 year-old. Hitchinís title credentials were firmly nailed to the mast when Marlow were beaten 9-1 at Top Field. “Championship football,” said the local press as Hitchin went into a 6-0 half-time lead against a side that was unbeaten on its arrival at the ground.

The next few weeks saw Hitchin produce some exciting and free-flowing football with goals aplenty. Waterlows, the league champions, were beaten 4-1 at Top Field, prompting the press to claim, “Last season’s champions did not and should not worry Hitchin”. The Canaries were now in second place, one point behind Metropolitan Police with a game in hand.

Two more rounds in the FA Amateur Cup had been successfully negotiated, the second a 3-0 win against Redhill, when the Police came to Hitchin with “the meanest defence in the league”. By now, the Hitchin forward line of Gentle, Murphy, Hailey, Clarke and Hoar was rampant and seven goals found their way into the Police net. The outcome was a 7-2 win that put Hitchin on top of the table. If that was not an indication of the strength of Bert Smith’s side, they repeated that scoreline when they travelled to Dunstable to face Waterlows a week later. Sam Hailey scored four in the first half in a game that saw Hitchin play at tremendous speed.  Again the professional clubs came calling, with Wolverhampton Wanderers offering Dick Murphy and Sid Gentle trials. Tottenham also offered Gentle a run-out.

The FA Amateur Cup run came to an end in January when the Canaries lost to Tooting & Mitcham in the first round after a replay. The two teams had drawn 1-1 at Top Field but in a rain-sodden meeting at Sandy Lane, Hitchin ran out of steam.

Not so in the league, however. On February 4, Hitchin trounced Lyons Club 12-1 with Les Clarke netting four and Sid Gentle and Sam Hailey both scoring hat-tricks. But when they came up against old rivals Metropolitan Police, Hitchin’s half-back line of Bland, Wilkinson and Westwood had a bad afternoon and were beaten 3-1. They bounced back again, though, coming from 0-2 down against Windsor to win 6-3 in their next home game. Hitchin were in second place, two points behind Waterlows but with four games in hand. They were favourites to lift their second Spartan League title in five years.

Despite being out of the main cups competitions, Hitchin were still running on two county fronts. In a bizarre Herts Charity Cup game, the Canaries ran out 11-4 winners against Bishop’s Stortford in the semi-final. Meanwhile, in the county cup, they won through to the final thanks to a semi-final win against St.Albans – a game that was marred by Hitchin spectators running onto the field to complaint about St.Albans’ rough-house tactics.

Fixture congestion got the better of Hitchin and their challenge for the title. In April, they played nine league games in 20 days, winning just three of them. They finished third, five points behind the champions, Metropolitan Police and one behind second-placed Slough. Of the six games they lost, five were away.

At the end of April, Hitchin fielded a promising young forward by the name of Claude Brown, a home 2-2 draw with Hoxton Manor. Brown, an England schools international would go on to become a stalwart of the club, enjoying a long career at Top Field.

The season ended with the Herts Senior Cup being retained, Hitchin winning the replay against Leavesden by 3-0 at Letchworth. The Canaries team that day was: Roy Jones, Reg Broadbent, George Adams, Les Bland, Ivor Moyle, Bill Westwood, Sid Gentle, Dick Murphy, Sam Hailey, Les Clarke, Jack Hoar. In the replay, Gentle, Hailey and Hoar scored the goals.

The Hitchin side of 1938-39 was very close to becoming the best the club had seen. Sadly, major events outside of football would deprive it from achieving its full potential.

The Hitchin side that won the Herts Senior Cup:
Back row, l to r: Bert Smith (Manager), Les Bland, Reg Broadbent, Roy Jones, Ivor Moyle, George Adams, Bill Westwood
Front row: Sid Gentle, Dick Murphy, Sam Hailey, Les Clarke, Jack Hoar

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