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1953-54: A good team takes shape

 At last, Hitchin Town’s supporters could rejoice in the club’s first decent post-war team. Charlie Watkins had made some progress in 1952-53 and in the summer of 1953, he made some important new signings. Peter Hammond, who would become Hitchin’s first England international, joined from Arlesey Town, and Keith Abbiss, who would later become a professional with Brighton, was another new acquisition. Dave Sayers, a centre forward formerly with St.Albans and Bedford, also arrived at Top Field.
Not only did Hitchin enjoy their finest Athenian League campaign, they also went close to winning the title. They also enjoyed good runs in the two FA competitions.
Hammond and Abbiss both made their debut on the opening day of the season at Finchley. Hitchin were narrowly beaten 2-1, but the press said, "nothing to worry about", recognising that the Canaries had dominated large parts of the game.
The FA Cup provided the first thrills of a season that had plenty to keep Hitchin fans excited. Leytonstone, then a major force in the Isthmian League, were beaten on their own patch in the fourth qualifying round. "One of the great days in Hitchin’s footballing history, crowed the press as Hitchin beat an experienced side. Hitchin were faster on the ball with Sayers and Johnny Ward constantly menacing up front. Ken Lawrence scored the only goal.
The first round brought a home tie with Peterborough United, the leaders of the powerful Midland League. They were one of the strongest non-league teams in the country. In goal they had the former Newcastle United custodian Jack Fairbrother. In addition, they had in defence ex-Manchester United player John Anderson. Fairbrother made a string of saves to keep "Posh" in the game. "Hitchin were their equals throughout, in fact produced the better football. Steadiness in front of goal would have made a big difference to the score," claimed the report. Peterborough won 3-1 but Hitchin had covered themselves in glory and had attracted a crowd of 6,232 to Top Field.
When the FA Amateur Cup came around, Hitchin were named among the favourites. The run started with wins against Oxford City and Crittall Athletic and gathered momentum with a win against Erith. Barnet were then beaten after a replay, thanks to an exciting 3-1 win at Top Field in which Hammond, Abbiss and Brian Smith all won praise for their performances. The quarter-finals paired Hitchin with Crook Town, a formidable hurdle. Hitchin made the very trip North with a depleted team- Ray Kitchener was injured and early in the game, John Whitby broke a leg. Crook hammered Hitchin 10-1 and eventually won the cup.
Back in the league, hopes were high that the club could lift its first Athenian League title. The Canaries approached Easter seven point behind leaders Southall, but they had five games in hand - it could be done with a strenuous effort. Even the Hitchin officials were starting to believe it could be done. "Not for many a long day has a season ended for us in such a whirl of excitement as this one is doing," said the club programme.
After a holiday programme that saw four out of six points gained, Hitchin were third, just four points behind Southall but three games in hand. Even so, Finchley were better placed to win the championship. With two games to go, the position had started to crystallise. Hitchin were top, but Finchley now had two games in hand. The London side win their next three games, against Southall, Hayes and Hendon, giving them the title. Hitchin were now second, three points behind Finchley - the pressure of so many games in such a short timeframe had worn out Watkins’ men. But Hitchin, as ever, were gracious in defeat and remained bullish about their own season. "Certainly we have confounded our critics and we congratulate the team on a really splendid record."
The team was young enough to improve and had enough experienced to combat the best that the Athenian League had to offer - at least that was the popular belief as Hitchin’s finest season since 1935 came to an end.

Peter Hammond
Peter Hammond is a name that will always be synonymous with football in North Hertfordshire. In an age when amateur football was full of gentlemanly conduct, fair play and a tub and a half of brylcreem, Hammond stood for everything that was good about the game.
In a career that spanned 26 years, Hammond played for Arlesey Town, Hitchin Town,  Enfield, Letchworth and Baldock Town. In 1949 he joined Arlesey Town as a winger. He moved to Hitchin in 1953 and made his debut on August 22 1953 against Finchley. His first goal came a few days later and he would eventually score 150 times for the club and was top scorer at Hitchin in 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1959. He netted five goals in one game, against Keynsham in the FA Amateur Cup. At various times, he was knocking on the door of the England amateur selectors.
He was eventually picked to play for England, becoming Hitchin’s first England amateur international. He made his only appearance on October 25 1958, playing for England against South Africa and Wycombe Wanderers’ Loakes Park. Hammond recalled his only game for his country some years later: “I matured rather late as a player and perhaps my one cap was recognition that I had a good career. I did not hear from them again.” Earlier in his career, Hammond signed amateur forms with Luton Town and also turned out for the “A” teams of Portsmouth, Arsenal, QPR and Tottenham. There were other representative honours – he played more than 30 times for Hertfordshire and countless times for the Athenian League and FA XIs. He was picked for Middlesex Wanderers.
In 1961, he had a year with Enfield but returned for a brief spell when the club moved from Athenian to Isthmian leagues. He finally departed in 1964. “I was sad to leave Hitchin. The team spirit was marvellous and we were all friends,” he recalled. For a while he played for Letchworth and then became player-manager at Baldock Town. He guided Baldock to three South Midlands League titles in six years. He finally retired from playing in 1973.

Keith Abbiss
Keith Abbiss was born on April 26 1932 in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. He was just 17 when he made his debut for the Canaries, a friendly against Clacton at Top Field in March 1950. The following season, in September, he made his first team bow proper, lining up on the left wing at home to Hayes. Although he made 25 appearances in 1950-51, national service got in the way for a couple of season and it was not until 1953-54 that he became a regular in the Canaries side. He caught the eye of professional clubs in that season, playing a prominent part in Hitchin’s FA Amateur Cup run to the quarter-final stage and a runners-up spot in the Athenian League. In the ill-fated game at Crook Town on February 20 1954, Keith played in the centre forward berth. He played in a number of positions, from right half to left wing, but it was as a half back that most people consider to be his most effective role. Halfway through 1954-55, Keith had a spell away from the club, but he returned in December 1955 to once more contribute to another FA Amateur Cup run. His two goals at Brigg Sports were enough to send Hitchin through to the third round where they played against Wycombe Wanderers, a game that attracted a record 7,878 people to Top Field. He played in that memorable game, but in a few weeks, he had fallen out with the club. Legend has it that Keith was asked to play in the outside right position and refused. News reports of the time suggested an impasse between club and player and this led to him being released at the end of the 1955-56 campaign after a Top Field career amounting to 100 games and 30 goals. He joined Letchworth in the close season of 1956. In October 1957, Keith Abbiss joined Brighton & Hove Albion and went on to play 19 Football League games, scoring three goals.

Ray Kitchener
 Ray Kitchener was a member of the Hitchin team that finished runners-up in the Athenian League and reached the FA Amateur Cup quarter finals in 1953-54. “Fortunately for me, I didn’t play in the quarter final defeat at Crook (a 1-10 record score),” he says. “I was injured just prior to that game, so I was spared that.” Towards the end of that season, he was approached by then Chelsea manager Ted Drake, who told him he was being watched. “Ted wanted me to join Chelsea, but I was not sure. I was close to winning an England cap and I really wanted to achieve that,” recalls Ray. His hopes of a cap had been heightened by George Robb – then a fixture in the national side – moving to Tottenham. But it was not to be. Drake offered to take Ray on a club tour of North America, to see how he liked a taste of the professional game. “It was a marvellous experience and at the end of the six-week tour, I joined Chelsea.” The 1954-55 season saw Chelsea land the League Championship and their reserves also won their title. Ray picked up a Football Combination winners’ medal and played with men like Bobby Smith, later to win the coveted double with Tottenham. During his time at Chelsea, he played one Football League game, alongside such luminaries as Roy Bentley. He moved on to Norwich City in 1957 before winding down his career in the Eastern Counties League.

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