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1968-69: The best of bridesmaids

Vince Burgess took over as manager of Hitchin Town in the final weeks of the 1967-68. This was a bold move on the part of the club. Burgess was a well respected figure in amateur football and was used to winning things. Since joining the Isthmian League in 1963, Hitchin had struggled and the Laurie Scott era had been washed away. After surviving a series of financial and reputational setbacks, the club wanted to move on again and Burgess was seen as the man to drive that.

In the summer of 1968, the amiable schoolmaster started to bring new players to the club. These were just not local lads who had plyed their trade at neighbouring clubs. The first to arrive was England amateur international full back Ian Reid, which was considered to be something of a coup for the club. Reid was not only a fixture on the international scene, but he was accustomed to winning medals, with Crook Town and Enfield. A few days later, John Ashworth joined the club, a centre-half in the old fashioned mode who was a leader on and off the pitch. Ashworth was also a much celebrated player and when the news leaked out that Hitchin had secured the services of two highly coveted players, expectations started to rise.

The real “acid test” came at the start of September when Enfield, the reigning Isthmian champions, visited Top Field. This provided a benchmark for the team that Burgess was assembling. He was not present for the game, and missed a scintillating performance by his team in a 3-2 victory over the side widely tipped to regain the title. The media provided some pointers for the absent manager: “If anyone had any doubts as to just how good Hitchin Town are this season, they must have been dispelled on Bank Holiday Monday.”

Hitchin clicked into gear and on October 1, went to the top of the Isthmian League for the very first time. The Canaries won 1-0 at Hendon, then managed by Charles Hughes, who was also in charge of  England amateurs’. Hitchin were strengthened by the arrival of Hugh Pratt, who joined from Corinthian Casuals. The team was now settling down into a consistent combination of Charlie Turner in goal, Johnny Brookes and Ian Reid at full back, a half-back line of Maurice Howkins, Ashworth and the uncompromising Peter Robinson, and a forward line composed of a permutation of Martin Gladwin, Ray Harper, Tony Harley, Pratt and the inimitable duo of Roy Cutler and Bernie Gogan. The two forwards had started to strike up a near-telepathic relationship on the pitch. “The goal-scoring twins,” was how one newspaper described a duo that were firm friends on and off the field. They netted 43 league goals between them in 1968-69 and former a partnership that was feared throughout the Isthmian League.

But Gogan started the 1968-69 campaign relatively slowly, but he came to life against Corinthian Casuals, scoring four of Hitchin’s goals in a 6-0 drubbing. “On this form, Hitchin are very much in line for the championship,” claimed the report. Injuries started to have an impact on Burgess’ side, however. Howkins, Ashworth and Brian Baigent were all sidelined and this gave Burgess the opportunity to field a young winger by the name of Paul Giggle. He made his debut at Woking, a game won 2-1. The new boy, who would go on to become a club legend over two decades, made a good impression: “Giggle, making his debut, did enough to earn a second outing at Corinthian Casuals. Although inclined to a do a little too much running in the early stages,  he later showed he will be more than useful once he adjusts to the pace of the Isthmian League.”

At the end of November, Hitchin picked up a morale-boosting draw at Enfield. “Step aside, we’re ready to take over,” said John Ashworth after his side had earned a point in a great tactical battle. But December was not a good month although the FA Amateur Cup campaign got underway with a win in Norwich against the Old Boys Union, and a Top Field victory against Stowmarket. The run ended at Slough by 0-4, with an erratic and injury-hit Canaries side clearly out-of-sorts. Burgess refused to panic but instead revised his pre-season target of a top six finish to a placing in the first three.

March was the make-or-break month as Hitchin’s indifferent form and a backlog of fixtures, sent them down the table to fifth and seven points behind Sutton United. All realistic hopes of the title were dashed at St.Albans, however, when the Canaries were beaten 7-0. As the players left the field, Hitchin fans called out to Burgess, “Hurry up and bring in Charlie Townsend,” referring to the club’s interest in Wealdstone’s former England international midfielder. But such a defeat, a veritable humiliation, signaled the beginning of the end of any hopes of winning the top prize.

Townsend, despite his obvious talent and experience, arrived too later to affect the destination of the Isthmian League title, but he did help to stabilize a ship that was listing. There was enough momentum, though, to secure second place – five points behind champions Enfield - which was confirmed with a 2-0 win against Woking, thanks to two goals from Ian Reid. “It’s champagne and cheers as Hitchin finish second,” said the headline, while another report commented: “Hitchin’s loyal fans finally stopped living in the past….the new look Canaries, sported three full internationals and several players on the verge of honours. Vince Burgess has welded the makings of a fine side.”

Indeed it was an impressive side, but sadly, it stayed together all too briefly. Since those halcyon days, the club has never quite captured the spirit of 1968-69.

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