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1973-74: Kettleborough keeps it boiling

 Football at all levels was on the verge of change in the mid-1970s, and the Isthmian League, in particular, was going through a metamorphosis that would transform the face of the amateur game. At the end of 1972-73, the league decided that clubs could use “permit players” and Hitchin decided to employ the services of Howard Kettleborough (pictured left), who became the club’s first professional for many years.

Kettleborough was a goalscorer, a commodity that was badly needed at Hitchin, and with the return of Neill Bunker, the prospect of a forward line that also consisted of Paul Giggle was an exciting one. Brian Williams, the team’s manager cautiously enthused about the new season: “I make no promises, but what I will say is that I have a squad of lads who can play good football, who know what it is all about, and who will certainly do their best to keep Hitchin Town in a high place in the table.”

The Isthmian League also announced a bold new sponsorship deal, the first of its kind in the country. It came at a time when professionalism was on the agenda, a topic that did not sit comfortably with the club’s management.  Williams, meanwhile, was busy trying to strengthen his squad. He signed three players who has played for the British Universities, thereby continuing the stream of talent from the academic world. The latest recruits were goalkeeper Tim Sward, defender Peter Adams and a promising forward called Peter Watson.

The season started at Sutton and only a late equalizer by the home side prevent Hitchin from winning. The next game saw the Canaries beaten 1-0 at Leytonstone, prompting the media to claim that Williams’ men were “goal-shy”. But within a few days, the press changed its tune as Kettleborough scored twice in a 2-1 win against Bromley. “Kettleborough has arrived”.

It was the FA Cup that got the season going. Hitchin and Stevenage Athletic were drawn together and it took three games to settle the tie. With each game, the crowds and the excitement grew, until Hitchin eventually won 3-2 thanks to an extra-time goal from Kevin Hammond. Victory earned Hitchin a second qualifying round tie at Rothwell, a game won 7-1 against a backdrop of a fierce thunderstorm and fork lightning.

Bletchley, who fielded former Hitchin full back Ian Reid, were beaten in the next round, before Bognor Regis came to Top Field in the fourth qualifying round. Over 1,500 people turned up to see goals from the less celebrated Kettleborough, John, and Bunker beat Bognor 2-1. Hitchin were in the first round. While the club hoped to draw a Brighton side managed, briefly, by Brian Clough, the draw from Lancaster Gate paired Hitchin with Guildford. Williams would not be deflated, however. “I’m over the moon,” he said. “I’m like a dog with two tails.”

Guildford were then a Southern League Premier side, although at the end of 1973-74 they merged with Dorking to form Guildford & Dorking United. The game, played in front of 2,317 people at Top Field, ended 1-1, sending Hitchin to deepest Surrey for a midweek afternoon kick-off. It was a grey afternoon, but Hitchin put on one of those rare displays that warm the memory. “Mark no mistake, this was Hitchin Town at their best. They literally tore the Guildford defence to ribbons.” Hitchin won 4-1, earning a trip to Boston United of the Northern Premier League,  in the second round proper.

And it was at York Street that the FA Cup run that took in 10 games ended. Boston, who were one of the better organized clubs outside the Football League, included Howard Wilkinson in their line-up and were player-managed by Jim Smith. Boston won 1-0, but the goal that clinched the tie was a fortunate one. In the 65th minute, a long throw-in sailed into the Hitchin area and took a deflection off John Kettleborough. Boston’s Conde claimed it, but most put it down to an own goal. Over a thousand people travelled to Boston, making it a memorable day for the club, but defeat deprived the Canaries of a plum tie with Derby County.

The cup run acted as a “shop window” for the Hitchin players and suddenly, enquiries came in
for the likes of Tony Martin (Aston Villa), Saward, Steve Mahoney and Hammond. Martin and Saward went on to sign amateur forms with Luton Town. There was an air of anti-climax after the cup exit and Williams struggled to raise the spirits of his team for the run-of-the-mill games. Trevor Williams, a talented Welshman, departed for Slough, but an old favourite in Tony Brothers returned after spells with St.Albans and Wycombe Wanderers.

By the time the FA Amateur Cup came along – for the last time – Hitchin were struggling to keep their season alive. After two bruising games with Boreham Wood, the Canaries played their last ever game in the competition at Bishop’s Stortford, losing 1-2.

Now out of all the knockout competitions, Hitchin needed to get their league form back after a run of nine without a win. A hat-trick from Howard Kettleborough helped Hitchin to a 4-3 win. The Daily Telegraph graced Top Field with its presence. “It was a surprise to see the most prolific Isthmian League marksman in a team languishing in the bottom half of the table. But then Hitchin tend to go for the unexpected. There are daffodils, for instance. Hitchin’s pitch, probably the best in the league, has long lines of daffodils in front of the stand. They apparently believe in growing their own bouquets.”

As the season petered out, the last home being watched by just 98 people (a 5-1 win against Corinthian Casuals), the big topic of debate was whether Hitchin would “turn pro”. One man against it was Brian Williams, who resigned towards the end of the season, only to change his mind as the club decided to retain its amateur status. One person departing Top Field was Maurice Howkins, who decided to take up management at Letchworth. In the background, a group of anonymous local businessmen expressed an interest in backing Hitchin if they turned professional. The club deferred its decision, but the sun was setting on the day of the amateur.

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