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1992-93: Promotion, at last!

 On Saturday April 10 1993, Hitchin won 1-0 at Abingdon Town to clinch promotion back to the Isthmian League Premier Division. Five long years had passed since the Canaries were relegated, around 200 league games played in mostly unfamiliar territory.

The job was only half done, for Andy Melvin had targeted the Division One title and for much of the season, his young team had led the table. He wanted silverware.

The seeds of promotion had been planted in the second half of the 1991-92 season when a reshaped team had played with something of a swagger, eventually running out of steam. But in the summer of 1992, Melvin made some important new signings. Goalkeeper Peter Gleasure arrived after a long Football League career with Northampton and Millwall. Jon Bone returned after a 12 month sojourn at Baldock and also from the Canaries local rivals came the versatile Gary Williams. Another former Luton Town player was also secured in Ian Scott, a talented midfielder who would become a folk-hero at Hitchin.

Melvin had effectively signed a new backbone for his side in Gleasure – Bone – Scott – Williams, to add to existing mainstays Steve Miller, Mark Burke and Rob Johnson. Suddenly, Hitchin found themselves named among the favourites for promotion.

Denied of a game owing to Harlow’s temporary demise, Hitchin had to wait until the first Tuesday of the season to kick-off. They came out of the traps in style – hitting seven without replay at Heybridge Swifts. Paul Quarman, with a hat-trick, and the mercurial Stuart Brown scored twice as the home side stood stunned. It was the perfect start.

 The FA Cup provided some joy with victories over Chatteris and Wisbech before VS Rugby ended the run. The league was the priority and the good start continued, with one defeat  - Dorking away 0-1 -  in the first seven games. Among the early successes was a 2-0 win at Billericay, a very professional performance against a similarly ambitious team.

But clumsy defeats at Walton & Hersham and lowly Whyteleafe, settled by a bizarre own goal from Rob Johnson suggested that Melvin had not quite got the blend right. Melvin made two important signings, bringing Gavin Covington back from Wycombe and luring Nigel Hann from Stevenage Borough. Both were popular figures, with Hann – “The Mad Dog” – recapturing the hearts of the fans.

Covington scored the winning goal in his first game, against Tooting, and a few days later, Hitchin hit top spot for the first time. The season started to gather momentum with a 1-0 win at muddy Bishop’s Stortford, thanks to a Quarman goal.

 Three days later, on November 24, Melvin pulled of a master stroke, signing former Luton and England midfielder Ricky Hill. His appearance was unannounced – against Croydon – and the crowd was low, but in the following home match, against Chalfont St.Peter, almost 600 people turned up. Hill did not play, but Hitchin won 6-0. “The way I see it, you don’t need me,” said Hill as he sat watching the game.

Hitchin were in an unbeaten run that would eventually span 13 league games and straddle 1992 and the New Year. December was especially impressive, with victories over Molesey, Boreham Wood and Billericay underlining the tight defensive qualities that had developed. After coming from behind to beat Billericay, in front of 584 people, Hitchin went nine points clear at the top of the table.

At the end of January, the run ended after a 2-0 defeat on a somme-like pitch at Leyton. The lack-lustre performance prompted Melvin to search for more height up front.

Paul Quarman, whose goals and silky skills had made him popular with the crowd, was dropped to make way for a tall striker from Stevenage, Jimmy Hughes. Melvin paired Hughes with Gary Williams to form a “twin towers” attack. At Purfleet, Hitchin showed great character in coming back from a first-half pounding to win 2-1, a week later, Hughes showed his form with a 3-0 win at Croydon. The big top of the table clash with Dorking was looming and a large crowd turned up to see the two best sides in the league. The scourge of Hitchin, Phil Grainger, scored the winner as Dorking  - something of a bogey side – won 2-1. The local press said: “Dorking celebrated at the final whistle as though the FA Cup was won, but it will be major surprise if similar scenes were not repeated at Top Field on May 1, despite this setback to the Canaries’ aspirations.”

Confidence suffered as a result of this game and three days later, Tooting inflicted a second consecutive defeat on Melvin’s side. He had to stabilize the situation as the nerves were clearly jangling. It was fortunate that Aveley and Lewes were both on the agenda – two sides that were relegation-bound. Two wins put Hitchin within sight of promotion, but they had to wait a fortnight and a trip to Abingdon. Gary Williams scored the only goal and a large travelling contingent of Hitchin fans went wild when the results came through from other games. Hitchin were up! “Iwant the title now,” said Melvin. “We’ve been top of the table all season – it means a lot to win the trophy.”

Over the course of the last month, three clubs were in contention for the title – Hitchin, Dorking and Molesey. There was little to separate the three teams. There was a blow to Hitchin when Bishop’s Stortford won 3-2 at Top Field, but each club received setbacks. A 1-0 win at Chalfont St.Peter in their penultimate game sent Hitchin back to the top, but in the final week, both Dorking and Molesey gained the initiative. But only Molesey could prevent Hitchin winning the title on the final day. Hitchin were top by one point but Molesey had a superiod goal difference. Both had games that were relatively easy – Molesey meeting Chalfont and Hitchin hosting Uxbridge. With time running out, Hitchin were being held 1-1 by Uxbridge and Molesey were 4-0 up. It looked like the Surrey side’s title. But then Gary Williams headed his second goal, prompting coach Robin Wainwright to run across the pitch and jump into the centre forward’s arms. The whistle went and Hitchin had won 2-1 and the title was theirs. It was an emotional afternoon as Hitchin celebrated their first championship since 1935. Melvin was typically brash: “I’ve always known we would win the title…I’m a lucky man.” And not many in the 800 crowd that afternoon would have disagreed with that….

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