Unfortunately Josh Bickerstaff has had to retire from playing football due to a persistent hip injury. It has affected Josh for the past two seasons and he feels his hip problem probably caused him other injury problems as he tried to compensate. He saw a specialist who informed him it would be the best decision to stop playing. Josh sought a second opinion but unfortunately the advice was the same. At just 29 years of age it is very difficult for Josh to accept his career is over as he had a good number of seasons left in him and he wanted to play for as long as he could. But he told me that last season he would really struggle after playing a game and would even have difficulty sleeping because of the pain he felt. As a PE teacher Josh had to consider that he was risking his ability to do his job and the quality of his future life if he carried on regardless and had to accept he had no choice but to give up playing. Josh remembered Adam Parker saying “enjoy playing football while you can because you never know what might happen” and he certainly did enjoy it but would have preferred a few more seasons. Josh may well face an operation in time and it could be similar to the one Andy Murray had.
Josh has been a great servant to Hitchin Town FC and played 320 games scoring 16 goals. He was always popular with supporters as he never gave less than 100% and was incredibly versatile. He played left back, left wing back, centre back and holding midfielder and it is a compliment to Josh to realise that he was equally adept in each position, and would never complain at being moved around. He liked the left back position as he was able to push forward whereas he did not find playing centre back as satisfying because he was less involved in a game. It has to be said that Josh always gave his full commitment to the team and particularly in recent seasons played through the pain barrier on a regular basis. In this article I will detail Josh’s career and he will share his views on his time at Hitchin highlighting both his memorable and forgettable moments and sharing who his favourite team mates were and who were his most difficult opponents.
Before I share the details of his career I will let a couple of his team mates pay their own tribute to Josh. Dan Webb is the club captain and told me he felt really gutted for Josh having to retire so early. Josh is the player Dan has been closest to at Top Field. They played together for many seasons and they are great friends off the pitch having formed a close bond and often shared lifts to games. Dan considers Josh to have been one of the biggest characters in the dressing room and said he was never backward in coming forwards and had a loud voice on and off the pitch. Dan feels Josh will be a massive loss to the club and he was really impressed with the versatility Josh displayed, enjoying partnering him at centre back but feeling he was comfortable wherever he played. On a humorous note Dan felt that after he joined the Donnelly family through his sister’s marriage he became more aggressive and picked up more yellow cards!
Brett Donnelly said Josh wanted to win at all costs even in training and hated losing. He felt Josh was excellent at game management and was a good organiser on and off the field. Like Dan, Brett considered Josh a big voice in the dressing room and said no one ever had a bad word to say about him. He was a “thoroughly nice bloke who was really underrated but not by me”.
So to Josh’s career which started off at Stotfold and he played for their under 16’s, under 18’s and reserves with his father Gordon being his manager at each step before making the first team when he was 18 with Ian Donnelly (Brett’s father) the manager. Gordon then replaced Ian as manager and not surprisingly Josh considers his father the biggest influence on his career. While playing at Stotfold in a midweek game Josh was watched by a member of Hitchin’s management team and was asked to play a reserve game for Hitchin. He played one game and was then promoted to the first team as regular left back Tom Pepper got injured. Carl Williams was the manager at the time.
Josh’s first game was at Aylesbury in February 2011 and resulted in a 3-1 victory. The team was Bennett, Fontenelle, Bickerstaff, Gilbert, Wordsworth, Lee, Howell, C Donnelly, Z Burke, Arlick, Lewis. Subs Gregson, Williams, Patrick, Cooke and Nelly. Josh retained the left back position for the rest of the season which culminated in promotion to the Southern League Premier Division after beating Daventry in the play-off final. But the 2011-12 season was a disaster for Josh as he tore a cartilage in his knee in a pre-season friendly and only made one appearance all season. In the 2012-13 season Josh was fit again and made 37 appearances in Carl Williams’ last season as manager. Mark Burke took over as manager for the 2013-14 season and Josh recalls we had a torrid time in the friendlies losing 5 of the 6 games including an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at lower league Dunstable. However in the first league game Hitchin beat Hemel Hempstead 2-0 and Hemel went on to win the league! Hitchin finished 13th but Josh decided to move to St Neots for the 2014-15 season. They were managed by Zema and Nathan Abbey and Josh left because he felt St Neots had a realistic chance of promotion.
Josh does not regret joining St. Neots and he says he learnt a lot from his time there. He was unfortunate St Neots had three managers that season but they reached the play-offs. Josh played in the semi-final at Poole but was substituted at half time and although he travelled he did not play in the final at Truro being an unused sub. St Neots lost the final and next season Josh returned to Top Field. He had learned the grass is not always greener elsewhere. He said he was surprised how much easier it is to play football when you are enjoying life both on and off the pitch. He much preferred the training at Hitchin while he also realised how important the social side of football is. At Hitchin he came to realise the social side was a big factor, from playing cards on the coach to some of the strangest and most memorable nights out and end of season events which he enjoyed. Mark Burke worked hard to create a good team bond and Josh feels this helped in the following two seasons that both finished with a place in the play-offs. Indeed Josh was on the players fines committee and Dan Webb told me he was so effective plenty of money was raised for the end of season tours!
In 2015-16 Hitchin lost to Hungerford in the play-off semi-final at Top Field and Josh thinks losing this game having been 2-0 up with only 30 minutes left made this an even bitter pill to swallow than the defeat at Leamington in the 2016-17 play-off final. But even so that Leamington defeat was very cruel when Hitchin played so well. Interestingly Josh considers the semi-final win on penalties at Merthyr that season was the most enjoyable win he ever had with Hitchin-and he is proud to have scored a penalty in the shoot-out!
Other highlights that Josh picks out include gaining promotion in his first season at the club. He remembers that he was not used to playing in front of the 1,000 plus crowds that attended the last three games of the season against Arlesey, Slough and Daventry. Beating Daventry in the play-off final at Top Field was particularly memorable for Josh as was the 2018/19 FA Cup run. As he says not many step three players make it to the first round of the FA Cup but he felt it was destiny that season as we had four home draws against lower opposition, The replay win at Leatherhead was particularly memorable while Josh considered the Solihull Moors game at a packed Top Field was a great experience as was being involved in the draw for the first round of the FA Cup live from the Canary Club.
Josh has played with many players in his time at Hitchin-some good, some not so good! But a few players do stand out and he starts with John Frendo. When Josh joined Hitchin he said the idea was to give the ball to Frendo and he would do the rest and he considers him the best striker he has played with (and against on a couple of occasions).
Next up is Dan Webb who Josh has played with virtually throughout his Hitchin career. He says of Dan that he enjoyed playing with him. he is old school, no nonsense and a good laugh off the pitch. Josh felt the 2016-17 play-off team was the best side he played in and gives special credit to Kane Smith and Matt Lench who both deservedly moved to a higher level. Finally as he is now part of the Donnelly family (his sister Jade is married to Luke) he feels he has to mention them. Callum he considered horrible to play against but was effective in what he did and also chipped in with important goals. As for Brett he was old school and always gave his all. He would let you know if he felt you were playing badly. If you played against Brett you knew you were in for a fight-sometimes literally!
Josh enjoyed playing at Weymouth which was a good ground where we tended to do well and also at Biggleswade because it was a local derby and Josh scored a few goals there over the years. Hardest grounds to visit included Chippenham where the pitch sloped and they always seemed very physical. Truro and Bideford were good to visit from a social point of view but results were generally poor, while Hemel Hempstead, Poole and Kettering were always tough to play against. Josh considers there is a big difference between the Southern Division we used to play in compared to the Central Division we are now in. He preferred the Southern Division but sees the Central Division as more competitive and physical from top to bottom.
Perhaps the biggest eye opener for Josh was when we played the Norwich first team to celebrate 150 years of football in Hitchin. He said their speed and ability was at a completely different level to what he was used to and made him realise just how good players are at the highest level.
Luckily we have not seen the last of Josh at Top Field. Manager Mark Burke who also heaped praise on Josh for his contribution to the club over so many years has asked him to manage our development squad. They will play some friendlies but many of the players will go to other clubs on dual registration to gain experience. Josh will monitor the progress of these players and help them to progress to the first team. Josh told me he was interested in having a coaching career and will probably do his coaching badges and eventually will move in to management.
Finally Josh wanted to say a big personal thank you to everyone at Hitchin from the management team to those involved behind the scenes including the committee and the volunteers who help out. He considers Hitchin a top club and will miss so many things about playing football but is pleased that he will still be involved and able to contribute to the club-and that sums up what an excellent servant Josh has been and will remain to be to Hitchin Town Football Club.
Thanks for all the great memories Josh.
A quick reminder that we’re currently running our Canary Crisis Fund crowdfunding campaign to raise monies for much needed repairs to our beloved Top Field stadium. We’ve already surpassed 50% of our target, but every penny counts. Here is the link to donate today.
BY ROY IZZARD