There are 61,000 reasons to be proud to be a Hitchin Town supporter because the Canary Crisis Fund Crowdfunder raised an incredible £61,000. Bearing in mind the original target was a more modest £25,000 it shows just how generous Hitchin supporters have been and those of us who have been involved in running the Crowdfunder campaign have been overwhelmed by the generosity shown. In the course of this article I will explain how the Crowdfunder started, how it was organised, how it was publicised and will feature some of the great stories behind the donations received.

Hitchin Town FC had obviously been badly affected by the Coronavirus pandemic with our income streams having been decimated. We were also aware that the Top Field Stadium had been badly affected by the winter storms and when we carried out a survey of the ground the reality hit home that we needed to invest thousands of pounds to carry out essential safety work. Unfortunately, we did not have the money to complete the necessary work. We therefore had to find an alternative source of finance to enable us to raise money to ensure we could start the season with a safe ground and to enable us to pass the imminent ground grading visit that if we failed would lead to instant relegation.

The starting point for our Crowdfunder was my jealousy of Royston Town FC! The reason I was jealous was that through following their social media outlets I saw they were raising a lot of money through a Crowdfunder campaign. Each day I looked the total raised seemed to grow and I was thinking that surely if Royston were raising such high amounts, Hitchin Town with their larger fanbase could surely do just as well, if not better. In fact I was really impressed by what Royston had achieved and wanted Hitchin to emulate their success.

I discussed this with Chris Newbold our communications officer and first-team manager Mark Burke on a regular basis as I felt more and more frustrated. They probably got fed up with me going on about it. Royston eventually raised £25,345 which I thought was a great achievement and also it made me even more determined that Hitchin should have their own Crowdfunder campaign.

Crowdfunder UK did a deal with the Southern League whereby they offered their services with no platform fees or additional charges meaning all monies raised would go direct to the clubs. So Chris eventually agreed to speak to Crowdfunder UK to see what would be involved and how we could participate. The advice of Murry Toms and Scott Fitzgibbon who were connected to Cheltenham Town and Frome Town respectively was really impressive and they gave brilliant advice on how to run a Crowdfunder campaign. They stressed that it would need three or four individuals to devote themselves to the project so Chris and myself realised that our management committee would need outside help and we turned to our exceptional social media team, asking Stewart Curtis, Matt Furniss and Paul Sprague to join our special Crowdfunder committee. We also invited Brett Donnelly to join as we were told it was important to have a representative from the playing squad involved and Brett is also a big Twitter user.

Crowdfunder UK stressed the main need is to have a reason for the Crowdfunder appeal and the necessity to carry out the renovation work on Top Field was the perfect answer for this.

We remain committed to having a new stadium and are confident this will be achieved but we had to invest in the current stadium to ensure we maintain our current level for when the stadium arrives. Kate Deller, Paul and Brett worked hard to list all the work that needed to be done – the absolutely essential, the work that really should be done and the work that would be great to do but was not a necessity.

This list of works was the centrepiece of the first Crowdfunding meeting and we felt the cost could reach up to £25,000, so this became the agreed target. We all felt it was probably hopelessly optimistic but agreed that was the figure we did need to raise to achieve the works that had been identified. A name was needed for the project and Matt came up with Canary Crisis Fund which we all felt fitted the bill.

We then had to plan the Crowdfunder page that supporters would see. We had to write an article explaining what we were doing and why we were doing it and it had to stimulate interest among supporters so it was carefully written and edited. We then had to come up with a series of rewards which the Crowdfunder UK team strongly advised was needed. Again much discussion took place before we came up with rewards for donations of £10, £25, £50, £100, £250, £500 and £1,500. The £100 commemorative shirt was a particularly popular reward.

Getting awareness of the Crowdfunder when it launched was in the hands of our social media team. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were used to the fullest extent – the more the message got out, the greater the chance of donations. Getting as much publicity as possible was the aim and our team were very successful in that regard. We had an article in the i newspaper and a big spread in the Non-League Paper. The Comet gave good coverage while our own social media outlets relentlessly carried the Crowdfunder message. Matt Furniss was on the Colin Murray show on BBC Radio 5 Live publicising the Crowdfunder while I decided to approach BBC Look East suggesting to them that our Crowdfunder campaign would be a great story for them to cover as it contained plenty of general interest elements. Luckily they agreed. Unfortunately twice we were promised coverage that was subsequently cancelled but it was a case of third time lucky and Look East presented a live report on the evening of our game with Needham Market which gave us great publicity.

I was also able to interview our local MP Bim Afolami who really got behind the Crowdfunder and made a donation. He said “Hitchin Town Football Club is critically important to our community” as other local councillors of all parties also donated to the cause. So we felt we were successful in getting the message out but the test would be how many donations would come in. We were to be very pleasantly surprised by how quickly things moved. Within the first 48 hours we had raised £9,000 and in the first week we had made £17,500. Week two saw us reach our target of £25,000 which was beyond our wildest dreams and we had to increase the target. We decided to go for £50,000 but never really thought it would be achievable. However at the end of week three we had hit £42,000 and while donations slowed down for weeks four and five we had still reached £44,000 and £45,000 respectively. So to the last week of the Crowdfunder – could we hit the magical £50,000 target? The answer was a resounding yes. After a late surge of donations, we reached the amazing total of £61,000.

As I said earlier there are some really good stories behind many of the donations and I will now go through some of the more interesting ones and look at the diversity of the donors and donations. It was interesting to see that supporters of other clubs donated and they included followers of Norwich, Luton, Yeovil, Brentford, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Warrington Town, Leamington and Stevenage while donations came in from supporters based in Australia, Spain and Czech Republic.

A good number of former Canaries donated including Matt Lench, Stuart Brown, Ian Lindsay, Jon Bone, Callum Donnelly, Luke Donnelly, Noah Chessmain, Lewis Rolfe and Will Wright, while current players and management also joined in including Mark Burke, Adam Parker, Brett Donnelly, Layne Eadie, Kye Tearle, Josh Bickerstaff and Lewis Barker.

A number of our long standing supporters made four figure donations and we thank Matt Rossall, Roger Berry, John Warren, David Phillpot, Steve Maxted, Kevin Lowe, Keith Farr, Guy Williams and Andrew Roberts. Football for Fathers also donated a four figure sum while our chairman Terry Barratt and managing director Andy Melvin led from the front by donating £5,000 each to the Crowdfunder. Our Supporters Club has now closed down and Len Leroux and his committee members donated their closing funds of over £3,000 to the Crowdfunder appeal.

There were a number of good human interest stories attached to the donations. There was a great gesture from Brian Gray and his sister Alison who added to the Crowdfunder appeal by sponsoring the home and away dug-outs in memory of their parents. John Gray had been a long standing supporter who became a much valued volunteer for the club and this was a fitting tribute from his family. Then the Andrews family made a substantial donation in memory of Fred Andrews. Fred was also a lifelong supporter who became our commercial manager and he was still working for the club despite being over 90 years of age. Like John Gray he sadly passed away last season and Michael Andrews and Tina Virgo said “please accept this donation in memory of dad, Fred Andrews, who loved the club which gave him so much enjoyment.”

Next up we have Teddy Donnelly. He is only five years old but wanted to do his bit to help the club and with his dad Luke’s help volunteered to do 25 laps of Top Field, hoping to raise £500. As it turned out our own version of Captain Tom smashed that target and actually raised £2,200 for the Crowdfunder. He ended up running most of the laps and had captured the hearts of the BBC Look East viewers when he was interviewed live and said that Hitchin Town FC was closing down because it had run out of money!

Our own playing squad made a generous £400 donation to the fund. They asked that the money be used to buy four “your name on our shirt” rewards and that the name of four loyal and devoted followers of the club who sadly passed away last season be put on our 2021/22 away shirt next season. John Gray, Chris Green, Ralph Armitage and Fred Andrews will therefore be remembered in a unique way and their families were delighted with this brilliant gesture from our players. Footballers are often portrayed as selfish so how great it is to see that the Hitchin Town squad have shown that there is a different story to tell.

Our former player John Woodward sadly passed away during the Crowdfunder appeal and The Woody WhatsApp Group donated as a tribute to John from his former team mates with his name going on the special edition shirt. John’s passing led to a big donation from our former player Jon Bone who said “With the passing of John Woodward this week it reminded me of the great times I had playing for the club and the fantastic people I had the pleasure of playing with.” Again this showed just how special Hitchin Town FC is to so many people.

Some of the comments recorded on the Crowdfunder website are worth sharing as they show how our club has been so important to so many people over the years. Steve Hilleard said “Attending matches with my grandfather in the early 1970’s helped me develop a love for the game, and also was the start of a lifetime of support for Hitchin Town FC. While not able to attend regularly for much of the last two decades, I always eagerly look out for the results on a Saturday afternoon. I wish HTFC and its officials much success in keeping a great club alive for future generations to enjoy as much as I have.”

Remembering loved ones was a common theme and one example was the Ellis family who made a donation in memory of Andrew Ellis who “had supported the club from a young age and brought HTFC into the family.” Our coach Brett Donnelly also mentioned the importance of the club to his family – “My grandad played in the 50’s, my dad played in the 90’s, myself and my two brothers have played over the last 15 years and my cousins have played for the youth and vets teams. What better way to support the club than to go in the hat for the naming of the stand. The money is from all the Donnelly family.”

The Spavins family wrote the following: “Our dad Bruce Spavins absolutely loved this club. He wore his captains armband with such pride and often spoke of his time with Hitchin. It seems fitting to have his name on a shirt again.” Again this shows just how important Hitchin Town FC is and the respect it is held in. I could give many other examples of comments in a similar vein but the point has been made – Hitchin Town FC is a very special club.

I am happy to report that the work on the Top Field stadium has already begun. The repairs to the main stand roof have been completed and it is now watertight. The old club office that was falling apart has been broken up and removed together with another old portacabin. Some of the perimeter rail has been replaced and our new catering outlet has been installed. Much remains to be done and new guttering behind the main stand will follow together with rotten gates being replaced and new fencing being installed. A number of other jobs are in hand and we will keep supporters fully informed as the improvements are completed. The work will of course take some time to complete.

So in conclusion thank you again to everybody who donated. Every donation mattered whether it was £1 or £5,000. I am so proud and honoured to be connected with a club that means so much to so many people. Having checked with the Crowdfunder UK officials they are not aware of any other non-league club raising as much as our total of £61,000 and that is some achievement. Indeed the average total a non-league club raises is £14,000 so that shows how brilliant the response of our supporters has been.

One final note, for those who purchased rewards throughout the campaign, you will be individually contacted over the coming weeks.