In an age when clubs seem to lurch from crisis to crisis financially, Hitchin’s recent history has been relatively stable. Andy Melvin stepped down in 2001, handing over to his assistant Robbie O’Keefe. Robbie was the mastermind of the club’s youth academy, and at times, O’Keefe promised to bring success back to Hitchin. In 2003, however, he left the club, and former Chelsea and England striker Kerry Dixon took over. At the end of the 2003-04 season, Hitchin left the Isthmian League after more than 40 years, and moved to the Southern League. At the halfway stage of the following season, Dixon, who was unable to commit himself fully to the job, was replaced by Darren Salton. Salton had to rebuild a team that had alarming weaknesses in every department. The last few months of the season were tough and Hitchin failed to win any of their last 11 games. But the following year was better and at the end of 2005-06, the Canaries won the Southern League Cup, beating Bromsgrove Rovers in the two-legged final.
In 2006-07, the Canaries started well and at the halfway point were among the title challengers. But a spectacular collapse, fuelled by player unrest, saw Hitchin fall down the table and into relegation trouble. Eventually, Hitchin finished 11th, perhaps a flattering position, but nevertheless one which secured Premier Division football in 2007-08. After a lack lustre start to 2007-08, Darren Salton was released by the club and former player Darran Hay was appointed as manager. Hay had to rebuild his team and it took time to turn things around, but a revitalised squad, with a strong team spirit, lifted Hitchin out of trouble.
After a poor start to the 2008-09 season, Darran Hay left Hitchin in January 2009. Colin Payne, the former Chertsey, Northwood and Boreham Wood manager was appointed in February 2009, but despite an improvement, the club was relegated at the end of the campaign. Payne rebuilt the Hitchin squad in the summer of 2009, with the aim of achieving promotion at the first attempt.
Hitchin enjoyed a successful 2009-10, winning 31 of 42 league games. A vibrant young side was moulded by Payne and his assistant Carl Williams and for long periods, the Canaries topped the Zamaretto Midlands Division. Hitchin lost just four games in the league but Bury Town topped the division by two points – despite Payne’s men amassing 100 points. As only one team was automatically promoted, Hitchin had to enter the play-offs for the second promotion place. Sadly, the young Canaries ran out of steam and lost the play-off semi-final to Slough, a team that finished 23 points behind Hitchin!
A few days after the end of the season, Payne left the club to join Hemel Hempstead. In his place, Carl Williams was appointed as manager. He had a tremendous first season in charge and for much of the 2010-11 campaign, Hitchin looked certainties for the title. But a mid-season drop in form gave local rivals Arlesey the chance to take top place. On the final day of the season, the two clubs met at Top Field for the title decider. Arlesey won 1-0 in front of over 1,500 people, but the occasion was marred by the ungentlemanly behaviour of Hitchin’s opponents. Williams and his team cast that disappointment aside to beat Slough and Daventry in the play-offs to claim the second promotion spot. In their first season back in the Premier, Hitchin enjoyed some bright moments, notably beating eventual champions Brackley and promotion chasing AFC Totton and Cambridge City. Once again, the goals of John Frendo lit up the campaign and attendances at Top Field were among the best in the division. The final placing of 14th was considered satisfactory and the club went into 2012-13 looking to improve on that showing.
Carl Williams’ second season in charge started brightly but despite the massive goals contribution of John Frendo (who won the non-league football “Golden Boot” the previous season with 44 goals), it proved a difficult season overall. However, despite a couple of months where confidence had ebbed away and relegation looked a distinct possibility. Previous manager Colin Payne returned to assist the Management team, and the Canaries managed to pull through with three or four astute loan signings bolstering both confidence and results. They finished a creditable thirteenth, but despite this Carl decided it was time to take a break from the managerial role and focus on his young family.
Mark Burke was appointed manager in the summer of 2013 and Carl’s side almost entirely moved on. Despite this Burke and his assistant Adam Parker recruited some new young talent and finished in a creditable 13th position, same as the previous season.
Season 2014-15 saw the addition of Jonny McNamara from Arlesey and Charlie Horlock on loan from Wycombe Wanderers, and the experienced Brett Donnelly returning to the club for a second spell from Biggleswade Town. With a solid backline including Alasan Ann and Dan Webb and the huge promise of youngsters such as Sam Barker, Matt Lench and Lewis Rolfe being realised, the flowing football produced reaped dividends and Hitchin finished in ninth position, their best-ever in the Southern League.
The 2015-16 season proved to be even better. The season started with the prestigious game against a full-strength Premier League Norwich City side, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the first Hitchin football team. Despite the ten goal defeat, and defeat on the first day of the season to the newly promoted Stratford Town at home, Mark Burke’s young side (average age 24) picked up, went from strength to strength, defied all expectations and finished in third place in the League, showing a marked improvement on the previous season and qualifying for the Play-Offs. Here they took a 2-0 lead in the semi-final against the eventual winners Hungerford Town, but eventually ran out of steam and succumbed to a 3-2 defeat.
Again despite this tremendous disappointment, this young team showed great strength of character and picked itself up again to beat National League Boreham Wood to win the Hertfordshire Senior Cup for the first time in 19 years.
The 2016-17 season started with great hope, and most certainly did not disappoint. The now established squad fared even better than the previous season, qualifying for the Play-Offs in fourth place but with more league points than the previous season.
After a fantastic penalty shoot-out victory in the semi-finals at Merthyr Town, the Canaries took on Leamington for a place in the National League South. They came within one minute of promotion in normal time before conceding a 90th minute penalty equaliser, and then succumbing to a winning goal from Leamington six minutes from the end of extra time.
They retained the Hertfordshire Senior Cup by beating Bishops Stortford 2-1 and also reached the Herts Charity Cup Final, where a “bad day at the office” resulted in a 0-1 defeat against lower league opposition in the form of Cheshunt.
The Canaries enter the 2017-18 season knowing that the League competition will be considerably tougher this season with a greater number of well-established and hopeful teams. Hopefully they can compete again – third time lucky?