Below are the key moments from our proud history. Select your chosen period to read more:
The Key Moments
Hitchin Town’s home
Look at an old map of Hitchin in the late Victorian age, and you will notice that Fishponds Road does not extend to the site of Hitchin Town’s Football Ground. In fact, the road which is now the formal address of the club ended abruptly with a dirt track, some two hundred yards from the Top Field. In those days, Hitchin played football on a site in Payne’s Park, just south of its existing home.
The origins of football in the area are somewhat ambiguous, but it is known that in the days when Football was almost a tribal war between rival villages and towns, Hitchin and Stevenage started off somewhere between Great and Little Wymondley, and kicked the Pig’s bladder from “Dawn ’til Dusk”. Hitchin Football Club, which was formed in 1865 also played at the town’s cricket ground and Dog Kennel Farm in Charlton, as well as Butts Close.
Top Field was separated from Butts Close by a thin path, and was held as part of a trust known as the Cow Trust, which was run by the Cow Commoners. The site was installed as a place of recreation for the people of Hitchin, and as such, that was the prerequisite for any activity which took place there. If you were a Cow Commoner, you were entitled to run your sheep or cattle along Bedford Road (adjacent to Top Field) and across Butts Close once a year.
The first Hitchin Club played at Top Field not long after its formation in 1865 – the exact date is uncertain, but what is certain is that one of the very first FA Cup ties was was played on that ground. On November 11,1871, Hitchin drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace in torrential rain at Top Field. That, in itself, marks Top Field as a place of sporting heritage. In the early days of Top Field, the players would change in the Public House opposite Butts Close, The Cricketers. In those days, The Cricketers was on the site that is now the Firs Hotel (some 200 yards from where it is presently).
The ground soon took shape, and a fine wooden grandstand, one which was higher than the existing structure, was the pride of the club. Hitchin FC turned professional in the early years of the 20th Century, but the move was to prove an expensive folly, and they struggled. The grandstand was destroyed by fire one terrible night, and as a result the club lost heart and folded in 1911.
Football in Hitchin continued, however, in the form of Hitchin Blue Cross, a club run by the local temperance movement. They played their games at the Grammar School in Fishponds Road. It was not until 1928 that Hitchin Town was reformed and shortly afterwards, it was agreed the club should move into the ground once more in time for the start of the Spartan League campagn.
At that time, the Imps, an athletic club, was using the ground. Top Field again became the home of senior football in the town, and in the early years of the reformed club the ground was built up once more. A grandstand of 450 seats, under cover, was installed in the latter weeks of 1928 and still stands today. In 1931-32, one of the other notable features of the ground – wooden terracing – was introduced for a big FA Amateur Cup tie, installed as a temporary measure. At one time the terracing used to extend around most of the ground, but the years have taken their toll and there has been some culling due to accident and inclement weather.
In 1955, the record crowd was set when 7,878 filled the ground as Wycombe Wanderers came to Hitchin for an FA Amateur Cup tie. The biggest change to the ground since the original constructions of the laste 1920’s was the installation of £5,000 worth of floodlighting. They were switched on by the late Billy Wright in 1962, when Arsenal came to the ground to commemorate the occasion.
In 1963 a new clubhouse was built, at that time it was considered one of the best in Amateur Football and another innovation, a sauna, was installed in the late 1960’s. Healthy crowds flocked to Hitchin in the 1970’s, witnessing epic cup battles against, most notably, Swindon Town and Cambridge United but few major improvements were made. Recent years have seen the construction of concrete terracing at the Ickleford Road end and following a bad storm in late October 2002 replacement covering on the popular side.
In 2012, Top Field, which was registered as common land, was deregistered. In June 2012, the club’s landlords announced a ground development proposal in Stevenage Road. Amid fears that the Top Field was to be sold to a major supermarket, a “Save Top Field” campaign was launched by local residents.
The ground, which is still a monument to 1920s football architecture, remains a welcoming if somewhat archaic place to watch the game.
The birth of a club
The early days of Hitchin Town are clouded in mystery, but recent research has uncovered the actual day that the club’s formation was announced.
The Hertfordshire Express of Saturday November 25 1865 included an announcement that had been issued the previous day (November 24 1865):
“A meeting of gentlemen convened by private circular, was held in the National School Room on Friday evening for the purpose of establishing a foot-ball club. Hubert Delme Radcliffe esq. presided and about 25 gentlemen were present.
The establishment of such a club was unanimously agreed to, the subscription to be two shillings and sixpence per annum, members to be admitted by ballot.
Hubert Delme Radcliffe was chose as president and the Rev.John Pardoe Secretary, a committee of five gentlemen were also appointed, and rules agreed to.
The president announced that F.P. Delme Radcliffe would allow the club to play the games in part of the park they chose to select, and also that his name might be put down for an honorary subscription of one guinea. It was arranged that the club should commence playing at the close of the cricket season in each year and continue to its opening, and to meet for play on Saturday afternoons at half-past two o’clock, the opening game to be played that day.”
The above announcement made barely a ripple in the newspaper, but it represents the earliest mention of organised football in the town.
In all probability, the early “games” were played among the members, possibly on Butts Close.
There is evidence that the club played on Hitchin Cricket Ground in the early 1870s, wherever that may have been, and also Dog Kennel Farm in Charlton.
Francis Shillitoe was Hitchin’s first captain. He was a keen rower and there is evidence that he was a coroner and later lived in Pirton Road at Foxholes.
1867-68: The Wanderers come to town
Competitive games were few and far between, but every game was a challenge and there was no more competitive fixture than a visit from the Wanderers, who won the very first FA Cup final and lifted the cup a further four times. Here is a match report for a game played on February 20 1868, from the Pall Mall Gazette (21 February 1868):
“This match was played at Hitchin yesterday, and resulted in a victory for thee Wanderers, who scored two goals to nothing. The toss was won by the Hitchin captain, who chose the upper goal with the wind. The superiority of the Wanderers soon became apparent, as the ball was flying about on all sides of the Hitchin posts which, after about half an hour’s play, surrendered to a kick by C.W Alcock. With the wind and hill, the Wanderers immediately commenced once more to pen their opponents, who shortly afterwards witnessed the second overthrow of their goal, a good side kick by H.Emmanuel achieving this second goal. For the Wanderers W.Rigden and L.Ogden were most conspicuous, and Shillitoe did good service for Hitchin.”
Hitchin’s line-up that day was: F.Shillitoe (captain), Rev. J.B. Parker, W.Hill, W.O. Atkinson, G.Lewin, E.Logsdon, T.Mainwaring, F.Lucas, G.A. Passingham, L.Thompson (only 10, not listed in positions – Wanderers had just nine men). Report taken from London Gazette.
Some highlights from 1871:
On January 21 1871, Hitchin won 1-0 at St.Albans.
On February 4 1871, at Hitchin Cricket Ground, the club won 8-0 against Ware, who were formed just a month earlier. The Herts Express was impressed at “the pluck and good temper which they [Ware] took their licking.”
Hitchin’s goals were scored by Hill, Bailey, Austin (2), Darton (2), Baker and Mainwaring.
On February 11 1871, Hitchin won at home to St.Albans. Goalscorer: “Mr Toke”
Some highlights from 1872:
On September 5 1872, Hitchin held its AGM. The club had the grand sum of £ 1 17s 6d in the bank. Rev. John Pardoe was elected captain of the club with William Tindall Lucas the secretary.
Special thanks were passed to Mr A.Ransom for the use of his field [which begs the question – did the club play at Ransom’s Rec?].
The opening game of the season would be Mr Jackson’s XI v Mr Mainwaring’s XI. These gentlemen were both committee members.
1901-02: The first league season
The forerunner of the Hitchin Town FC we know today, Hitchin FC, did not play league fixtures until 1901-02. Prior to that, the club played friendlies and county cup competitions.
In the close season of 1901, the Hitchin committee decided that friendly games were no longer appetising to the public and the club made an application to join the London League. That league did not like the idea of a team as far north as Hitchin becoming part of their league, but the club was more successful in gaining admission to the South Eastern League, which looked a fairly attractive proposition with games against the second elevens of West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur and Millwall. Also in that summer, the club changed its colours from red and white to all white. At that time, the club’s headquarters were based at the Temperance Hotel in Bancroft, but by the end of the season, The Sun had been reinstated as the home base. As well as competing in the South Eastern League, Hitchin were also members of a new Herts League.
Hitchin found it hard going in the South Eastern League and suffered a run of defeats in the early stages of the season. Millwall won 1-0 at Top Field and Luton Town Reserves beat Hitchin 10-1. Captain W.J.Y Taylor was badly injured at Luton and as the club’s best forward, this was a considerable blow. The two senior Hitchin sides – Blue Cross Brigade were the other – met at Top Field and the game ended up a 1-1 draw. The crowd for this Herts League game was very disappointing, which led some people to ask what the club had to do to attract good attendances.
By the end of October, T.W. Barnes, a right half who had played for Luton, returned to the club as an “unpaid professional”. In the previous season, Hitchin had been admonished for fielding a footballer who was registered as a professional in the amateur game. Barnes was a fine player and one that had a keen eye for goal. His first game back with the club was a disaster, however, with Queens Park Rangers winning 9-0.
Hitchin made progress in the Hinchinbrooke Cup, beating Arlesey 3-0, but in the South Eastern League, they struggled against superior opposition. It was not until just after Christmas that they recorded their first win, a 3-1 success against St.Albans Amateurs. In the next round of the Hinchinbrooke Cup, Biggleswade were beaten after a replay, earning Hitchin a semi-final tie with Irthlingborough. At the start of December, Clapton Orient, a team that included future England centre forward George Hilsdon, were beaten 1-0, but a week later, a trip to Essex was not appreciated by the Hitchin players. The team arrived at Grays United with three players suffering from nausea after a bad train journey from London to Thurrock. The Hitchin officials were none too happy, claiming that they had not enjoyed “the uninviting home of the Essex club”.
The Hinchinbrooke Cup run ended for Hitchin at the semi-final stage, with Irthlingborough taking a two-goal lead before Taylor netted a later consolation. Hitchin were not to be denied some glory in 1901-02, however. After beating Stevenage in the semi-final of the Herts Charity Cup, they were due to meet St.Albans in the final at Welwyn. Taylor and W.Anderson gave Hitchin a 2-0 lead early on, and Hailey and Cannon scored the other goals in a 4-2 win against St.Albans Amateurs. There was a hint of crowd trouble at Welwyn as some irate St.Albans fans invaded the pitch. Hitchin, though, were easily the better team and few could complain at their victory.
On March 28, Hitchin played two games on the same day, one in the South Eastern League against Clapton Orient and another at Stevenage in the Herts League. Hitchin lost at Orient, 1-3 and beat their neighbours 5-0. In an intensive finale to the season, Tottenham visited Top Field the next day, winning 5-1. The Spurs went on to win the South Eastern League. Hitchin’s last win of the season in that competition was an 11-0 trouncing of Chesham Generals, with Taylor and Gurney scoring four apiece. Hitchin ended the campaign in eighth position in the 11-team league.
Back in the Herts League, Hitchin remained unbeaten and won the Northern Section. They had to meet Watford Melrose, champions of the Southern Section in a title play-off. The game ended 1-1. The season’s top scorer was Taylor with 27 goals, with Anderson netting 22. At the end of the season, George Smith, one of the successes of the campaign, moved to Biggleswade.
1905-06: Victory at Stamford Bridge
Hitchin Town were the first away team to win at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground.
This forgotten landmark has been swept away from history, but it is true- the first Hitchin club, who by 1905 were known as Hitchin Town, won 3-2 at Chelsea in the South Eastern League on October 14 1905. It was Chelsea’s second eleven, but it was nevertheless a strong Chelsea side, with former Tottenham FA Cup winner Davie Copeland in the line-up. Hitchin’s team was a little makeshift, however, making the result even more impressive. Hitchin took the lead through Barker after 20 minutes but Copeland equalised for Chelsea and Harris gave the home side the lead. Barker’s long-range shot made it 2-2, and the winner came from Cannon after a “scrimmage” – the Edwardian term for a goalmouth scramble. Hitchin’s team on that memorable day was: Woodger, Smith, Allen, Stimpson, Cox, Ebden, Cannon, Grimes, Barker, Williams and Furr. A week later, Hitchin beat Chelsea at home, by the same score.
Hitchin FC FA Cup record
We all know that Hitchin played in the very first season of the FA Cup, meeting Crystal Palace (no relation to the current Palace side) on November 18 1871. The game was played in Hitchin in pouring rain and ended 0-0. Both sides went through to the next round.
1871-72 R1 Crystal Palace Home D 0-0; R2 Royal Engineers Home L 0-5
1872-73 R1 Clapham R Away L 1-3
1874-75 R1 Maidenhead Home L 0-1
1875-76 R1 Clapham R Away Scratched
1887-88 R1 Old Wykehamists Home L 2-5
1888-89 R1 Casuals Away Scratched
1898-99 PR Uxbridge Away W 2-0; R1 Aylesbury Utd Away L 1-5
1899-00 R1 Watford Away L 1-7
1900-01 Q2 Leighton Springs Away Scratched
1903-04 Q1 Leighton Springs Home W 5-0; Q2 Luton Amateurs Home W3-1; Q3 Luton Town Away L1-2
1904-05 Q3 Clapton Orient Home W 2-1; Q4 Lowestoft Town Away W 3-0; Q5 Watford Away L 0-3
1905-06 Q1 Irthlingborough Home W 6-1; Q2 Kettering Away D 2-2; Rep Kettering Home L 1-4
1906-07 Q1 Biggleswade Away D 0-0; Q2 Kettering Home W 5-0; Q3 Irthlingborough Home D 2-2; Rep Irthlingborough Away L 2-5
1907-08 PR Peterborough City Home L 1-3
Spartan League years
Hitchin’s first stint in the Spartan Lague lasted just two seasons, but was seen as a way of salvaging a club that had found semi-professionalism too much. The club turned amateur in 1908 but played just one game, a 6-0 defeat at Walthamstow Grange. If they had continued, they would have met Luton Clarence, Chelmsford, South Weald and St.Albans City.
In 1909-10, Hitchin managed to complete the season in Division B. They also fielded a team in the Northern Section of the Herts County League. But it was a tough campaign for the club, the first after a major reorganisation. Hitchin won only three of their 10 league games in the Spartan, including only one away, a 4-0 success at Newportonians. Hitchin finished fifth in the six-team division.
1910-11 proved to be Hitchin’s last before folding. The season started well, with a 4-0 win at Knebworth in the County league, but the Spartan League was much more challenging, with some early defeats at the hands of 2nd Coldstream Guards (0-7), St.Albans (0-7) and Aylesbury (2-3). In fact, Hitchin won just once in the Spartan League, a 1-0 victory against Newportonians thanks to a wonder goal by Tom King. They lost all their away games, including a 0-13 reverse at Tufnell Park.
By the end of the season, Hitchin were in a sorry state and during the summer of 1911, the club’s parlous finances pushed the club into bankruptcy. It would take 17 years to bring senior football back to the town.
Hitchin was once a town full of pubs, a lot of which have closed down or changed into other retail outlets. One of the pub names that has lived on in folklore is the Angel Vaults, which stood in Sun Street. This was one of Hitchin’s most historic hostelries, demolished in the 1950s after it was deemed unsafe. In Hitchin Town’s history, the Angel Vaults played an important role – it was at this pub, on May 2 1928, that a group of worthies met to discuss the reformation of a town club. Football in Hitchin had limped on in various guises since the old Hitchin club folded in 1915. The temperance club, Hitchin Blue Cross, playing in the Bedfordshire League, had kept the flag flying, and Hitchin Athletic
The local press contained a story one week after the meeting proclaiming that “Hitchin Town Football Club is to be revived”, as if a long buried corpse was to be exhumed. Harry Cannon was voted to the chair and he was quick to point out that “no-one would look to make a profit out of the new club”. Cannon had some competition for the chair – Mr Frederick Furr had been Chairman of the old club and prominent people like FR Shillitoe were keen to be heard. The latter was fiercely critical of the past administration, claiming that the main problem with the defunct club was that players had been paid. This was certainly true until the turn of the 20th century when the club dropped its professional status and became amateur once more.
This was a key factor in the meeting. Given that “professional” status had been the downfall of the first incarnation of Hitchin Town Football Club, was it wise to go down the same route?. The vote was narrow, however, with 30-24 in favour of the new club being a purely amateur concern.
The subject of a home ground was also a tender topic. It was generally felt that the Bedford Road Ground, which was being used by the Junior Imperial League – better than as “the Imps”, was not a good idea. One Mr Ransom was given the task of checking with the Blue Cross Brigade and the Grammar School Old Boys to see if a groundshare agreement could be reached. But the Blue Cross club was under threat in 1928 and eventually folded after Hitchin Grammar School took over their ground. After much discussion, the new club eventually struck a deal with the Imps, who sub-let the ground to the club for a fee of £ 30 per year.
A series of meetings were held into early summer, and it was decided that the club should join the Beds & District League and possibly the Herts County League. But the Spartan League was also possible and in the weeks that followed, this became the preferred option. Initially, the club also settled upon all-white as its playing kit, but this soon changed to yellow shirts and blue shorts. The nickname, “Canaries” was also born. Harry Cannon’s position also changed and one L.S. Hart was named chairman of the club with Cannon taking up the President’s role. The Angel Vaults became the club’s official temporary headquarters. At the end of May, the ground situation had still to be clarified, but by August, tenders had been put out for the grandstand.
On June 19 1928, at London’s Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street, Hitchin Town was elected to the Spartan League Second Division. The reputation of Hitchin football teams such as Blue Cross and the convincing argument raised by Hitchin officials meant they were just two votes away from being elected to the first division. News spread like wildfire around the town and surrounding villages. On August 17, more than 600 people turned up at the Bedford Road Ground to see the club’s first practice match. It was clear that there was a big appetite for the new club.
Players came from all corners of North Hertfordshire and Mid-Bedfordshire. From Ickleford came goalkeeper Tom Olney; from Whitwell came his competitor for the gloves and cap, Jim Garner; Trussell, a hard full back, was from Pirton; a handful of players, such as Wilson Gatward, Eddie Bullard and Tom Ayres were previously with Blue Cross. Cecil Burges, who would be a key figure in the club’s first season, was an experienced player with St.Albans and the county. Bob Allen, who had run team affairs at Hitchin Blue Cross, was named as the Canaries first manager.
August 25: Hitchin Town (1) 5 Waltham Comrades (0)1
Captained by Wilson Gatward, of the famous Hitchin jewellers, Hitchin trounced Waltham Comrades at Top Field in front of 1,500 people. The eager Hitchin public had to wait until just before half-time for the club’s first goal. George Pateman played the ball through to William “Buff” Barker and the inside left ran on beat Waltham keeper Boswell who had come out to meet him. Waltham equalised just after the interval, but Barker restored Hitchin’s lead. The hero of the day, however, was Charlie Davis, who scored a hat-trick in the closing stages to give the Canaries the “happy start” they were looking for.
September 1: Finchley Reserves (1)1 Hitchin Town (1)2
Hitchin’s squad was described as a “very happy family” by the Finchley officials. The Canaries went to Finchley without Bob Grimes and Wilson Gatward, both of whom received injuries in the opening game of the season. But Davis and Stan Brown, elder brother of Reg and Claude Brown, scored the goals as Hitchin continued their 100% record.
September 8: Hitchin Town (1)4 Ware (1)2
“Victory in spite of accidents,” said the headline as Hitchin won in sweltering heat at Top Field. It was a sorry debut for Tom Ayres, the former Blue Cross right half who injured his shoulder and never played for the club again. Charlie Davis scored to give Hitchin the lead, but by the interval it was 1-1. Davis went on to score another hat-trick with Stan Brown netting for the second game running. Ayres was not the only casualty, however, for Phil Crawley damaging his ankle and was stretchered off.
September 15: Polytechnic (0) 2 Hitchin Town (2)6
The Canaries made the trip to Chiswick to meet Polytechnic. Interestingly, the general public were not allowed to enter the ground, but a small band of Hitchin supporters made the trip to see their team win again. Hitchin conceded a penalty for the first time, but at the other end, Charlie Davis was on form again, scoring three goals with Harry Grimes netting twice and “Buff” Barker adding another. “Davis’ hat-trick habit,” said the headlines as the former Letchworth man made it 10 goals in four games.
September 22: Hitchin Town (1)5 Hoddesdon Town (0)0 – FA Amateur Cup Preliminary Round
A crowd of 1,690 turned up to see the Canaries’ Amateur Cup debut. Hitchin were on the offensive from the start but it took a second half onslaught to see off Hoddesdon. Barker scored two and the other goals came from Davis, Stan Brown and Harry Grimes. Cecil Burges missed a penalty.
September 29: Hitchin Town (2)4 Lea Bridge Gas (0)1
Hitchin went top of the league, taking a two point lead over fierce rivals Metropolitan Police Reserves. A large crowd had turned up to see the Canaries, with George Trussell scoring the club’s first penalty to give them the lead. Davis scored two more and Stan Brown was also on the scoresheet.
October 6: Hitchin Town (0)1 Enfield (0)3 – FA Amateur Cup first qualifying round
Enfield were a high-flying Athenian League side when they came to Hitchin and were too strong and experienced for the fledgling Canaries. A large crowd of 1,500 attended the game and it was only a late penalty by Ben Saggers that provided the consolation for the home side.
October 13: Metropolitan Police Res. (1)4 Hitchin Town (1)3
Hitchin’s first league debut came at Imber Court on a very poor pitch. Hitchin were level at the interval thanks to Albert Tasker’s first goal for the club. The strong police side went 3-1 ahead, but Tasker and Charlie Evans scored to restore parity. As soon as Hitchin had made their dramatic comeback, the police broke away and scored the winner.
October 20: Ware (0)1 Hitchin Town (1)5
Harry Wombwell, who joined the club from Walsworth just a few days earlier, scored four on his debut for the club. Wombwell impressed the local press: “he can shoot with either foot”. Evans gave Hitchin the lead and Wombwell netted four in the second half, his last goal a spectacular overhead kick. Ware were an aggressive side, and Jack Davey was carried off injured.
November 3: Hitchin Town (4)8 Ministry of Health (0)1
The grandstand at Top Field was opened on the day that Wombwell and Evans scored a hat-trick apiece against the civil servants. For the first time, the players could change in the ground. Evans scored a second half hat-trick and Burgess and Barker netted the other goals as Hitchin returned to the top of the table.
November 10: Hitchin Town (2)4 Stevenage Town (0)2 – Herts Charity Shield Round One
Hitchin’s first meeting with Stevenage ended in a bruising yet comfortable victory in the Charity Shield. Hitchin were 4-0 up by the time the visitors netted two late goals. Stevenage were hampered by an injury to goalkeeper Garner. Hitchin’s goals came from Tasker, Evans(2) and Davey.
December 1: Poplar Rovers (1)1 Hitchin Town (2)4
Twenty Hitchin supporters went down to East London to see the Canaries in action and they saw centre half and RAF airman J.C.F Thomson score twice from the penalty spot.
December 11: Hitchin Town (0)4 Baldock Town (1)2 – Herts Charity Shield
Almost 2,000 people turned up at Top Field to see the Canaries come from behind to beat neighbours Baldock. Thomson again scored from the penalty spot – a disputed award – while Baldock’s goals came from Stan Millard and Jack Oyston, who would both join the Canaries.Tasker (2) and Barker scored Hitchin’s other goals.
December 15: Welwyn Garden City (2)3 Hitchin Town (2)4
A late rally gave Hitchin a narrow victory against Welwyn on a hard and treacherous pitch. Hitchin were level at half-time, with first half goals coming from Evans and Wombwell. Welwyn led 3-2 before Jack Davey netted twice in the last 10 minutes.
December 22: Hitchin Town (5)7 Hoddesdon Town (0)1
Hoddesdon arrived at Hitchin with only six players and kicked off with a distinct disadvantage. Hitchin went a goal ahead after two minutes when Thomson netted from the penalty spot. Hoddesdon missing five eventually turned up but they were 2-0 down by this time. By the interval, Harry Wombwell had scored four times and Hitchin were 5-0 ahead. Davey and Evans added further goals in the second period.
December 26: Hitchin Town (1)1 Metropolitan Police Reserves (0)1
The Boxing Day clash at Top Field attracted over 2,000 people. The Police side was the only one to take points off Hitchin at that point and they had a 100% record. Davey gave Hitchin the lead but after intense pressure, the Police levelled to earn a point. Both teams attended Brakes Theatre in the evening.
January 5: Hitchin Town (3)4 Welwyn Garden City (0)2
A small crowd saw a difficult game for the Canaries on a hard and slippery pitch. Davey, Tasker and Thomson (penalty) all scored before half-time. Welwyn adopted a tough approach in the second half and dragged themselves back into the game, but the referee was given a hard time by the crowd, who continually barracked him – presumably because he refused to penalise the visitors’ rough play. Wombwell added a fourth for Hitchin.
January 12: Waltham Comrades (2)2 Hitchin Town (3)9
A much changed Hitchin forward line trounced Waltham with Ted Bullard scoring four times (all in the second half). Sonny Furr scored twice, Barker, Burgess and Muncey got the other goals. Waltham Comrades actually opened the scoring in this game!
January 19: Letchworth Town (1)2 Hitchin Town (2)8 Herts Senior Cup
If Letchworth had not received an early blow when their key forward was injured, the scoreline might have been a lot closer, said the local press. But Hitchin were in fine form and Wombwell scored four times with Evans (2), Thomson and Tasker netting the others. Cecil Burgess scored an own goal.
January 26: Hoddesdon Town (2)3 Hitchin Town (3)5
Hitchin went top of the table once more, two points ahead of Met.Police Reserves after this victory. Hoddesdon took an early lead, but Hitchin levelled almost immediately through Barker. By the interval, Hitchin were 3-2 ahead after goals by Evans and Davey. Tasker and Davey added further goals in the second half.
February 2: Hitchin Town (4)7 Finchley Reserves (0)0
Hitchin skipper Burgess was missing from this trouncing of Finchley but his replacement Bill Stevens, had a steady debut. Finchley had a setback when their defender Brain was carried off and taken to hospital with a lung injury. It was one way traffic throughout, with Wombwell (2), Barker (2), Evans, Davey and Thomson scoring the goals.
February 9: Hitchin Town (5)8 Boreham Rovers (0)0 Herts Charity Shield
Despite poor weather, this cup tie attracted over 1,000 people. Burgess was still unavailable and early on George Trussell was injured, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Boreham were completely outplayed and were 5-0 down at the interval. Three more goals came after the break, so Hitchin won through to the Herts Charity Shield final with ease. The goals came from Wombwell (3), Davey (2), Evans, Tasker and Thomson.
February 23: Baldock Town (2) 3 Hitchin Town (1)4 Herts Senior Cup
The British Legion Band provided the entertainment while Hitchin and Baldock served up an exciting cup tie. Not for the first time in the season, Baldock made if hard for the Canaries, going 2-0 up early on and leading 3-2 later in the game. Hitchin’s goals came from Harold Handscombe (2) and Charlie Evans (2), the former scoring the winner.
March 2: Northampton Polytechnic Institute (0)3 Hitchin Town (1)3
Hitchin received a shock from the struggling home side and could only draw in front of a crowd of just 10 people at Palmers Green, North London. Hitchin were 3-1 up, with goals from Barker, Wombwell and Thomson. But Northampton scored two late goals to earn a point.
March 9: St.Albans City (2)6 Hitchin Town (2)2 Herts Senior Cup
Hitchin had no answer to the legendary St.Albans forward Billy Minter, who scored four goals in the second half of this semi-final. Hitchin led 2-1 in the first half, thanks to goals from Davey and Thomson. A crowd of 3,000, of which 10% came from Hitchin, watched the game.
March 16: Hitchin Town (2)5 Northampton Polytechnic Institute (0)1
Hitchin gained revenge on bottom-placed Northampton for the 3-3 draw of two weeks earlier. The visitors had a major setback when two players were carried off with head injuries. Hitchin’s goals came from Evans (2), Barker, Saggers (penalty) and Ted Bullard.
March 23: Hitchin Town (2)5 Walthamstow Avenue Reserves (1)1
Despite trouncing Walthamstow, Hitchin remained a point behind Metropolitan Police Reserves. It could have been an even bigger victory but form the Londoners’ goalkeeper Cornford. Ted Bullard and Barker were both in fine form, and Bullard netted twice and Barker once. Albert Tasker also scored twice.
March 30: Hitchin Town (1)5 Letchworth Town (2)3 Herts Charity Shield
The club’s first final since reformation saw the Canaries win the Charity Shield in front of more than 2,000 people. Letchworth went ahead but Albert Tasker equalised only for Ray Dunkley – who would eventually play for Hitchin – restored the visitors’ lead. Tasker again came to Hitchin’s rescue.
Evans, Bullard and Barker gave Hitchin a 5-2 lead before Gray pulled one back for Letchworth. At the end, Hitchin’s skipper for the day, Ben Saggers, was presented with the shield, and said: “A great thing to win a county shield in our first year.”
April 6: Lea Bridge Gas (2)3 Hitchin Town (0)1
A shock defeat for Hitchin, but it could have been worse in what was probably the worst performance of the season . It was only a late goal by Davey that provided any consolation for the Canaries.
April 10: Ministry of Health (1)1 Hitchin Town (2)3
Hitchin secured their promotion place with a comfortable win at Ministry of Health in Gunnersbury Park. On a narrow pitch, Hitchin struggled to get going, but West, Furr and Cheshire scored the goals. Bullard was “in the wars” with a blooded nose.
April 13: Walthamstow Avenue Reserves (3) 6 Hitchin Town (3)6
An amazing game, watched by 1,000 people. Hitchin went 3-0 down but by half-time, it was 3-3 and then the Canaries went 4-3 ahead. At the end, it was Hitchin that had to fight back for a draw, Burges scoring as the referee was looking at his watch. “A ding-dong struggle”, said the local press. Hitchin’s scorers were Barker (3), Burges (2) and Muncey.
April 17: Hitchin Town (0)5 Polytechnic (2) 2
Hitchin were stunned by a first half display from Polytechnic that saw the Canaries go in at the interval two goals down. But a second half comeback saw the gain two more points.Tasker and Thomson brought Hitchin level in the second half, but when Webster put Hitchin ahead, the cheer from the crowd could be heard in Highbury Road. Tasker and Thomson added two more to cap a marvellous second half.
April 20: Hitchin Town (3)5 Poplar Rovers (1)1
Hitchin ended their first season since reformation with a resounding win against Poplar. The Canaries were one point behind the Met.Police, so the Spartan League Division Two (East) title would be decided on the final day of the campaign. Hitchin needed the league leaders to lose at Walthamstow Avenue and had to beat a young Poplar side. Hitchin’s result was never in doubt. Hitchin’s goals in a 5-1 win came from Wombwell (2), Burges, Tasker and Barker. The scene shifted to Brand Street, where a large crowd had gathered to obtain the score from Walthamstow – it was being posted in the window of V.H. Garratt’s shop at 7pm. The Police won, and secured the title. Nevertheless, Hitchin had enjoyed a tremendous first season since reformation!
Signed in the summer of 1928 from Meppershall. A steady goalkeeper who was ever-present in the league in 1928-29. Was a fixture between the posts until Cecil Cannon arrived at the club.
A tough full back who joined the club from Stevenage Town in September 1928. Captained the Canaries on occasions, including the Herts Charity Shield Final, and was a useful penalty taker. Stayed two seasons with Hitchin before moving on. Could also play right wing.
Trussell was a reliable player who made 184 first team appearances, scoring three goals, for the club. Arrived from Pirton Athletic as a 20 year-old, and was the first Hitchin player to make 100 appearances for the club as well as the first to score an own goal! A popular player, Trussell was said to have a strong kick and “an equally hard head”.
Former Hitchin Blue Cross player who made his debut in the club’s first game following reformation and despite a number of injuries, played a part in that debut season.
R.G. Cheshire was signed from Pirton Athletic and stayed with the club until 1929-30 season. He was mostly an inside right with Pirton, but at Hitchin played right half. He played 45 games for Hitchin, scoring 2 goals. He later became indelibly linked with Arlesey Town and was chairman for some time.
Cecil E. Burges
Known, for some reason, as “Budger”, Burges joined Hitchin from Cambridge Town, after playing his early football with Hitchin Blue Cross. He captained Hitchin British Schools and was a prolific goalscorer with Blue Cross. He then moved to St.Albans City for two seasons, winning the Herts Senior Cup with the Saints. Burges played left half on his return to his home town club, and went on to appear 40 times between 1928 and 1932. He also played cricket for Hitchin.
Pateman made his debut for Hitchin against Waltham Comrades in their opening game of 1928-29 and went on to make 124 appearances for the club, scoring four goals. Before joining the Canaries, Pateman played for Hitchin Union Jack, Hitchin Blue Cross and Walsworth. A versatile player, his favoured position was left half. He departed Hitchin in November 1933 for Stevenage.
Barker was signed from Baldock Town in the summer of 1928 and he had the honour of scoring Hitchin Town’s first goal following reformation. He also played briefly for the club in 1929-30, in total scoring 21 goals in 34 games.
Stan Brown was one of five Brown brothers to have played for the club (Reg and Claude were two of his younger brothers). He also played for Hertford Town and St.Albans City.
Pirton-born centre forward who was part of an ecclesiastical family, many of whom played for Pirton Athletic.
Centre half of left half who played for RAF Henlow.
Left winger who failed to establish himself in two seasons with the club.
Signed for the club at the back end of 1928-29 from Baldock and went on to play a key role in the
following season at centre half.
A member of the Furr family that was indelibly linked with the club for many years. Sonny, or A.S., was a tough tackling full back but was a club official right until the 1970s.
A right back from Langford, who played just one game for the club.
Tasker was known as “the happy warrior”. Born in Willian, he didn’t start playing football until after his schooldays. His first club was Baldock Athletic after which he joined Norton and then on to Letchworth. He joined Hitchin in October 1928, making his debut in the FA Amateur Cup against Enfield. Although an inside left by trade, Tasker could play in any of the frontline positions and had an excellent scoring record, netting 84 times in 135 first team games for the Canaries between 1928 and 1932-33.
A member of the well-known Hitchin jeweller family, Gatward came to Hitchin Town from Hitchin Blue Cross and was skipper for the club’s first game against Waltham Comrades. A composed left back, he was injured after two games and never played again for the club.
Although he played in the club’s first game of the 1928-29 season, Crawley struggled to maintain a first team place at Hitchin after arriving from Pirton Athletic, where he was club captain. But he was to prove to be a great clubman and played for the club until 1934-35.
A free-scoring right winger with Letchworth, Davey made an instant impact at Hitchin when he joined the club in September 1928. He stayed two seasons, making 42 appearances and scoring 25 goals.
Had a short and disastrous career at Hitchin, playing less than half an hour against Ware on September 8 1928 before being carried off to hospital with a badly injured shoulder. He had joined the club in the summer from Hitchin Blue Cross.
Grimes was a well known player in local football and played for Arlesey before coming to Hitchin in July 1928. An outside right, he failed to maintain a first team spot and spent most of the season in the reserves. His Hitchin first team career totalled five games and three goals.
Signed from Hitchin Athletic in the summer of 1928, Grimes, a left half back, played in Hitchin’s opening game against Waltham Comrades and no more.
Right winger Muncey spent three seasons as Hitchin, making his debut and scoring a goal at Waltham Comrades in January 1929.
H.C. “Charlie” Evans
An experienced inside right, Evans joined Hitchin from Leagrave and scored 19 goals in 20 appearances for the club.
Centre forward signed from Letchworth in summer of 1928. Scored a hat-trick in Hitchin’s first game against Waltham Comrades and ended the season with 13 goals in seven games.
Left back who made just one appearance for the club.
Inside left who joined the club from Biggleswade and made just two appearances for the Canaries.
Played in Hitchin’s first game at inside right, his only appearance for the club.
A Hitchin man through and through, Cyril was still attending games at Hitchin in the early 1990s. He also played for Hitchin Blue Cross in the 1920s.
Left half back who played just one game for the club.
At the end of the 1931-32 season – Hitchin’s finest to date – Tom Wooding, the club’s popular chairman, took his players and officials onto the stage at the Hermitage cinema and milked the applause of a grateful public. The club had made rapid strides and had just completed its most successful campaign. “This has been achieved through enthusiasm, loyalty, hard work and by giving a straight deal every time,” he claimed. Hitchin enjoyed a spectacular season – two trophies, fourth place in the Spartan League Premier Division and good runs in the FA Cup and FA Amateur Cup. It really was a golden period for the club.
But the Canaries’ debut in the Premier Division was something of a rude awakening. There were not many new faces in the squad, only Dick Dunkley added to a side that had been together for more than a year. At Slough, Hitchin lost by three goals which led many supporters to fear the worst. But in the very next game, Crittall Athletic were demolished by 5-1. Eddie Armitage scored four times, the first in his record 84-goal haul for the season.
Armitage went one better in the FA Cup against Davis Athletic. The FA Cup was interesting and included a 3-1 win against professional Bedford Town. But Hayes ended hopes of a first round place, thrashing the Canaries 7-1.
The FA Amateur Cup promised much with one of the most satisfying results coming in the form of a 5-1 win against Enfield, in front of 3,798 people. In the first round, Armitage was in great form as he scored all four in a 4-2 victory against the famous London side, Nunhead. The next round saw Hitchin host another great amateur institution, Walthamstow Avenue, at Top Field. A crowd of 3,350 saw Hitchin pull off a 2-1 win, a penalty from Jim Walker settling the tie. The press crowed: “Hitchin are now the premier amateur club in Hertfordshire.”
On February 6 1932, Top Field’s attendance record was broken when 6,377 turned up to watch Alf Amos’ men take on Wimbledon in the third round. Such was the attraction of the game that hundreds of people were turned away – despite the addition of some temporary wooden terracing was added to the ground for the first time. Many who failed to gain entry were from London.
Wimbledon soaked up the pressure and scored twice to win 2-0. The club was not downhearted, judging by the reaction of well-known journalist ‘Birdseye’. “The size of the crowd demonstrates that the Hitchin Town club is supplying a long felt want in the district for the best class of amateur football and that the progressive policy of the club is fully justified.”
It was the AFA Senior Cup that brought glory to Top Field. It started to get interesting in round four, when the club travelled to Cricklewood, home of Hampstead Football Club (later Hendon). Goals from Armitage and Walker, in front of another big crowd, secured a semi-final place for the second time in three years. Hitchin’s opponents in the penultimate stage of the competition? Letchworth or Midland Bank.
While the club kept several cup runs going, they had fallen away in the league, however, and by the end of February, they had played 10 games fewer than league leaders Chesham United. Between the end of September and late February, Hitchin played just three league games. When they resumed, they struck form, beating Colchester twice, Hounslow and then drawing with highly-fancied Slough. Then came the AFA Senior Cup semi-final with Midland Bank at Cambridge.
The local crowd, who had come up against Hitchin two years earlier, were right behind the Bank side. In fact, Cecil Cannon, a former Cambridge player, received a torrent of abuse. It mattered little, for the Canaries won a thrilling game 3-1 against a team dressed in the slightly dubious combination of ‘Chocolate, Green and Gold’.
Hitchin were to face Derbyshire Amateurs, members of the Midland Amateur Alliance, in the final at Dulwich Hamlet’s new Champion Hill ground. The game attracted 4,000 people and controversy was in the air from the start. Cannon was stretchered off after the Derbyshire side’s captain, Blair, charged the Hitchin keeper, leaving with facial and stomach injuries.
Hitchin took the lead after 11 minutes through Armitage and it was not until the 72nd minute that Blair equalised . Shortly afterwards, Cannon was injured and George Pateman went in goal. He kept the opposition at bay until extra time arrived. Armitage and Blair scored again in the first period and to the surprise of the crowd, Cannon returned, “amid loud cheers of friend and foe.”
The game ended 2-2 and the two teams dragged their weary limbs back to Dulwich a week later for the replay. This time, it was not a contest – Hitchin won 6-0 and Armitage grabbed four.
If the scoreline was remarkable, the reception received by the team on that Saturday night was incredible, and has probably not been matched since. The Hitchin team caught a train out of Kings Cross at 7.45pm and when they arrived home, a huge crowd was waiting. A band played rousing tunes and a procession marched through the towns as people waved nd cheered. “The Hitchin Town FC has done more than any other organisation or body of people for a good many years,” said an emotional Tom Wooding. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Hitchin Urban District Council, Mr G.H. Halsey, said: “You only have to travel through the streets as we did tonight, to see the wonderful amount of support you have in Hitchin, and the great enthusiasm taken by the people of this town in the team’s winning of this cup. Never has there been a prouder day in Hitchin than today.”
A week later, Hitchin did it again, beating Apsley 5-1 at St.Albans in the Herts Snior Cup final. It was that kind of season and Eddie Armitage rounded things off with a hat-trick. Halcyon days!
The Herts & Beds Pictorial records Hitchin’s 2-2 draw with Derbyshire Amateurs
After going close in the previous couple of years, Hitchin secured their first league title in 1934-35. And just like the second title, 68 years later, it was achieved in dramatic fashion. This was a golden period for the club, with healthy crowds, plenty of goals and a team packed with talented individuals.
But the Canaries’ season didn’t get off to the best of starts. As momentum grew, however, Hitchin started to enjoy good runs in all competitions with progress in the FA Cup and FA Amateur Cup. The Canaries reached the last 16 in the latter, eventually going out to the mighty Casuals in front of a Top Field crowd of 4,484.
The run, and continued success elsewhere, meant that by March, Hitchin had played just 11 league games. Typically, Hitchin’s big rivals were the Metropolitan Police and it was the two games with the boys in blue that many saw as the deciding games. But the Police won both games, 3-0 at Imber Court and 2-1 at Top Field. With one month of the season remaining, Hitchin had to play 14 of their 26 Spartan League games.
This was a huge challenge for Alf Amos’s side, but they rose to it magnificently. The game at Hitchin with the Police attracted 2,500 people and according to the local press, was “one of the finest struggles ever to be seen at Top Field.”
The Police finished their fixtures ahead of Hitchin, reaching 38 points. With one game remaining, Hitchin were one point behind. A tired Canaries’ side drew 0-0 at Hounslow, thanks to a fine performance from Cecil “Tiddler” Cannon. It meant that Hitchin clinched the title on goal average, by 0.07 of a goal! Cannon said of Hitchin’s achievement: “Our success is not based on individualism, but teamwork. If there is a better league than the Spartan, it will take some finding.”
The word great is an overused superlative in football, but the very word is an appropriate way to describe Reg Smith, probably Hitchin’s best ever player. Reg died at the beginning of January 2004 at the age of 91.
James Christopher Reginald Smith was born in Battersea on January 20 1912, the some of a South African rugby international. He was a pupil at the British School in Hitchin.
Before joining Hitchin Town, Reg played for Pirton. He made his debut for Hitchin on September 6th 1930 in the Canaries first ever FA Cup tie, a 0-0 draw at home to Luton Amateurs. In the 1930-31 season, the teenager made a handful of appearances for the club. “Alf Amos, our trainer, was good to work with. He created a nice atmosphere in the dressing room and he built a very good team which won the Spartan League,” he said. “Alf took the football to a new level in his time at Hitchin – we used to massacre some teams.”
Reg became an electrician while he was at Hitchin and was soon attracting the attention of senior clubs in the South of England. He signed amateur forms at Tottenham and Crystal Palace, and as a member of Hitchin’s 1935 Spartan League championship team, it was little surprise when Millwall came knocking on Hitchin’s door.
The 1934-35 season saw Reg regularly display “dazzling wing play”, according to the local press. , who reported on more Hitchin games than any other newsman, always said that Reg Smith was the finest player ever to wear the club’s colours. He played just over 100 games for Hitchin but at the start of the 1935-36 season, he signed for Milwall, just after being made captain.
At Milwall, Reg made 85 Football League appearances in three seasons before the Second World War, scoring 13 goals. In 1938 he won a Division Three South Championship medal, and his performances for Millwall won him international recognition. On November 9 1938, Reg lined up for England at St James’ Park, Newcastle, against Norway. He scored twice in that game, and the great Tommy Lawton of Everton and Ronnie Dix of Derby County scored the other goals. He won one more full cap, against Ireland at Old Trafford, a 7-0 win for England. During the war, he also won two unofficial caps in 1940 and 1941. Reg was very unassuming about his England career, which saw him play alongside the likes of Lawton and Stanley Matthews. His son, Reg Junior, said that his father was “extremely proud of representing his country. His father had represented South Africa, so he felt pleased that he had achieved something.”
During the war, Reg had spent a lot of time in Scotland and when hostilities ceased, he forged a career north of the border. He had a spell with Dundee and Dundee United, the latter as manager. In between, he was manager of Corby Town. But his greatest success as a manager was at Falkirk, where he won the Scottish Cup in 1957.
When he took over at Falkirk, he said, “I’ll have to be a miracle man to keep this lot up. At the time, I would not have bet a farthing that Falkirk would escape relegation, let alone win the Scottish Cup.”
Tall goalkeeper who joined Hitchin Town in 1930 from Cambridge Town. A member of Hitchin’s AFA Senior Cup winning side, he made his debut for the Canaries in September 1930 against Luton Amateurs in the FA Cup and went on to play almost 177 times for the club. He was capped by Hertfordshire over 50 times and also represented the Spartan League. A native of Cambridge, he was involved in the confectionary business for many years. Nicknamed “Tiddler”, he performed heroics for Hitchin on a number of occasions, notably in the AFA Senior Cup final where he played on despite being injured. He was also a pivotal figure in Hitchin’s Spartan League success of 1935, pulling off several vital saves in the title-clinching game at Hounslow, which turned out to be his last for the club. Cannon captained the team in that memorable 1934-35 season.
H.A. “Alf” Amos joined Hitchin in 1930 as Manager, Trainer, Coach and Groundsman. Born in Forest Hill, London in 1893, Alf played for Brentford and Millwall as a half-back and appeared in almost 300 Football League games. He played for Millwall in their first ever league game. Amos was immeidately successful at Hitchin, driving the club to promotion to the Spartan League Premier Division and presiding over the magnificent 1931-32 season and later the Spartan League title in 1935. In 1937, Amos resigned, claiming that the club could no longer afford to keep him. Amos was, after all, a full-time employee in an ama teur game. He could claim to be one of Hitchin’s most successful and certainly influential managers. Amos did in 1964, aged 71.
George “Ranji” Adams
A resident in Hitchin right up until his death in 2004, George Adams was known as “Ranji” for his shock of black hair and complexion. Adams made his debut for Hitchin in November 1934 in the 6-0 victory over Letchworth in the FA Amateur Cup and went on to win a Spartan League champions medal at the end of that season. Played over 200 games for the Canaries, including a handful of games after the second world war. In later life, Adams went on to be a local football referee.
The 1938-39 season was Hitchin Town’s last in the Spartan League. By the end of the campaign, a period overshadowed by concerns about war, the club had applied, and had been accepted to join, the Athenian League. The Canaries’ team was a settled one, and the summer of 1938 had seen few new significant signings by Bert Smith. Indeed the team was little changed from the previous season. There was a huge amount of confidence at the club and the early weeks of the season did little to dampen enthusiasm.
The prophets of doom began to predict a slump in the club’s fortunes owing to Luton Town’s promotion to Football League Division Two. This, they said, would affect attendances at Top Field, but crowds at Hitchin were never better, regularly topping 2,000.
A total of 15 goals rained down on Letchworth in the first week of the season, Hitchin beat their local rivals three times, 3-1, 10-0 and 2-0, two league games either side of a 10-goal mauling in the Herts Charity Cup. Strangely, after handing out such comprehensive defeats to Letchworth, the same side pulled off a shock 4-3 win at Top Field in the FA Cup. Stevenage felt the brunt of that defeat, for Hitchin beat them 8-0 in the FA Amateur Cup. This was a curious game, for Les Clarke had to take a penalty four times before the referee finally allowed a goal. Hitchin had not quite clicked into gear in the league, however, and when they lost 2-1 at Slough in mid-October, it was their second defeat in five league games.
Hitchin were still one of the toasts of amateur football and talent scouts queued up almost weekly to view their players. George “Joe” Goodyear was the next to leave, with Luton Town signing him on after an impressive start to the season. His last game was yet another meeting with Letchworth, who were beaten 4-0 at Baldock Road in the FA Amateur Cup.
Goodyear’s place was taken initially by Harold Walker, who had joined the club in the summer from Arlesey. But it was an old favourite, Les Bland who returned to fill the gap left by the 21 year-old. Hitchinís title credentials were firmly nailed to the mast when Marlow were beaten 9-1 at Top Field. “Championship football,” said the local press as Hitchin went into a 6-0 half-time lead against a side that was unbeaten on its arrival at the ground.
The next few weeks saw Hitchin produce some exciting and free-flowing football with goals aplenty. Waterlows, the league champions, were beaten 4-1 at Top Field, prompting the press to claim, “Last season’s champions did not and should not worry Hitchin”. The Canaries were now in second place, one point behind Metropolitan Police with a game in hand.
Two more rounds in the FA Amateur Cup had been successfully negotiated, the second a 3-0 win against Redhill, when the Police came to Hitchin with “the meanest defence in the league”. By now, the Hitchin forward line of Gentle, Murphy, Hailey, Clarke and Hoar was rampant and seven goals found their way into the Police net. The outcome was a 7-2 win that put Hitchin on top of the table. If that was not an indication of the strength of Bert Smith’s side, they repeated that scoreline when they travelled to Dunstable to face Waterlows a week later. Sam Hailey scored four in the first half in a game that saw Hitchin play at tremendous speed. Again the professional clubs came calling, with Wolverhampton Wanderers offering Dick Murphy and Sid Gentle trials. Tottenham also offered Gentle a run-out.
The FA Amateur Cup run came to an end in January when the Canaries lost to Tooting & Mitcham in the first round after a replay. The two teams had drawn 1-1 at Top Field but in a rain-sodden meeting at Sandy Lane, Hitchin ran out of steam.
Not so in the league, however. On February 4, Hitchin trounced Lyons Club 12-1 with Les Clarke netting four and Sid Gentle and Sam Hailey both scoring hat-tricks. But when they came up against old rivals Metropolitan Police, Hitchin’s half-back line of Bland, Wilkinson and Westwood had a bad afternoon and were beaten 3-1. They bounced back again, though, coming from 0-2 down against Windsor to win 6-3 in their next home game. Hitchin were in second place, two points behind Waterlows but with four games in hand. They were favourites to lift their second Spartan League title in five years.
Despite being out of the main cups competitions, Hitchin were still running on two county fronts. In a bizarre Herts Charity Cup game, the Canaries ran out 11-4 winners against Bishop’s Stortford in the semi-final. Meanwhile, in the county cup, they won through to the final thanks to a semi-final win against St.Albans – a game that was marred by Hitchin spectators running onto the field to complaint about St.Albans’ rough-house tactics.
Fixture congestion got the better of Hitchin and their challenge for the title. In April, they played nine league games in 20 days, winning just three of them. They finished third, five points behind the champions, Metropolitan Police and one behind second-placed Slough. Of the six games they lost, five were away.
At the end of April, Hitchin fielded a promising young forward by the name of Claude Brown, a home 2-2 draw with Hoxton Manor. Brown, an England schools international would go on to become a stalwart of the club, enjoying a long career at Top Field.
The season ended with the Herts Senior Cup being retained, Hitchin winning the replay against Leavesden by 3-0 at Letchworth. The Canaries team that day was: Roy Jones, Reg Broadbent, George Adams, Les Bland, Ivor Moyle, Bill Westwood, Sid Gentle, Dick Murphy, Sam Hailey, Les Clarke, Jack Hoar. In the replay, Gentle, Hailey and Hoar scored the goals.
The Hitchin side of 1938-39 was very close to becoming the best the club had seen. Sadly, major events outside of football would deprive it from achieving its full potential.
The Hitchin side that won the Herts Senior Cup:
Back row (left to right): Bert Smith (Manager), Les Bland, Reg Broadbent, Roy Jones, Ivor Moyle, George Adams, Bill Westwood
Front row: Sid Gentle, Dick Murphy, Sam Hailey, Les Clarke, Jack Hoar
1940-41: Woodware Won
In the Dagenham & Redbridge boardroom, there sits a wooden cup amongst the silverware and Hitchin Town’s name is the only name inscribed upon it. This unusual bauble is the Herts-Middlesex League Championship trophy, won by the Canaries in 1940-41, the first all-wartime season. Hitchin were runaway champions in that season, and the trophy, fashioned out of the mast of a ship, was handed to the club on May 3 1941, after a multi-talented Hitchin team had beaten the rest of the league 5-0 at Top Field.
The summer of 1940 marked the arrival of one Dennis Chapman, signed from Letchworth as a full back. But the rugged Chapman was forced to play up front shortly after his arrival and the result was astonishing. He scored 41 goals!
Dennis Chapman made his debut for the club on September 7 1940 at Barnet. It was a memorable game, for it Hitler’s Luftwaffe launched its first daylight raid on London. “We were leading 2-0 with about 25 minutes to go and then we had to shelter beneath the stand at Barnet. The game never restarted, but under the rules of the league, the result stood,” recalled Chapman.
Playing alongside legendary Hitchin names like Les Clarke, Jack Hoar, Bill Westwood and Larry Dolan, Chapman was switched to centre forward at the end of September due to Claude Brown’s absence. He remained there for the rest of the 1940-41 season.
In November, Chapman scored five against Golders Green in a 9-0 victory. The press was full of praise: “Chapman put in one of the best performances in the history of the club.”
Unbeaten until January 25 when they lost at Wealdstone, there was little doubt Hitchin would win the title. After Wealdstone beat the Canaries 4-3, Southall felt the backlash to the tune of 6-0. In March, Southall were pulverized once more, this time by 10-1 with both Chapman and Brown scoring hat-tricks.
In the final game, Hitchin beat old rivals Metropolitan Police 6-3 to win the title by seven points. And to cap a fine season, the Herts Senior Cup was lifted, a 3-2 win over Leavesden at Clarence Park.
In a year which was blighted by the threat of invasion, rationing, air-raids and grim news from abroad, the success of Hitchin Town did much to raise spirits locally and also underlined the view that if Adolf Hitler had not intervened, the Hitchin team of the late 1930s would have gone on to great things.
1941-42: Down to fourth
Hitchin Town’s first eleven was largely unchanged from the title winning squad of 1941. “The team picks itself,” claimed the press. For the first Herts-Middlesex Combination game, players like Jack Hoar, Dennis Chapman, Les Clarke and Phil Chamberlain (pictured right) were all present. But it was a tame start to the season. Hitchin beat Leyton 2-0, but the performance disappointed. “The Canaries were not quite up to their usual standard of crisp ‘go for it’ football,” said one report.
The lack-lustre opening was attributed to a lack of training – war work had to be done and those that were not already aligned with one of the services had other priorities. Any player attached to the Home Guard or Air Raid wardens would have his work cut out.
The team followed that 2-0 win against Leyton with a 5-5 draw at Enfield. As in previous years, goals were never a problem. Eight flew in at Tufnell Park and seven were added against Slough. At Walthamstow, Hitchin grabbed a 1-1 draw against a team that was close to pre-war strength.
The general feeling was that the Herts-Middlesex Combination was as strong as anything served up in the years preceding the war. “Amateur football is nearer pre-war standard than it has been at any time since the war started,” said the local press.
Hitchin hit the top of the table in November and were unbeaten until March when Barnet won at Top Field in league game number 20. It was the first of five defeats that effectively cost the Canaries the title. Three of those defeats came against the teams that finished above Hitchin: Walthamstow, Barnet and Leyton. Nobody scored more goals than Hitchin’s 75 goals in 24 games. In total, Hitchin scored 86 goals, with Les Clarke topping the chart with 18. No prizes for the Canaries in 1941-42, but football still provided great entertainment for the Hitchin public.
At last, Hitchin Town’s supporters could rejoice in the club’s first decent post-war team. Charlie Watkins had made some progress in 1952-53 and in the summer of 1953, he made some important new signings. Peter Hammond, who would become Hitchin’s first England international, joined from Arlesey Town, and Keith Abbiss, who would later become a professional with Brighton, was another new acquisition. Dave Sayers, a centre forward formerly with St.Albans and Bedford, also arrived at Top Field.
Not only did Hitchin enjoy their finest Athenian League campaign, they also went close to winning the title. They also enjoyed good runs in the two FA competitions.
Hammond and Abbiss both made their debut on the opening day of the season at Finchley. Hitchin were narrowly beaten 2-1, but the press said, “nothing to worry about”, recognising that the Canaries had dominated large parts of the game.
The FA Cup provided the first thrills of a season that had plenty to keep Hitchin fans excited. Leytonstone, then a major force in the Isthmian League, were beaten on their own patch in the fourth qualifying round. “One of the great days in Hitchin’s footballing history, crowed the press as Hitchin beat an experienced side. Hitchin were faster on the ball with Sayers and Johnny Ward constantly menacing up front. Ken Lawrence scored the only goal.
The first round brought a home tie with Peterborough United, the leaders of the powerful Midland League. They were one of the strongest non-league teams in the country. In goal they had the former Newcastle United custodian Jack Fairbrother. In addition, they had in defence ex-Manchester United player John Anderson. Fairbrother made a string of saves to keep “Posh” in the game. “Hitchin were their equals throughout, in fact produced the better football. Steadiness in front of goal would have made a big difference to the score,” claimed the report. Peterborough won 3-1 but Hitchin had covered themselves in glory and had attracted a crowd of 6,232 to Top Field.
When the FA Amateur Cup came around, Hitchin were named among the favourites. The run started with wins against Oxford City and Crittall Athletic and gathered momentum with a win against Erith. Barnet were then beaten after a replay, thanks to an exciting 3-1 win at Top Field in which Hammond, Abbiss and Brian Smith all won praise for their performances. The quarter-finals paired Hitchin with Crook Town, a formidable hurdle. Hitchin made the very trip North with a depleted team- Ray Kitchener was injured and early in the game, John Whitby broke a leg. Crook hammered Hitchin 10-1 and eventually won the cup.
Back in the league, hopes were high that the club could lift its first Athenian League title. The Canaries approached Easter seven point behind leaders Southall, but they had five games in hand – it could be done with a strenuous effort. Even the Hitchin officials were starting to believe it could be done. “Not for many a long day has a season ended for us in such a whirl of excitement as this one is doing,” said the club programme.
After a holiday programme that saw four out of six points gained, Hitchin were third, just four points behind Southall but three games in hand. Even so, Finchley were better placed to win the championship. With two games to go, the position had started to crystallise. Hitchin were top, but Finchley now had two games in hand. The London side win their next three games, against Southall, Hayes and Hendon, giving them the title. Hitchin were now second, three points behind Finchley – the pressure of so many games in such a short timeframe had worn out Watkins’ men. But Hitchin, as ever, were gracious in defeat and remained bullish about their own season. “Certainly we have confounded our critics and we congratulate the team on a really splendid record.”
The team was young enough to improve and had enough experienced to combat the best that the Athenian League had to offer – at least that was the popular belief as Hitchin’s finest season since 1935 came to an end.
Peter Hammond is a name that will always be synonymous with football in North Hertfordshire. In an age when amateur football was full of gentlemanly conduct, fair play and a tub and a half of brylcreem, Hammond stood for everything that was good about the game.
In a career that spanned 26 years, Hammond played for Arlesey Town, Hitchin Town, Enfield, Letchworth and Baldock Town. In 1949 he joined Arlesey Town as a winger. He moved to Hitchin in 1953 and made his debut on August 22 1953 against Finchley. His first goal came a few days later and he would eventually score 150 times for the club and was top scorer at Hitchin in 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1959. He netted five goals in one game, against Keynsham in the FA Amateur Cup. At various times, he was knocking on the door of the England amateur selectors.
He was eventually picked to play for England, becoming Hitchin’s first England amateur international. He made his only appearance on October 25 1958, playing for England against South Africa and Wycombe Wanderers’ Loakes Park. Hammond recalled his only game for his country some years later: “I matured rather late as a player and perhaps my one cap was recognition that I had a good career. I did not hear from them again.” Earlier in his career, Hammond signed amateur forms with Luton Town and also turned out for the “A” teams of Portsmouth, Arsenal, QPR and Tottenham. There were other representative honours – he played more than 30 times for Hertfordshire and countless times for the Athenian League and FA XIs. He was picked for Middlesex Wanderers.
In 1961, he had a year with Enfield but returned for a brief spell when the club moved from Athenian to Isthmian leagues. He finally departed in 1964. “I was sad to leave Hitchin. The team spirit was marvellous and we were all friends,” he recalled. For a while he played for Letchworth and then became player-manager at Baldock Town. He guided Baldock to three South Midlands League titles in six years. He finally retired from playing in 1973.
Keith Abbiss was born on April 26 1932 in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. He was just 17 when he made his debut for the Canaries, a friendly against Clacton at Top Field in March 1950. The following season, in September, he made his first team bow proper, lining up on the left wing at home to Hayes. Although he made 25 appearances in 1950-51, national service got in the way for a couple of season and it was not until 1953-54 that he became a regular in the Canaries side. He caught the eye of professional clubs in that season, playing a prominent part in Hitchin’s FA Amateur Cup run to the quarter-final stage and a runners-up spot in the Athenian League. In the ill-fated game at Crook Town on February 20 1954, Keith played in the centre forward berth. He played in a number of positions, from right half to left wing, but it was as a half back that most people consider to be his most effective role. Halfway through 1954-55, Keith had a spell away from the club, but he returned in December 1955 to once more contribute to another FA Amateur Cup run. His two goals at Brigg Sports were enough to send Hitchin through to the third round where they played against Wycombe Wanderers, a game that attracted a record 7,878 people to Top Field. He played in that memorable game, but in a few weeks, he had fallen out with the club. Legend has it that Keith was asked to play in the outside right position and refused. News reports of the time suggested an impasse between club and player and this led to him being released at the end of the 1955-56 campaign after a Top Field career amounting to 100 games and 30 goals. He joined Letchworth in the close season of 1956. In October 1957, Keith Abbiss joined Brighton & Hove Albion and went on to play 19 Football League games, scoring three goals.
Ray Kitchener was a member of the Hitchin team that finished runners-up in the Athenian League and reached the FA Amateur Cup quarter finals in 1953-54. “Fortunately for me, I didn’t play in the quarter final defeat at Crook (a 1-10 record score),” he says. “I was injured just prior to that game, so I was spared that.” Towards the end of that season, he was approached by then Chelsea manager Ted Drake, who told him he was being watched. “Ted wanted me to join Chelsea, but I was not sure. I was close to winning an England cap and I really wanted to achieve that,” recalls Ray. His hopes of a cap had been heightened by George Robb – then a fixture in the national side – moving to Tottenham. But it was not to be. Drake offered to take Ray on a club tour of North America, to see how he liked a taste of the professional game. “It was a marvellous experience and at the end of the six-week tour, I joined Chelsea.” The 1954-55 season saw Chelsea land the League Championship and their reserves also won their title. Ray picked up a Football Combination winners’ medal and played with men like Bobby Smith, later to win the coveted double with Tottenham. During his time at Chelsea, he played one Football League game, alongside such luminaries as Roy Bentley. He moved on to Norwich City in 1957 before winding down his career in the Eastern Counties League.
History was made in 1958. Hitchin Town played host to Football League opposition for the first time in the FA Cup. In just 12 months since Laurie Scott’s appointment, Hitchin had gained some sort of national eminence by not just reaching the first round, but by taking the London side to two games. The FA Cup also provided much needed revenue for a club that only months earlier, was scrambling around for cash.
Laurie Scott continued his team building in the summer of 1958. Chairman Ken Griffin called for “vocal encouragement…please”, and described the Hitchin squad as a “team of possibilities and prospects.” New signings in the close season included Henry Bird from St.Albans, John Lusty from Letchworth and a trio of young players – Freeston, Puthian and Guile – from Welwyn. There was also the aptly named Wally Wing, an outside left from Cambridge and Michael Laing from Stockton.
David Hills, a player who would make an immediate impact and go onto greater things, made his debut on the opening day of the season. It was a much better start than in previous years with the Canaries going six games unbeaten, including a 2-0 win over East Anglian Cup, the first tie played by the club in that competition. But the season’s first defeat was in the next round when Bedford Town won 4-0 at the Eyrie. The first FA Cup hurdle was comfortably dealt with, a 6-2 win over Dunstable Town with Gordon Guile scoring a hat-trick.
In October the club was overjoyed when Peter Hammond became the first Hitchin player to be selected by England. Hammond, always a popular figure at the club since arriving in 1953 from Arlesey Town, played for his country against South Africa at Wycombe’s Loakes Park.
The FA Cup run continued with a 4-3 win at Stevenage Town, a game played before a tiny crowd after the original fixture was abandoned after 38 minutes. In the third qualifying round, Vauxhall Motors, so often a stumbling block in the past, were beaten 2-0 and then came a bruising encounter with Woodford Town, which was won 3-2 after a tense replay. That put Hitchin into the first round where they were paired with Millwall of the Third Division.
This was a high point for the club. “Whatever the result this afternoon, this is an occasion which will go down in the history of this old club of ours, the first league visitors to Top Field,” said the matchday programme. A crowd of 3,986 attended the tie and Hitchin their illustrious hosts a run for their money. Bernard Joy of the Evening Standard, was impressed by the amateur side’s pluck. In the 64th minute, the Canaries stunned Millwall: “A strange referee’s decision led to Hitchin taking the lead in 64 minutes against the run of play. Figg appeared to charge Brady over as they ran for the ball, but the referee gave a free kick against Millwall. Figg pushed the ball square and Hammond lobbed in a shot which cleared Davies’s outstretched hands and dropped under the bar.” Ten minutes later, Summersby scored from the spot to keep Millwall, who were seventh in the third division at the time, in the Cup. The replay, two days later, saw Millwall win by the odd goal in three, but there was consolation in the form of a £ 917 6s 6d share of the 18,865 gate.
Amid the euphoria of pitting their wits against such highbrow opposition, league form had fallen by the wayside. The FA Amateur Cup saw the club return to knockout mode in a bid to recapture the spirit of Millwall. Faversham Town were beaten in Round One, but once again, Corinthian Casuals ended Hitchin’s hopes, this time 4-1 sat the Oval. The first league win since November came in late January, but by this time, Scott’s side were in desperate need of points to haul them away from the bottom end of the league table.
In the wake of the cup run, Brian Smith and John Whitby both returned to the club from Letchworth, but on February 7, David Hills made his last appearance for the club before joining West Ham as a professional. Hill, who would late return to Hitchin in a management role later in his career, had previously signed amateur forms with Manchester United.
The season was in danger of getting out of control, though. League wins were scarce and a poor Easter, combined with 11 games without a win to end the season, saw Hitchin finish third from bottom in the 16-team Athenian League. Injuries to key players such as Brian Figg and Henry Bird had weakened an attack that produced just 37 goals in 30 games. But when all was said and done, the memory of Millwall, the cap for Peter Hammond and the nurturing of David Hills, made the 1958-59 campaign notable in many ways.
The 1960-61 season ranks among the finest in Hitchin Town’s history. Hitchin Town 1960-61Manager Laurie Scott had started to assemble a useful side over the previous two years and in the summer of 1960, he had secured the services of Terry Waldock, a move that many considered to be the “final piece of the jigsaw”. Other new faces included Peter Cox, also from Finchley and Dennis Randall from Vauxhall Motors. Waldock and Randall would form on the most potent attacks in the Canaries’ history.
Just days before the season got underway, Don Birdsey, writing in the local press, said: “Hitchin should do better this time.” These were prophetic words, indeed.
Hitchin fired on all fronts in 1960-61. Although they failed to win any of their first four games – conceding six goals in two of those fixtures – as 1960 drew to a close, goals started to flow in the right direction. But it was the FA Cup that provided much of the excitement in the early months. Biggleswade (4-0), Vauxhall Motors (3-0), St.Albans (4-0) and Abingdon (2-0) were despatched to give Hitchin a first round tie at Crystal Palace. The London side were top of the Third Division South at the time, and expected a crowd of 20,000 for the tie. The Canaries lost 6-2, but were by no means disgraced, with Charlie Turner having an outstanding game keeping Palace at bay.
After going out of the FA Cup, Hitchin turned their attention to the Athenian League. Leyton were beaten 10-0 (Randall scoring four), Finchley 9-3 (another Randall treble) and Enfield 3-2. Between December 10 and February 25, Hitchin won seven of their eight league games to emerge as genuine title contenders.
Ford United provided Hitchin’s first opposition in the FA Amateur Cup. Newspaper cartoon, Crystal Palace v Hitchin TownThe Canaries won 4-0. “To my knowledge, nobody has tipped Hitchin as possible cup winners. But this was the sort of performance which must make a lot of clubs sit up and take notice,” noted the match report.
Southall were beaten 3-2 in the next round, with the injured Randall heading what proved to be the winner. Randall was the hero again in round three, scoring two goals as the Canaries beat Ferryhill Athletic in front of more than 5,000 people. The quarter final sent Hitchin to Loughborough Colleges to play against a team of Physical Education instructors. The college side had a certain pedigree, having beaten Bishop Auckland and Corinthian Casuals on the way to the last eight. The pitch was surrounded by a bank of grass and a series of duckboards.
The game captured the imagination of the locals as well as a huge band of Hitchin supporters who travelled to the game. The Canaries’ performance is considered to be a high point for Laurie Scott’s talented side as a 5-1 scoreline suggests. The press was full of praise. “If Hitchin can keep this form up, nothing can stop them from winning the FA Amateur Cup.” But there was something in Hitchin’s way – Walthamstow Avenue.
There was a blow for Hitchin in the week preceding the semi-final at White City – a stadium that would host one 1966 World Cup tie. Terry Waldock was injured and ruled out of the tie. Scott shuffled his pack and brought in Jeff Cowan. The game was a tight affair, but it was settled by a controversial penalty, awarded after the ball had bounced onto Cowan’s arm. Jim Lewis, who played in Chelsea’s 1955 championship side, buried the kick past Turner.
Hitchin were crestfallen but returned to league action in a bid to win the title. They still had 10 games to play. Three wins after White City suggested they could win it, but three other clubs were in the hunt – Hendon, Wealdstone and Barnet. Hitchin’s last three games were all against the challengers.
After a good Easter, the Canaries lost at home to Southall, a game which saw a crowd disturbance as one frustrated supporter invaded the pitch in frustration. The truth was, however, that this defeat proved very costly. Hitchin had run out of steam and won just once in their last five games, finished fifth, six points behind champions Hendon. But Hitchin officials were delighted with the 1960-61 season. “It will be a long time before we forget those great Amateur cup wins…with a little more luck, we would have won the title.” There was one prize, however- the Herts Charity Cup.
Dennis Randall joined the Canaries in 1960, taking over from Peter Hammond in the centre forward role. “I came into a very good side, with two excellent wingers in Roger Figg and Tony Horne and a goalscoring inside forward in Johnny Graves,” recalled Dennis.
He was renowned for his heading skills. “I must have scored 60% of my goals with my head, but in truth, the players I had around me made it easier for me.”
Dennis credits Laurie Scott for sharpening up his game. “I basically stepped up a grade when I came to Hitchin and Laurie worked very hard with me. I was always very tired after training!”
He had scored prolifically for Vauxhall Motors and the Athenian League was a better standard of football. He made his debut for Hitchin on August 20th 1960 at Southall and in his first season, he scored 52 goals in 42 games. The following season, he scored 51 goals in 44 games.
He won two England amateur caps in 1962, “a great honour”, and regrets that the Canaries didn’t win the FA Amateur Cup. “We should have done better against Walthamstow Avenue in the semi-final,” he remembered. “If we had been less shy and taken our chances, we would have gone all the way.”
He recalled many of the players from that fine team. “Bruce Spavins was a hell of a player and Charlie Turner was an excellent keeper. Johnny Graves made my game and Tony Horne was a brilliant crosser of the ball.”
Dennis left Hitchin in 1962, and turned semi-pro with Kettering in the Southern League. “I was getting married at the time and the move was good financially, but Laurie tried to keep me. But that Hitchin team was fantastic to play in and I enjoyed my two years with the club.”
Terry Craddock was one of coach Laurie Scott’s best signings for the Canaries and became one of the great characters on and off the pitch in a golden era for the club.
He had come to Hitchin’s attention as an inside forward, appearing against the Canaries in August 1957 for Letchworth Town. A much-coveted youngster, Craddock signed for Hitchin in 1959. Earlier in his career he played for the England Boys Club team and was on the books of Queens Park Rangers. He also won England schoolboy honours.
Craddock made his Hitchin debut on August 22 1959 against Redhill at Top Field. He scored his first goal for the club on September 26 1959 against Carshalton in a 3-2 win for the Canaries. Initially an inside forward, on either side of the field, in his first season, Craddock was top scorer with 17 goals. But he developed into one of the best half backs in the amateur game, possessing great energy and a blisteringly hard shot.
In 1906-61, Hitchin narrowly lost in the FA Amateur Cup semi-final to Walthamstow Avenue and although many people felt the Canaries froze on the day, Craddock was totally unperturbed by the occasion. An ebullient figure, he was very much at the heart and soul of Laurie Scott’s team.
Two years later, Craddock was in the Hitchin side that missed out again at the penultimate stage of the competition, losing 4-0 to Sutton at Fulham’s Craven Cottage.
Craddock made 271 competitive appearances for the Canaries, scoring 58 goals. He later played for Baldock Town.
Charlie Turner at Loughborough in the FA Amateur Cup Quarter-Final. Turner’s opposite number on a memorable day was Bob Wilson, who went on to play for Arsenal and Scotland. Wilson was injured in the game, but played on with cracked ribs.
Vince Burgess took over as manager of Hitchin Town in the final weeks of the 1967-68. This was a bold move on the part of the club. Burgess was a well respected figure in amateur football and was used to winning things. Since joining the Isthmian League in 1963, Hitchin had struggled and the Laurie Scott era had been washed away. After surviving a series of financial and reputational setbacks, the club wanted to move on again and Burgess was seen as the man to drive that.
In the summer of 1968, the amiable schoolmaster started to bring new players to the club. These were just not local lads who had plyed their trade at neighbouring clubs. The first to arrive was England amateur international full back Ian Reid, which was considered to be something of a coup for the club. Reid was not only a fixture on the international scene, but he was accustomed to winning medals, with Crook Town and Enfield. A few days later, John Ashworth joined the club, a centre-half in the old fashioned mode who was a leader on and off the pitch. Ashworth was also a much celebrated player and when the news leaked out that Hitchin had secured the services of two highly coveted players, expectations started to rise.
The real “acid test” came at the start of September when Enfield, the reigning Isthmian champions, visited Top Field. This provided a benchmark for the team that Burgess was assembling. He was not present for the game, and missed a scintillating performance by his team in a 3-2 victory over the side widely tipped to regain the title. The media provided some pointers for the absent manager: “If anyone had any doubts as to just how good Hitchin Town are this season, they must have been dispelled on Bank Holiday Monday.”
Hitchin clicked into gear and on October 1, went to the top of the Isthmian League for the very first time. The Canaries won 1-0 at Hendon, then managed by Charles Hughes, who was also in charge of England amateurs’. Hitchin were strengthened by the arrival of Hugh Pratt, who joined from Corinthian Casuals. The team was now settling down into a consistent combination of Charlie Turner in goal, Johnny Brookes and Ian Reid at full back, a half-back line of Maurice Howkins, Ashworth and the uncompromising Peter Robinson, and a forward line composed of a permutation of Martin Gladwin, Ray Harper, Tony Harley, Pratt and the inimitable duo of Roy Cutler and Bernie Gogan. The two forwards had started to strike up a near-telepathic relationship on the pitch. “The goal-scoring twins,” was how one newspaper described a duo that were firm friends on and off the field. They netted 43 league goals between them in 1968-69 and former a partnership that was feared throughout the Isthmian League.
But Gogan started the 1968-69 campaign relatively slowly, but he came to life against Corinthian Casuals, scoring four of Hitchin’s goals in a 6-0 drubbing. “On this form, Hitchin are very much in line for the championship,” claimed the report. Injuries started to have an impact on Burgess’ side, however. Howkins, Ashworth and Brian Baigent were all sidelined and this gave Burgess the opportunity to field a young winger by the name of Paul Giggle. He made his debut at Woking, a game won 2-1. The new boy, who would go on to become a club legend over two decades, made a good impression: “Giggle, making his debut, did enough to earn a second outing at Corinthian Casuals. Although inclined to a do a little too much running in the early stages, he later showed he will be more than useful once he adjusts to the pace of the Isthmian League.”
At the end of November, Hitchin picked up a morale-boosting draw at Enfield. “Step aside, we’re ready to take over,” said John Ashworth after his side had earned a point in a great tactical battle. But December was not a good month although the FA Amateur Cup campaign got underway with a win in Norwich against the Old Boys Union, and a Top Field victory against Stowmarket. The run ended at Slough by 0-4, with an erratic and injury-hit Canaries side clearly out-of-sorts. Burgess refused to panic but instead revised his pre-season target of a top six finish to a placing in the first three.
March was the make-or-break month as Hitchin’s indifferent form and a backlog of fixtures, sent them down the table to fifth and seven points behind Sutton United. All realistic hopes of the title were dashed at St.Albans, however, when the Canaries were beaten 7-0. As the players left the field, Hitchin fans called out to Burgess, “Hurry up and bring in Charlie Townsend,” referring to the club’s interest in Wealdstone’s former England international midfielder. But such a defeat, a veritable humiliation, signaled the beginning of the end of any hopes of winning the top prize.
Townsend, despite his obvious talent and experience, arrived too later to affect the destination of the Isthmian League title, but he did help to stabilize a ship that was listing. There was enough momentum, though, to secure second place – five points behind champions Enfield – which was confirmed with a 2-0 win against Woking, thanks to two goals from Ian Reid. “It’s champagne and cheers as Hitchin finish second,” said the headline, while another report commented: “Hitchin’s loyal fans finally stopped living in the past….the new look Canaries, sported three full internationals and several players on the verge of honours. Vince Burgess has welded the makings of a fine side.”
Indeed it was an impressive side, but sadly, it stayed together all too briefly. Since those halcyon days, the club has never quite captured the spirit of 1968-69.
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 right), 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.
In the 1960s, Hitchin’s big goal was to reach the FA Amateur Cup final. The club craved national recognition but had to be content with a scandal, a museum and two semi-finals to make the headlines. In 1976-77, the FA Cup gave them some national emimence for their exploits on the field.
It was Andy Williams’ first full season as manager. He brought in Chris Wright as coach – later a successful sports administrator in the US – and released a crop of players who had served the club well in the past. New faces included Ray Brimson from Hemel Hempstead and former Dulwich Hamlet midfielder Hughie Wilson.
Hitchin lost their opening league game against Leatherhead but earned two good victories against Woking and Bishop’s Stortford shortly afterwards. A 13-match unbeaten run consolidated the Canaries’ position among the leaders with notable wins against Wycombe, Slough and Hendon. But as league leaders, Hitchin lost 0-3 at home to Tilbury and by November, Hitchin were second in the table, one point behind Wycombe but with three games in hand.
The Canaries were firing on all fronts, however, and made good progress in the London Senior Cup and FA Trophy. The FA Cup trail started at Dover Athletic in the fourth qualifying round. Hitchin were two-down within 37 minutes, but recovered to draw 2-2, thanks to an own goal and a rare strike from Kevin Hammond. The replay was won comfortably 3-1 with Peter Watson netting a hat-trick. The win set-up an intriguing tie with monied Weymouth, who included former Ipswich forward John O’Rourke and Coventry old boy Deitmar Bruck. The first round tie in Dorset ended 1-1 with Hitchin adopting a robust approach that earned the chants of “animals” from the locals.
The replay at Top Field also ended all-square, with substitute Paul Giggle scoring a last-gasp equalizer to make it 2-2. The tie moved on to neutral territory, Aldershot, and once more the balance of power swung from team to team. The final score this time was 3-3, making a third replay necessary at Salisbury. This time, Hitchin won 3-1, with Watson scoring twice and playing the latter stages with a broken toe.
Hitchin’s prize was a home second round tie with Swindon Town of the old Football League Third Division. The Hitchin public were wary of this tie as the previous meeting with a League club had seen some trouble in the town. The local bookmakers made Hitchin 6-4 favourites and even Danny Williams, the Swindon manager, admitted that the Isthmian Leaguers were “far better than I expected” after watching Watson, Giggle & Co.
Watson was the subject of some anxiety as his broken toe was still playing up. He was tipped as the matchwinner by many people and his form had been exceptional leading up to the game. A crowd of 4,827 turned up for the tie, somewhat smaller than some predictions. The pitch was fairly hazardous on a freezing December afternoon. Wilf Dixon gave Swindon the lead in the 35th minute with a shot that hit both posts as it went past Brian Godfrey and Neill Bunker equalized in the second half to spark a pitch invasion, mostly comprising young boys. Hitchin came out of the game with a lot of credit and the third round draw promised even greater excitement as the winners would meet a Fulham team that contained George Best, Bobby Moore and Rodney Marsh.
The replay took two attempts to determine an outcome, but that was down to the weather. The first meeting, during which Hitchin were pulverized into submission, was abandoned after 67 minutes due to thick fog. Swindon were leading 1-0. Four days before Christmas, Hitchin’s FA Cup run was over, Swindon winning 3-1 in extra time, largely to the fresh impetus of substitute Don Rogers, as much a local hero as Paul Giggle was at Hitchin.
The FA Trophy was next for Hitchin. In between the Swindon games, the Canaries had beaten Kings Lynn 3-0 in one of their best displays of the season. Romford were beaten next, by 4-0, sending Hitchin to Bangor in Wales. The first meeting with the Welshmen was drawn before another great midweek cup-tie ended with a 2-1 win for Hitchin. Into the last 16, the draw brought mighty Scarborough to Top Field. The game ended 0-0, although Giggle had the chance to pull off a shock win but hit the post with a fierce shot that rebounded way up the field. In the replay, despite playing well, Hitchin were beaten 3-1.
It was now March and Hitchin still had 24 games to complete, including three semi-finals. The two county cups were successful, but the London Senior Cup saw Hitchin steamrollered by a Wimbledon side on the brink of Football League membership.
Although a final league placing of ninth was below early-season expectations, Hitchin ended the campaign with silverware in the form of the Herts Senior Cup and Herts Charity Cup. By the middle of May, they had played in excess of 70 competitive games – it had been a memorable, if exhausting, season.
After the highs of the 1970s, characterized by some exciting cup runs, the 1980s saw Hitchin Town fall into decline, climaxing in relegation in 1988.
It was no surprise when the Canaries dropped out of the Isthmian Premier in 1988, but what was disturbing for the club was the fall in attendances, the constant change in strategy and management and the apparent loss of faith from the town.
In 1979-80, the signs of decline were evident, encapsulated in a 10-0 debacle at Slough. Hitchin finished 12th in the league, but a drastic cut in wages at the club meant that the Canaries went into the summer of 1980 downcast.
“We are three to four years behind the times,” said secretary and long-time club stalwart Cyril Buck as the club prepared for the new season. In the summer, there had been several changes to the management structure of the club. David Morgan became chairman and Gerald Lincoln was appointed financial director. “People have to realize that the club has to be run as a business,” said Lincoln, adding that he felt there was a lot of untapped potential at Top Field.
Despite restricted finances, manager Ray Freeman had been ringing the changes in his squad. New arrivals included Bobby Folds – father of future Hitchin captain Liam Folds – from Bedford, Peter Adnams from Harlow Town, Steve Mahoney from Hertford Town (right) and the experienced Terry Mortimer.
On the debit side, Bill Baldry and Steve Hodge had left for Barton Rovers, George Cooper had returned to St.Albans City and former captain Ray Brimson had moved to Milton Keynes.
Despite the gloom, the new-look Canaries began the season in tremendous form. Carshalton and Boreham Wood were both beaten by three goals and when Hitchin recorded their first ever win in the Isthmian League Cup – against Southall & Ealing – Top Field regulars could be forgiven for expecting a memorable season.
In the FA Cup, Hitchin explored foreign territory when they began their campaign in the first qualifying round for the first time in seven years. Rushden Town (the forerunners of Rushden & Diamonds, one of non-league’s first ‘super clubs’) were beaten 3-0, setting up a tie with Gorleston that the Canaries won by a single goal, scored by Paul Giggle.
To add firepower to the Hitchin attack, Freeman brought in a young forward named Micky Small (left) from Luton Town. The Hatters’ manager, David Pleat, was keen to test the ability of a raw and untried youngster in senior football and sent him out on loan to Hitchin until the end of 1980-81. It was a move that would prove fruitful for both player and club. Small scored on his debut against Harrow, earning the headline, “Small is a big hit”. He also linked up well with Giggle and Mahoney. Suddenly, Hitchin’s season had a different look about it.
The FA Cup run continued with a rousing game with Bedford Town at Top Field. Hitchin won 3-2, a scoreline that flattered the visitors after the Canaries took a three-goal lead, allowing the troubled Eagles two late consolations.
This meant Hitchin were one game away from reaching the first round proper again and were drawn at home. Their opponents were Sutton Coldfield Town, the West Midlands League champions. On a dismal day, the visitors netted a last minute goal to go through. Hitchin’s Terry Mortimer had earlier missed a penalty. “It was easy to understand why Hitchin’s dressing room was like a morgue after Saturday’s fourth qualifying round tie. They simply threw away the chance of a plum draw in round one and a chance to get back to the glory days of the mid-70s,” said the local press.
Three days later, Hitchin bounced back with one of the most startling performances in their Isthmian League history, a result that “sent shock waves racing through non-league football,” as they visited the impregnable fortress that was Enfield’s home ground.
Enfield were beaten 5-2. They were the reigning Isthmian champions, unbeaten at home and one target for another title. Hitchin were in 17th place and at a low ebb after tumbling out of the FA Cup.
Enfield even took the lead before Small (2), Mortimer and Mahoney (2) scored the goals that beat the Middlesex side. “Brilliant Canaries,” said one headline, while Don Birdsey called it “our finest ever Isthmian result.”
Another impressive performance followed when Hitchin beat ambitious Billericay Town 3-0 in the FA Trophy. “We played like a dream,” said Freeman.
Off the field, the four leading clubs in North Herts – Hitchin, Baldock, Letchworth and Stevenage – announced an innovative lottery scheme that would benefit the consortium. Unfortunately, the scheme was short-lived.
There were also problems with the returning winger Colin Barnes, who came back from a stint in Australia and began touting his services around local clubs, despite being under contract to Hitchin. The issue had to be decided at the Football Association, but Barnes, who was top scorer in 1979-80, would never play for Hitchin again. A couple of welcome league victories raised spirits before the FA Trophy tie with Dover, a game that was won 5-2, thanks to a hat-trick from Mahoney.
A superb away display was lapped up by the media. “Hitchin have the scent of Wembley in their nostrils.” But cup success could not disguise the fact that Hitchin were struggling in the league. Two days before the end of 1980, Harlow won 1-0 at Top Field, sending the Canaries to the bottom of the table. This seemed to spur the team on, for results improved almost immediately.
There was a major new signing in the form of Andy Pearson, who joined from Luton Town. A winger with an eye for goal, Pearson was a contemporary of Gary Sisman and Micky Small and a host of other future Hitchin players.
Needless to say, more Trophy progress was made with a 2-1 victory over Tooting & Mitcham. It brought a return trip to Boston United, the scene of Hitchin’s 1973-74 FA Cup defeat. This time, Hitchin came away with a 1-0 win, claiming a place in the last 16. It was a brave performance by Freeman’s men, with Folds needing 17 stiches in a head wound and Kevin Hammond limping off injured. The winning goal, ironically given the events of 1973-74, was an own goal. Freeman was buoyant. “Our defence was magnificent….we simply don’t fear anyone in the next round.”
The draw brought the Canaries a tie with Bangor City of the Northern Premier League. Bangor feared Hitchin’s striking power, notably the way in which Small, Mahoney and Pearson played together. A run of seven league games without a win came to an end at Harrow, who were fourth in the table. All three strikers got on the scoresheet in a 4-0 win, sending Hitchin to Wales in fine spirit.
Like Boston in the previous round, Bangor were old acquaintances, having experience two battles with the Welshmen in the 1976-77 FA Trophy. Hitchin won through that time, but they lost this meeting by a single goal. As in 1977, the road to Wembley ended in the last 16. “Bangor deserved to win, but they did not look as good as the Boston team the Canaries beat in the last round,” said one report.
An injury-hit Hitchin side lost to a 26th minute goal. Leaving them with the vital task of improving their league position. Two more names had since arrived from Luton in Les Harriott and John Woodward, with the former being the subject of a small fee.
At the end of March, it was announced there would be no relegation from the Premier Division due to Dagenham and Enfield, both defecting to the Alliance Premier Division (Conference to be). Perhaps it was just as well, for Luton Town, receiving rave reviews on their player, recalled Micky Small to Kenilworth Road. His last game was a 1-0 win against eventual champions Slough, a game in which Mahoney scored his 34th goal of the season, the highest total by a Canaries forward since 1969-70. The league programme ended with no wins in four games and a final placing of 13th.
There had been some high spots, some great games and some fine individual performances. Hitchin fans would forget the games with Enfield, Dover and Boston in a hurry.
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…
What next for Hitchin? That was the question being asked by the Top Field faithful as they looked back on two enjoyable seasons.
After a promotion and consolidation in the Isthmian Premier, the Canaries would go on to claim national headlines the FA Cup. But the summer of 1994 was a little uneasy for the club. Steve Conroy, leading scorer in 1993-94, had defected to Stevenage, and the influential Rob Johnson – about to embark on a career in physiopherapy – left to join his home town club, Bedford.
Andy Melvin brought in Ian Rutherford, an honest forward with an average goalscoring record, and the veteran midfielder Stefan Emmanuel. Both struggled to fill the boots of Conroy and Johnson. To make matters worse for Melvin, the experimental “kick-in”, replacing throw-ins, was being tested by the Isthmian League. Melvin was among the fiercest critics of the experiment and his mood seemed to affect the Hitchin team.
Hitchin were held on the opening day by Kingstonian at Top Field and a couple of days later, an accomplished performance at Purfleet, highlighted with some fine goals from Ian Scott and Shaun Marshall. But then, for a period lasting some months, the league programme seemed to bypass Hitchin. The team looked to lack fitness and passion and the crowd was getting restless. Furthermore, the team’s discipline was found wanting – Steve Miller, Paul Price and Gary Williams were all sent off in the first half dozen league games.
The FA Cup offered some respite, but there were some sticky moments in the first qualifying round tie at Newmarket, the bloodstock capital of Britain. The Eastern Counties League side led 1-0 but goals from Tony Caines and Mark McGonagle gave Hitchin a 2-1 win. The winning goal was scarcely a classic and may have been stopped by the Newmarket keeper if the rutted surface had not deceived him. “You lucky buggers,” he said as the final whistle was blown. McGonagle didn’t see the en d of the game having been sent off and it was almost his last contribution of the season as he seemed to drift out of contention.
The next round was dramatic. With barely a minute remaining against Tiptree United, Hitchin were 1-3 down at Top Field. The home fans were streaming out of the ground, assuming the cup run was over. “I was ready to throw the towel in, give someone else a chance to run the team,” said Andy Melvin. But then, the game – and possibly Hitchin’s season – changed. Gary Williams pulled one back in the 90th minute, but it was still seen as nothing more than consolation. Hitchin dashed forward again and Gavin Covington raced down the flank, crossing for Williams who bravely dived amongst a sea of torsos to equalise. Cometh the man, cometh the hour! 3-3.
The replay was not quite a formality, but it was certainly comfortable for Hitchin, running out 4-2 winners among the allotments and cottage gardens than fringed Tiptree’s ground.
When the pre-drawn FA Cup draw was made in the summer, it looked as though Hitchin would meet Stevenage in the third qualifying round, but Cambridge City surprisingly won 2-0 at Broadhall Way. It set up another exciting tie with Williams coming to the rescue again, making the score 3-3 with just second remaining. The replay was even more compelling, with Marshall scoring two sublime goals and Paul Price, a former FA Cup winner, heading the winner to send Hitchin through to the fourth qualifying round by a 3-2 scoreline.
Hitchin’s FA Cup journey took them to Burton Albion with a place in the first round proper at stake. This was one of the great Hitchin away performances, against a team that was riding high in the Southern League Premier. Shaun Marshall tormented the Burton back-line and in the 32nd minute, scored the sort of goal that was becoming his trademark in 1994-95. Hitchin held on to win 1-0, thanks to a superb defensive display and Marshall’s virtuosity to secure a first round place for the first time since 1978. The draw for the first round paired Hitchin with Football League Division Three side Hereford United.
League form continued to be erratic but by now, Hitchin had their minds of other things. The game at Hereford captured the imagination of the public and some people felt this may be the Canaries best ever chance of claiming a scalp. Hereford were, after all, scrambling around the foothills of the Football League.
On Saturday November12 1994, a damp morning, the Hitchin party left for Hereford. The team and officials stopped for lunch at Ross-on-Wye and were treated like minor celebrities. When the floodlights came into view, the buzz on the coach became a noticeable silence. If there were pre-match nerves, it did not show in the game, for Hitchin played with tremendous spirit at Edgar Street and two moments of brilliance by Marshall – in the 29th and 43rd minute – gave Melvin’s side a 2-0 lead. Hitchin’s fans, massed behind the goal, some 500 strong, could not believe their luck. But the second half saw shell-shocked Hereford come out fighting and by the 58th minute, they had made it 2-2. In fact, they may have won the tie had the woodwork not intervened. By the final whistle, the Canaries were hanging on. The replay would create history.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to know Hitchin Town. There was strong demand for tickets and the TV cameras were at Top Field to record a memorable night. Hereford silenced the majority of the 3,098 crowd when they went a goal ahead with a soft header from Steve White. Jon Bone equalised in the 18th minute and the visitors received another blow when Richard Wilkins was sent off. Again, Hereford took the lead, though when Pick headed past Sylvester. After 53 minutes, it all-square again, Williams shooting home from Ian Scott’s perfectly placed through-ball. Micky Wilson gave Hitchin the lead after 62 minutes, a shot from the edge of the area. It was left to Marshall – who else? – to clinch a famous win, running through to shoot home as the crowd invaded the pitch and red flares were lighting up the sky and shrouding Top Field in smoke. As the people ran on, referee Graham Poll took the teams off but in the process, he had blown the whistle to end the game. So 4-2 to Hitchin, the club’s first FA Cup giant-killing.
Hitchin would find Wycombe Wanderers, managed by Martin O’Neill, a tougher nut to crack. In fact, the Canaries’ round two opponents punished their Isthmian League hosts by 5-0. Simon Garner, a veteran goal-poacher, scored a hat-trick in front of the BBC Match of the Day cameras. “We were terrified of this game,” said O’Neill. “This could have been a very tricky tie.” It wasn’t – but Hitchin had already had their moment in the sun.
Back to the league, Hitchin strengthened their side in the second half of the season with the acquisition of Richard Wilmot, from Halifax, ex-Luton and Colchester centre half Tim Allpress, and former Northampton full back Ken Gillard. Hitchin lost twice in their last 12 games and after their cup exploits, had the confidence to climb the table. By the time the final game came, a win at Yeading would give them a top five finish. Ian Rutherford’s goal did just that.
It had been a marvellous season – never-to-be-forgotten cup ties, national recognition, the goalscoring exploits of Marshall (pictured left against Wycombe) – 43 goals in all competitions – and a team that could arguably go on to claim its place among the club’s finest. If only it was that simple…
BBC TV Match of the Day was present at Top Field for the Wycombe game.
Here’s Clive Tyldesley’s’ commentary fact sheet for the game:
The euphoria that accompanied the 1994-95 season, FA Cup giant-killers for the first time and fifth in the league, quickly evaporated when Andy Melvin lost both Richard Wilmot and Shaun Marshall to Stevenage Borough. It was a case of déjà vu for Melvin, for only 12 months earlier, Steve Conroy had also been snatched up by Borough manager Paul Fairclough after scoring more than 20 goals. Marshall wanted to step up a grade and pursue a dream of playing professional football. “I think Stevenage can get into the Football League,” said Marshall, who had, after all come from his home town club in the first place. The Wilmot move angered Melvin, however. The tall goalkeeper had agreed to stay with Hitchin, but changed his mind. “As far as I was concerned, Wilmot had renaged on the deal and I was livid,” recalls Melvin. “But he wanted to return to Stevenage and for him, it turned out to be a good move as he won a Conference medal.” But for Hitchin, it was another example of the club’s inability to hang on to good players.
Melvin had funds at his disposal as a result of the cup run, so he had the chance to replace Marshall and Wilmot. A player long coveted by Melvin was Stevenage’s own Martin Gittings, a combative forward who scored goals with the same sort of prolifency as Marshall. But he was also 10 years older and carrying injuries. To many, it seemed an ill-timed move and hardly a “like-for-like” swap. Getting a big name goalkeeper was a problem for Melvin, but Gerald Sylvester, who had performed heroics in the FA Cup run, only to lose his place when Wilmot came to the club, was slotted back between the posts. Melvin thought he had pulled off a coup with the acquisition of Conroy, who had struggled since leaving Top Field and soon found himself ousted at Stevenage. With Gittings, Conroy and Williams, Melvin had three strikers of apparent quality. The new combination failed to materialise, however. Gittings pulled up in a pre-season friendly and was barely seen again all season, and Conroy returned heavier, slower and lacking the confidence of earlier years. Nevertheless, Melvin was as bullish as ever, claiming that his team could make a challenge at the top of the table.
There was to be a rude awakening on the opening day of the new season as Harrow Borough trounced Hitchin 5-1 at Top Field. To make matters worse, Steve Miller and Gavin Covington were both sent off. It was just the start of a poor run that earmarked Melvin’s side for relegation rather than promotion. Hitchin secured just two points from the first six games and were rooted to the bottom of the table. Aylesbury then won 3-0 at Top Field in a shambolic game in which Darren Thompson and Neil Ryan were both sent off. After the game, Melvin resigned, proclaiming that it was time for someone else to see if they could improve the club’s fortunes. Within 48 hours, though, Melvin was back in charge, although there was a collective statement that “changes would be made”.
Within a week, the club had signed Adam Parker from Stevenage Borough. A precocious player, Parker was released by Stevenage after he had been charged with fraud and seemingly on his way to prison. Paul Fairclough rated Parker one of the most talented players he had managed, but he had a reputation as a l’enfant terrible. It was just the sort of challenge that Melvin liked and his renowned man management skills came to the fore once more. Parker went to prison, but Melvin waited and promised that Hitchin fans would soon see an excellent player in their team. In the meantime, things had improved on the pitch just in time for the return of the FA Cup. Having received an exemption to the fourth qualifying round, Hitchin had to win just one game to get back among the Football League clubs. They did just that, coming from behind to win 2-1, thanks to goals from new signing Lee Burns and old favourite Gary Williams.
The first round draw gave the club an even bigger game than the previous season had delivered, Bristol Rovers at home. As before, nobody gave Hitchin a chance against Football League opposition, despite the fact that Rovers were not a particulary strong second division outfit. Hitchin had not won at home in the Isthmian League and were in 16th place. They had conceded 16 goals at home in seven league games at Top Field. Rovers were in 13th position in their league. But somebody thought an upset might just occur, judging by the media attention on the day. Within 90 seconds, Hitchin had taken the lead. Ian Scott’s free kick landed perfectly for Conroy and he leapt like he had not all season to head the ball into the net. The players ran behind the goal and joined the fans in celebration. The frame was captured perfectly by Times photographer Marcus Aspland and featured in almost every newspaper the next morning. “Who crossed, who crossed,” came the cry from the press box but veteran Fleet Street man Mike Langley had seen it all in his opera glasses, “The boy Scott”. Before Bristol Rovers could come to terms with conceding so early, Hitchin did it again, Lee Burns latching on to a through ball and curling his shot around the Rovers goalkeeper. The Football League Second Division side pulled a goal back before half-time, but the second half onslaught that many expected didn’t materialise, although Gerald Sylvester, the hero of Hereford, pulled of a string of good saves.
The victory was enjoyed, although it lacked some of the excitement of 12 months earlier, perhaps because Hitchin had been there before. But Melvin and Conroy were whisked off to London to appear on BBC TV’s Match of the Day to take part in an embarrassing interview with an ill-prepared Tony Gubba. Melvin’s response to most questions as to why he was involved was “Roy Izzard”, the man who introduced him to the club. While the FA Cup was put to one side, Hitchin grabbed four points from two games, drawing with eventual champions Hayes.
The second round draw had not been kind to the Canaries, an away trip to in-form Gillingham, again from the Second Division. A plucky first half display at Priestfield saw two long range efforts from Ken Gillard shake the nerves of the home side, but three second half goals, two of them from former Stevenage striker Leo Fortune-West, finished off the cup run. With a share of a 7,000-plus crowd, Hitchin had made some cash once more from the competition, which enabled them to bolster their squad. But there was to be no magical second half of the season.
When Gary Williams left the club in March, many Hitchin fans were despondent. Williams, after all, had epitomised Melvin’s side of the 1992-1995 period and was hugely popular with the Top Field faithful. Melvin seemed to lose heart in the second half of the season and after a 1-1 draw with Kingstonian, announced that his coach Robin Wainwright had been sacked. In his place was to come a two-man coaching team in the form of Paul Price and Micky Hazard. Price was a familiar figure at the club, arguably the most celebrated player ever to put on a Hitchin shirt. Hazard, of Tottenham and Chelsea fame, came as part of the package and their arrival was seen as a progressive step. “It might get worse before it gets better,” said Melvin, and he was right. Between February and mid-March, Hitchin won just one game in 11 and endured a run of seven straight league defeats. There was still enough momentum to take the Canaries into the last four of the Isthmian League Cup, but Aldershot were too strong and won 3-0 on aggregate over two games. Hitchin won one of their last nine games of the season, sending alarm bells ringing into the summer. It was only the shortcomings of others that prevented them from suffering relegation as with two games to go, in which they lost both, they could still have gone down. Melvin handed over the reins to Price and Hazard in the summer, hoping that fresh ideas could provide the club with the lift it needed.
Hitchin went into the 2005-06 season with high hopes. In the summer of 2005, manager Darren Salton had worked hard to bring some new players to the club in order to improve upon what was a poor 2004-05.
It had also been a notable close-season for the fans of the club. A Supporters Trust had been established and the response from Top Field regulars had been overwhelming.
By the end of the campaign, the fans had something to sing about – the most notable piece of silverware since the London Senior Cup was lifted in 1970.
New faces in the dressing room included Thomas Hayes, a long-haired striker from Dunstable who had scored a hat-trick against the club in the previous season, a robust midfielder in Jon Mills, and local midfielder Stuart Lochhead. Daniel French, a mercurial winger, arrived on the eve of the first game.
The season started in a downpour at Halesowen, but a 1-1 draw was seen as a good day’s work. Hayes got off the mark with a hat-trick in a 4-2 win against Northwood and further good results were gained against Team Bath and Grantham. Hitchin were unbeaten in four games before losing at Rugby.
The FA Cup run ended at Cambridge City in the third qualifying round and the club’s FA Trophy hopes were dashed by former striker Chris Dillon, who netted both of Bedford’s goals in a 2-1 win at Top Field.
League form continued to be patchy into the New Year, but useful results aganst Halesowen (1-0), Banbury (2-2), Bedford (2-0) and Merthyr (2-1) kept the pressure off. Hitchin had the benefit of a striker on top form in Josh Sozzo, who went on to score 31 goals by the end of the season.
Sozzo was one of the main reasons that Hitchin worked their way through to the semi-finals of the Errea (Southern League) Cup. In the early rounds, scrappy wins were achieved against Dunstable and Marlow. Then Ashford Town (Middx) were beaten away 4-1. In the quarter-final, Sozzo hit four as Hitchin thrashed Cirencester 7-0 on their own ground. The wayward Sozzo scored twice as the Canaries won the semi-final 2-0 against Bedford, one of his former clubs.
Hitchin’s opponents in the final were Bromsgrove and a Sozzo penalty gave the Canaries a 1-0 first leg lead to take to the Midlands. He scored again (pictured above), along with Gavin Jaggard, to win the second game 2-1 and clinch the cup by a 3-1 aggregate.
In between the two games, Hitchin’s Premier Division place had been secured for 2006-07. The league season ended with an entertaining 3-2 win against Tiverton, a game in which Sozzo claimed his 31st goal.
The Canaries finished 14th, comfortably above the relegation zone, and picked up a nice piece of objet d’art on the way. It not been a bad season and the feeling was that a team that had been strengthened in the second half of 2005-06 had much more to offer in 2006-07. It didn’t quite work out like that…