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Monday 20th October 2014 ko 19.45

Southern League Premier Division

HITCHIN TOWN 2 (Webb 50 Burns 68)

BANBURY UNITED 0 Jervis sent off 41 (dangerous play)

At 288

Entry £10

Programme £2

As a groundhopper I don’t revisit many grounds, but Hitchin’s Top Field is definitely one to provide an exception to that rule. Perhaps its the wooden terracing, or the low slung stand, full of nooks and crannies, or the clubshop that you never quite know what delights will be on sale there. Last time I visited I bought a book on FC Start that toured with me in Sweden! Increasingly architecture on all buildings, not just football grounds is becoming more bland, so the potential loss of the Top Field is particularly hard to stomach.

The club can trace its roots right back to 1865, and they started playing at Top Field around that time. They were participants in the inaugural FA Cup in 1871-72 losing to finalists the Royal Engineers. The majority of the ground’s architecture dates from the 1920’s, and is, in my opinion one of the classic non-league grounds.

The ground is owned by a charitable trust, “The Cow Commoners,” and they wish to relocate the club to a site on the edge of town, and sell Top Field for a supermarket development. Now since I’m not from Hitchin I can’t comment on whether it needs another supermarket. However I would comment that the club and its fans are vehemently opposed to the move and that’s a view I’d support for two reasons.

Firstly from the football club’s perspective an out-of-town location can often sound the death-knell for a non-league club. Let me give you an example that was close to where I’m from. Southern League outfit Witney Town used to play at Marriotts Close in the town centre. It was a homely little ground, and the club made far more money from the clubhouse than it ever did across the gate. Even if you didn’t want to watch the team the club was where you went to play cards, or attend Women’s Institute meetings, or just go for a cheap pint on a Friday night. All that changed when the club moved to the edge of town to Marriotts Stadium in 1992.

The new ground was designed to be Conference ground-grading compliant, here’s when I visited a few years ago, but at a stroke the ancillary income disappeared. Witney Town folded in 2001, were replaced by Witney United, who eventually renamed themselves Witney Town again, but eventually folded again in February 2013. Currently there is no senior football in the town.

The second reason to resist the Cow Commoners plans is more romantic in outlook. Home is where then heart is, and something is always lost with a club moves. I should know, I’m an Oxford United fan watching my team play in a draughty 3-sided ground by the sewage works on the edge of town. Would I swap it for a return to the Manor Ground? You bet I would, in the blink of an eye.

Grounds like the Top Field are an endangered species, you’ll find some of them in the pages of this blog, along with some of the frankly dull new-builds.  Please people of Hitchin, please don’t let Top Field be replaced by something that could be anywhere. Can you really put a price of history, on beauty, or on character?

The club have designated their home game on 29th November against Frome Town a “No Pay” event as part of the fight to save Top Field and hopefully the neutrals will turn up and give the club a boost.

This game gave me reason to attend over and above the location. I spent 7 years living in Banbury and saw quite a bit of the Puritans during that time. They are a welcoming club and their programme is exceptional, but they’d be the first to admit that the economics of staying in the Southern League Premier are a tough conundrum for them and at kick-off they were second from bottom with only Histon below them.

It became obvious why they are in the state they’re in, there was no experienced hand in there to steady them and control the game. However one of their team did fascinate me. Eighteen months ago I watched a side called GYFTID playing in the fourth division of the Banbury, District & Lord Jersey League. The name does take a little explanation so do please click here, but I didn’t expect to see GYFTID’s goalkeeper playing on the wing for Banbury United, 10 promotions from what I saw in 2013! Sadly, neither GYFTID or the fourth division of the BDLJ exist, but it was wonderful to see Darius Browne playing with the same enthusiasm as he did on a park pitch in Banbury.

Banbury could easily have taken something from the game too, the dismissal of the Puritans’ Harry Jervis for tackle that took the ball gave the visitors a mountain to climb, and when Dan Webb headed home from a corner Banbury’s lack of experience looked even more obvious and it didn’t surprise me when Robbie Burns doubled their lead later on. Banbury could have reduced then arrears, Oxford United’s young loanee Josh Shama shot wide when he could, and should have scored, but 2-0 was a realistic scoreline.

I left with mixed feelings. I’ve used the cliché “Hope they both lose” when two teams I dislike play each other. This was the exact opposite, I hope Banbury can find themselves a new home ( Spencer Stadium is on a year-to year lease) and an income that will allow them to thrive. More urgent is Hitchin’s plight, and hopefully the footballing world will rally round to help.

What must be avoided is, as Joni Mitchell once sang is to “Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot.”