Uncertain future for non-League Canaries
28 March ~ Hitchin Town in North Hertfordshire is among the country's oldest football clubs. They are one of three in existence who competed in the inaugural FA Cup in 1871-72 – they were even the first team to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Yet they are now under threat due to the proposed shopping development on Top Field, their home of 140 years. The Cow Commoners, a charitable trust, have owned the freehold of Top Field since 1886 and were directed to use the land for "football… for the benefit of the inhabitants of the town".
They are forbidden to sell the land unless they provide another sporting facility for Hitchin. However, a recent public inquiry sought to deregister the area as common land, after which the trust entered into a deal with property developers called New Road. The persistent rumour, yet to be refuted by the trust, is that New Road will sell to Tesco.
Plans have been drawn up to move Hitchin, who are currently in the Southern League Premier Division, to a purpose-built football ground on the outskirts of town, less than two miles from League One Stevenage. The move raises serious issues about the future of the club, such as how they will manage the new facility without any apparent funds of their own to oversee the day-to-day running of the 20-acre site.
Their current home, Top Field, is a snug 4,000 capacity ground lined with trees. It is flanked by homely, if ramshackle low stands. The wooden entrance has timeworn timber, reminiscent of a row of allotment sheds and creaking cast-iron turnstiles – the type of which disappeared from most League grounds after the Taylor Report. The club, known as the Canaries for their yellow and green kit, runs thriving community programmes, coaching for various age groups and charity-oriented activities: the epitome of a community based set-up.
The Cow Commoners – a self-elected body including solicitors, bankers and a member working "for a large construction company" – may well have the best interests of the club at heart. Equally, it is arguable that there is no need for a new Tesco in the heart of an ancient market town already well-served by eight supermarkets within a five-mile radius. At a recent public meeting even the trustees were said to be unaware of New Road's development plans. Cow Commoner Alan Doggett said they have "obviously got something in mind, but [they're] not going to tell us". Resident Jamie Street said: "I don't want Hitchin to move. Tesco are using the Cow Commoners as a Trojan Horse for building a superstore that Hitchin doesn't need."
In an official statement the club said that it "wishes to reiterate it has not been party to the development of Top Field by New Road. We are not supporting said development or the club's relocation". Hitchin Town is a blueprint for what a local non-League club should be for its residents: accessible, community orientated and situated in the heart of the town it represents. There does not seem to be a good reason for this existence to be placed in danger. Layth Yousif @laythy29