Football and the elements – Hitchin

Barry Gray recounts the story of his coldest ever away day

16th January 1970 and my team, a palsied Hounslow Town of the Athenian League, complete an odyssey across the Home Counties for a London Senior Cup First Round tie against Hitchin Town. That day, at Top Field, remains the coldest I have ever been in my life.

The coach trip to North Herts was an uncomfortable, on-off affair navigated through snowstorms by a coach driver who, as the physio revealed while enjoying a crafty fag at training the following week, “just did not want to go”. I swear it took our uneasy alliance of players, supporters and well intentioned but essentially useless blazered club men as long to reach Hitchin as it now takes to fly from London to Tokyo.

We eventually arrived at 6.30 for a match due to kick off at 3pm. Remarkably the crowd were still there, fortified by the hospitality of a grateful home club: rows of flush faced old men trooped out of the clubhouse to take up their positions on the terraces, swaying slightly. Our players disembarked into the numbing cold to an only mildly hostile reception.

The pitch, layered with silvery frost, somehow remained playable. The team, consistent with their utterly useless form of the time, proceeded to lose 3-1. During the first half the right side of my face began to freeze over; from my lopsided mouth, encouragement shouted to the Hounslow players, gingerly picking their way through shards of ice down the flanks, came out sounding like Charles Laughton in the film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Eventually I resorted to smoking my first ever cigarettes, cadged off a couple of older teenage boys, thinking that they might contain enough warmth to get me through the ordeal. (I haven’t stopped since. If the Big C should ever be diagnosed, Hitchin Town will be getting an X ray of my lungs by the first available post as the start of a claim for compensation.)

The players, with the constitution – and playing ability – of musk oxes, noisily drowned their sorrows in the clubhouse afterwards; the supporters, looking like Napoleon’s troops on the retreat from Moscow, attempted to thaw out by draping themselves over radiators, in the process generating more steam than Stephenson’s Rocket.

On the way back the players behaved worse than the weather. It was too cold to urinate outside the bus so they relieved themselves around the back seats causing small yellow streams to pour to the front and spread out like a map of the Thames.

Later, they removed the club secretary’s clothes, and threw them through the skylight, forcing the poor man to walk the several miles home in his underwear at midnight. He claimed to have felt the benefit afterwards – it was good for the circulation apparently – and the manager was even said to have considered introducing it as part of regular fitness training. We began to suspect that both were mad.

Hounslow Town went out of existence a while ago which, when all is said and done, was no bad thing.

From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month