FEATURE: Arsenal make Hitchin Town’s new floodlight match a night to remember

Players families of players who played in 1960's game. Photo: Peter Else

Players families of players who played in 1960's game. Photo: Peter Else - Credit: Archant

A young team from Arsenal saluted the opening of Hitchin Town’s floodlights last night.

Kane Smith. Photo: Peter Else

Kane Smith. Photo: Peter Else - Credit: Archant

A young team from Arsenal saluted the opening of Hitchin Town’s floodlights last night.

And the gilded teens in the world famous cherry-red shirts had to fight a good deal harder than they expected to overcome Hitchin’s amateurs – with the game ending in a creditable 1-1 draw after a late Canaries equaliser.

It may have been a cold evening in North Herts but there was warmth aplenty coming from this homely little club with a big heart.

A number of much-loved guests attended in good humour showing generosity of spirit in freely giving up their valuable time.

Chairman Terry Barratt with Pat Rice. Photo: Peter Else

Chairman Terry Barratt with Pat Rice. Photo: Peter Else - Credit: Archant

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Gunners legend Pat Rice – a loyal man who has spent more than four decades of his life serving the North Londoners, first as a wide-eyed young lad from Northern Ireland, then as a passionate youth coach, and finally as the trusted and respected number two to a man who changed the face of English football Arsene Wenger – was the visitor who had the honour of symbolically switching the lights on.

Speaking exclusively to the Comet from the boardroom he said: “It’s great to be here at Top Field tonight.

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“I’m delighted to be asked to help turn on the floodlights. I know Hitchin Town do a lot of work in the community and it’s credit to them and their supporters that they are able to enjoy a night like this.

“Once an Arsenal man always an Arsenal man but I am aware of non-league football too and I wish Hitchin Town all the best. They’re a great club.”

Sam Barker. Photo: Peter Else

Sam Barker. Photo: Peter Else - Credit: Archant

It was a sign of how well-respected Hitchin are that no invited guests turned down an invitation to the occasion – 54 years to the month after Billy Wright’s strong Gunners side played Hitchin to mark their previous ‘new’ set of illuminations.

The fixture marked a historic moment for the club, only two years since their evocative home ground was threatened by property developers – with the community-backed Save Top Field campaign doing exactly what it said on the tin.

The new and upgraded floodlights will allow the club to progress up the National League System, where they currently play Step Three football in the Southern League Premier Division.

In attendance were many former players from both sides from the 1962 game including Hitchin’s keeper on the evening Charlie Turner, as well as teammates Terry Waldock. Tommy Everitt and Peter Hammond.

Journalist Layth Yousif interviews Pat Rice. Photo: Peter Else

Journalist Layth Yousif interviews Pat Rice. Photo: Peter Else - Credit: Archant

From the 1962 Arsenal team David Court and Billy McCullough as well as the much-missed late Geordie Armstrong’s wife Marj and daughter Jill.

Jill and Marj were in especially fine form, speaking warmly and movingly of the much-loved Geordie, his kind-hearted nature and passion for this beautiful game of ours.

Jill said: “I know dad will be looking down on tonight’s match. It’s a lovely gesture by Hitchin to invite us. We wish them all the best for the future.”

The titans of the top level of the game in England and Scotland might be clashing at Wembley tonight, but last night in North Herts all eyes were on the match.

The club’s floodlight project was made possible thanks to a £27,924 grant from the Premier League, through the Football Stadia Improvement Fund, the largest funders of non-league football in the country – along with considerable financial support from the community.

A bumper crowd of 1,160 turned out, encouraged by the Canaries ‘Pay What You Want’ initiative which saw supporters of both teams give generously to aid Bob Wilson’s charity The Willow Foundation.

There must have been some bleary eyes in the schools of Hitchin this morning such was the number of children in attendance. For the crowd that turned out was a mixture of young and old who came from far and wide – with many a weary parent ending the night by carrying an even wearier youngster home.

Hitchin resident and passionate Arsenal season ticket holder, Guy Wiseman was there with his two sons, Jim, seven and Dan, five – with both scamps resplendent in Arsenal colours.

Dan said excitedly: “It’s my first Arsenal away game,” with proud dad Guy adding, ‘there’s been a great family atmosphere, well done to Hitchin for organising the game and for Arsenal for agreeing to play.”

The silky skills of Kwame Ampadu’s Arsenal’s under 18 academy side thrilled lovers of swift, technical pace allied with genuine pace, but the Hitchin team buzzed like gadflies around a candle in pursuit of their far more illustrious visitors.

But when the highly-rated Kaylen Hinds struck a dipping long-effort to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal on 64 minutes many in the crowd would be forgiven for thinking the game was all over. Yet the Canaries, roused by cheers from those assembled in the ramshackle stands and wooden terraces were inspired to keep battling.

A welcome reward came for those of the green and yellow persuasion with fewer than 120 seconds of game time remaining when Callum Riley snuck in at the near post to make it 1-1 – to the unbridled joy of the majority present.

As the match ended moments later, stalwart and club secretary Roy Izzard – the unsung official who put the hours in organising the match – breathed a sigh of relief. “I think it was a fair result”, said the man who was seen more Hitchin Town games than anybody on the planet, more than 2,000 at the last count. “I think it was an enjoyable evening for everyone who came”, he said modestly.

As the crowds streamed away a fan was overheard to say: “Well, we can’t say we haven’t had our money’s worth. It was well worth braving the cold to come along.”

As a spectacle of open, absorbing, technically proficient football, mixed with some old-fashioned effort and commitment, it was certainly worth coming along to homely old Top Field – as the match which satisfied an intrigued crowd was deemed worthy tribute to the new floodlights.

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