HERITAGE: ‘The cherry-red shirts of the mighty Arsenal forwards darted about like gadflies around a candle’ – read about Hitchin Town’s 1962 version of their floodlight inauguration match with the Gunners
PUBLISHED: 14:01 03 November 2016
Tonight we are making history on the Top Field as we switch on our floodlights for the first time. It is a great occasion for everyone connected with the club and we are sure it is a night which will long be remembered.
So said the words in the Hitchin Town v Arsenal programme. However, the warm sentiment doesn’t come from the glossy souvenir addition the hard-working volunteers at the Fishponds Road club are producing for next Thursday’s eagerly-awaited game with the North London giants.
It comes from the matchday programme stemming from the original floodlight inauguration game on November 27, 1962, as the Gunners sent a strong team to commemorate the lights that have now been replaced.
Now 46 years on, Arsenal are again kindly sending a team – although with the forthcoming international fixtures it would be impossible for them to send first teamers this time around.
But that November night nearly five decades ago saw former England captain and the then Gunners’ manager Billy Wright send an impressive line-up.
The original eight-page programme obtained by the Comet lists George Eastham – who was to be part of the 1966 England World Cup winning squad – and former Torino star Joe Baker who signed for Wright earlier in 1962 as starting. In the careful handwriting of the original owner they were replaced by the young Geordie Armstrong – a man who would go on to be Arsenal’s record appearance holder for many years, as well as a much-loved coach under Arsene Wenger.
With loyal servant Jimmy Bloomfield replacing Eastham, who was also notable for his off-the-field involvement in improving players’ contracts under freedom of movement, nobody could accuse the team from Highbury of being a weak one. The Arsenal captain was Vic Groves – uncle of the late 1980s flying ginger winger Perry Groves.
The Gunners ultimately triumphed 2-1 in front of a 4,000-strong crowd. Local papers said of the night in glorious prose: “The crowd came from far and wide, and while there were no perambulators in view, many a weary dad finished the evening carrying home an even wearier toddler.”
In light of the successful Save Top Field campaign which prevented the historic ground from being turned into a supermarket through the community’s backing, as well as that of the Comet, it was intriguing to read about Councillor Jim Reilly, chairman of the Hitchin Planning Committee which gave permission for the floodlights. The newspaper records mischievously that Reilly “strongly denied the council now proposed to take over Top Field as their new pedestrian town centre.”
The match report also described the pre-match atmosphere: “Never has the Top Field grass looked so green, never the shirts so colourful...as the cherry-red shirts of The Arsenal forwards darted about like so many gadflies around a candle.”
Charlie Turner was said to have had the game of his life in goal as Hitchin ‘made attack after a volcanic eruption of cheers came from the shrouded stands as a low growl from the crowd, hungry for more Hitchin goals continued,’ as Hitchin’s ambitious amateurs had their illustrious visitors at full stretch. The Comet talked to Hitchin legend Charlie – who made 626 appearances for the club – and the sprightly 75-year-old said he was looking forward to catching up with his old teammates at the next week’s game. He said: “Looking back now I’m sure the ball used that night was still one of the old traditional leather balls which was then painted with luminous paint. Those balls were lethal!
“I don’t recall too much about the game, although I remember my parents being very proud I was playing against The Arsenal.
“I haven’t been to a game at Top Field in years but I do have a soft spot for Arsenal. I won’t normally watch a match on the TV unless Arsenal are playing. It was good of them to come in 1962 and it’s very nice of them to come next week.
“They are a good club. When I was injured playing for Hitchin there was an agreement whereby I could use their state-of-the-art rehabilitation facilities at Highbury. I’m looking forward to next week.”
Hitchin Town stalwart Roy Izzard – who it has been estimated has seen more than 2,000 Canaries matches – said: “Although I’m club secretary I am very much looking forward to this as a fan.
“I think I’m getting worse in terms of taking defeats badly. I’ll need to take a doctor with me soon just to calm me down.
“I can’t wait to see Hitchin take on Arsenal, and of course see Charlie Turner who is one of my all-time idols.”
Fan Richard Barker was at Top Field that 1962 night as a child. He recalled: “I remember the night of the floodlight switch on was a bit of a murky evening. It was exciting for us youngsters as Arsenal put many of their first team out. It was the Baker/Eastham era – they were a bit like the Henry/Bergkamp of that time. George Armstrong played too who went on to be in the Arsenal double team of ‘71.”
As the evocative 1962 programme concluded: “Floodlights are an essential to any progressive club and at Hitchin we certainly don’t mean to be left behind.”