FA CUP FEATURE: Hitchin Town head to Leatherhead after the BBC, Chappers and Dennis Wise came to Top Field as boss Mark Burke warns: The Canaries like being underdogs
PUBLISHED: 14:54 24 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:54 24 October 2018
Hitchin Town battle for the right to enter the coveted FA Cup first round on Wednesday evening when they face a replay against Leatherhead at Fetcham Grove after a memorable few days for the club.
The incredulity prompted by the BBC filming at little old Top Field on Monday evening has barely subsided as Canaries boss Mark Burke – known to all as Burkey – takes his battling boys to Fetcham Grove to renew battle with the Tanners.
The national broadcaster opted for evocative Top Field as the stage for their live broadcast which went out to a record 1.6 million viewers across the country earlier in the week after the sides drew 1-1 in North Herts in the fourth qualifying round.
Dignified boss Burkey and their long-suffering supporters had suffered their fair share of lows at the start of this season, including a demoralising 8-2 defeat at Needham Market in August.
Yet Hitchin are renowned for doing the right thing and immediately refunded the travel costs of all their travelling fans, before the manager issued a heartfelt apology.
Since that low point the FA Cup has provided their talented if underperforming squad a haven from their league travails with victories over Godmanchester in the first qualifying round in early September.
They showed the character they undoubtedly posses by emerging from a tough night at Didcot Town in their second qualifying replay after a 0-0 draw after extra time following a draw in North Herts.
Their highly-rated young keeper Michael Johnson saved three penalties in the shoot-out as Burke’s side eased through 4-2 on penalties, before a routine 2-0 home victory over Hastings United in the third qualifying round led to Leatherhead – and the BBC.
However, Chappers, Wise and Dublin et al turning up at Top Field looked a long way off at 3.21pm on Saturday after referee Gardner infuriated the home support in a season’s best crowd of 1,278 by showing a straight red card to Jay Dowie.
Dowie, a tenacious, tough-tackling 25-year-old midfielder who counts Boston and Histon as his previous clubs, looked distraught as he reluctantly left the field of play after his high challenge poleaxed Tanners captain Elliot Benyon – who it has to be said, milked the moment for all it was worth.
Defying the odds as they have done on their heartwarming cup run this term Burke’s braves showed huge reserves of character to battle their way to 0-0 at the break under a clear blue autumnal sky in North Herts – even if the feeling was that their courage was just delaying the inevitable.
So it proved as the lively Travis Gregory poked home the ball from close range six minutes after the break to put Nikki Bull’s side 1-0 ahead.
A mere six minutes later the home side earned a penalty after Thomas Cooney fouled Jack Green in a crowded box.
To the delight of the long-suffering home fans in the four-figure attendance which also bettered every attendance last season also – captain fantastic Josh Bickerstaff calmly slotted home straight down the middle to beat Tanners keeper Zaki Oualah, as Mark Burke’s battling braves make it 1-1.
Speaking to CometSport Burkey said: “We showed tremendous character to come back. We showed resilience to earn that replay.
“We’ll go to Fetcham Grove as underdogs now,” adding with a flash of steel wrapped in a knowing smile, “and Hitchin Town Football Club like being underdogs.”
Fast forward 48 hours from Saturday’s absorbing tie the BBC visited Hitchin to broadcast the FA Cup first round draw from little old Top Field on Monday evening – to a global audience of more than 130 million.
Presenter Mark Chapman, three-time FA Cup winner Dennis Wise, former Manchester United striker Dion Dublin – along with nine BBC staff, five cameras, two huge trucks equipped with all the equipment required for an outside broadcast and a number of former Canaries players including the highly-rated right-back Kane Smith – made it to Hitchin Town’s evocative old ground on Fishponds Road.
Club secretary and stalwart Roy Izzard and Burkey were interviewed live on air prior to the draw as the excitement levels rose which saw Hitchin or Leatherhead eventually draw fifth-place National League side Solihull Moors, with the possible tie to be played at home on Saturday, November 10.
There were smiles when good-natured presenter ‘Chappers’ interviewed Roy – who has seen more than 3,000 Hitchin matches in his lifetime – joked that he thought the club legend was going to talk through each and every one of the matches live on air to a worldwide audience.
Speaking exclusively to CometSport before the draw was made the well-respected Chappers said: “What I like about doing the FA Cup draw is wherever you go everybody is proud of their club and their area and very keen to pass on their history.
“We’ve had a very warm welcome from everyone here at Hitchin. I hear they were queuing down the Fishponds Road before Saturday’s game – that’s what it should be like for the FA Cup. I think the cup has had resurgence.
“The other thing about doing the draw is everyone talks to you as if you’ve the power to pick what game it is in the first round that goes on the telly,” before adding with a smile: “It’s nothing to do with me.”
The FA Cup is proving a lifeline for non-league clubs this season. Hitchin have already banked £30,000 already from their run, with a cool £25,000 waiting for the winner of Wednesday’s tie.
Such amounts may be loose change to Premier League millionaires but to Evo-Stik Southern Premier Central Division side Hitchin.
Izzard, who also acts as treasurer among his many other unpaid roles explained: “A good cup run can have an enormous effect on the financial health of a side at our level. It may not seem like a large amount to some but to us it’s a real lifeline.”
The excitement levels were at fever pitch when ball No63 was drawn out, prompting huge cheers in the Top Field clubhouse which were also heard around the nation – even if anticipation levels were pricked live on national TV when National League fifth-placed side Solihull were the team pulled out of the bag.
The club were formed after a merger between Solihull Borough and Moor Green in 2007 and are managed by former Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and England keeper Tim Flowers.
He succeeded Mark Yates, who left to join promoted National League champions Macclesfield Town with his No2 being Gary Whild, who he previously worked with at Kidderminster Harriers. Warwickshire-born Flowers first joined the Moors last November, helping Yates to keep them in the National League.
Canaries boss Burke told CometSport after the draw: “It’s a tough draw if we get through against Leatherhead but at least it’s at home if we do get through.
“That said all we’re doing is focussing on trying to beat Leatherhead on Wednesday.”
The BBC had planned to hold the draw at the lowest-ranked club left in the first round – which invariably proved to be a logistical nightmare.
Comprehensive reconnaissance trips had to be made which ultimately ruled out Leatherhead thanks to a tree that would have blocked the large OB vehicles required to stage such an outside broadcast.
Thus it came to pass that Top Field was to be the chosen venue with even hometown Hitchin lad and former Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere expressing his support for Burkey’s boys through the Comet newspaper and website.
Another who wished Hitchin well was Chappers.
This correspondent has first-hand experience of watching the experienced Chappers in action from a lower league BBC FA Cup broadcast and reminded the engaging Rochdale-born presenter of the fact.
He replied: “We’ve done these type of things before haven’t we as we were talking about you and I covering the Sutton v Arsenal game two seasons ago at Gander Green Lane, Hereford was another great one for me to cover because of their resurrection, as well as Hyde too,” before adding with a smile: “I think it’s brilliant that you’re delaying your trip to Lisbon to cover Arsenal in the Europa League so you can cover Hitchin’s replay at Leatherhead.”
Triple FA Cup winner Wise had previous experience of gracing the Top Field turf in an appearance during Burkey’s testimonial back in May 1996.
The former Stamford Bridge idol won the hearts of many after taking his son up the famous Wembley steps after a memorable cup final victory at the old stadium.
Speaking exclusively to CometSport Wise said: “I played here at Top Field with Mark Burke – they just reminded me of that. They showed me a photo of it.
“I didn’t remember it if I’m being totally honest but I looked it up and we won. It was a nice amount of people who attended the game which was nice for Mark. Now he’s the manager. I wished him all the best.
“Good luck to Hitchin. A cup run always helps you out with the budget a little bit.
“The FA Cup’s is fantastic. I have happy memories of my boy with the FA Cup in 2000. I was fortunate to win the FA Cup three times but I also lost it twice as well. It’s a great feeling to win the FA Cup. It’s also a great opportunity for small clubs to play big ones.
“What’s good as well is that they’ve doubled the money which helps club’s like Hitchin Town.”
Later this evening, Burkey’s Hitchin could well have earned even more much-needed cash – to go with the glory of course.
Whether you’re a fan of Hitchin, Leatherhead or a neutral, if you’re are unable to get to the match tune into North Herts FM from 730pm.
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