FA CUP FEATURE: 'It's a full-time, part-time job' – Cheer and joking on the cup trail with Mark Burke's battling Hitchin Town
PUBLISHED: 14:16 26 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:55 26 September 2018
Hitchin Town FC kindly allowed sports journalist Layth Yousif to travel on the official team coach when they knocked Didcot Town out of the FA Cup this week. Read on for his special feature.
Monday: ‘You’re on’ says respected Canaries boss Mark Burke after I ask him if I can travel with his side for a behind-the-scenes feature.
Tuesday 4.15pm: The team coach leaves from homely Top Field to tackle Didcot via another challenge - the A1, M25 and M40 at rushour.
4.20pm: The special Hitchin spirit is in evidence when the jokes start flying between the squad. Highly-rated keeper Michael Johnson is among the wits – as well as being the target – as he dismisses certain players dress sense and music tastes. ‘The state of some of the lads fashion sense is unbelievable’ he jokes. ‘Not to mention their music tastes. Some of the boys are into weird folk music…’ he adds incredulous. I decline to mention my Nick Drake and Fairport Convention collection.
4.32pm: Laptop open, busy tapping away I look up to see the intimidating presence of club official Len Leroux standing over me. ‘Ten quid’ he demands with the merest hint of a twinkle in his eye. I’m not going to argue with him, given his size and promptly hand over the cash. Club treasurer and secretary Roy Izzard tells me later. ‘We’re an egalitarian club. Everyone - bar the players - from the chairman downwards pays a tenner to go on the coach. It’s just what we do. We have no airs or graces.’
4.45pm: Boss Burke shares an insight into his role: ‘It’s a full-time part-time job. I never switch off. Logistically you have to be sharp as a boss at this level. You have to be hands on. You don’t have the luxury of having everything done for you like the Premier League. But it’s never a chore’
4.52pm: The manager adds: The FA Cup is so important to clubs like us. The winner of our tie gets £9,000. Our fans have been brilliant. We want to give them something to cheer about in this tournament. But make no mistake it’s going to be tough.
4.57pm: Modest ‘Burkey’ was captain during Hitchin’s two memorable FA Cup runs in the mid 90s. The Canaries beat Bristol Rovers 2-1 in the first round in 95. ‘It was incredible,’ he recalls. ‘Little old Hitchin on Match of the Day. It was so surreal’
5pm: To underline what Burkey says about logistics we stop to pick up a player en route at Beaconsfield Services. I grab a coffee with passionate Canaries fan Chris Newbold and official club snapper Peter Else.
5.03pm: Chris shares a nice line in the gallows humour true supporters know all-too-well: “I try to get to most games,” he tells me. “Unless I get a subpoena to go on holiday. I missed a game as we were in Iceland. I was on top of a glacier and heard we lost. I wanted to throw myself off...”
5.04pm: Hard-working Peter – who is one of the finest sports photographers in non-league football, if not the best, adds deadpan: “My wife wants us to lose against Didcot so we can have a weekend away when the next round is played…”
6pm: With nearby Oxford United hosting Pep Guardiola’s aristocrats Manchester City, Dave the coach driver explores the picturesque backroutes of deepest Oxfordshire to avoid congestion around the city. While the stunning sandstone buildings of picture-perfect villages make for wonderful viewing, the narrow roads and constant turning don’t help this correspondent from filing his pre-match copy, as I ponder whether the billionaire giants are even aware of the existence of an FA Cup tie miles a few miles away...
6.15pm: The mood turns noticeably serious and businesslike on the coach when we approach Didcot’s ground The Loop, as the players and officials disembark, ready for the fight ahead.
6.30pm: I do what every good journalist does when arriving at a ground. Find the ‘press box’, fire up the laptop and pray there’s wi-fi. Before heading in search of a restorative cup of tea in relief.
6.45pm: I take a stroll around the ground for a spot of social media work. I bump into club stalwart Roy and chairman Terry Barrett. With a cool £9,000 on offer for the winner the bonus for progressing in the FA Cup is vital for clubs like Hitchin.
7pm: I grab a quick chat with Roy after he’s finished his administrative work as the senior club official - including teamsheet duties. Knowledgeable and good-natured Roy lives for the club and is legendary in non-league circles for his ceaseless passion for the Canaries. He has seen nearly 3,000 matches. ‘It’s an honour to work for the club I love,’ modest Roy tells me.
7.44pm Team news duly noted in my embryonic match report as well as shared on social media, the teams prepare for kick-off after ‘Burkey’ gives his side a rousing pre-match speech Henry V would be proud of.
7.44pm: I spy a few of the players in the tunnel looking thoughtful in the moments before they run-out ahead of the battle.
8.38pm: 0-0 HT. As a journalist you’ve got to be resourceful. So I run half way around the ground to ask to borrow Peter’s memory card to download his excellent pictures from his camera to include them in my work.
8.47pm: I run back around the ground to hand back the card to Peter after my laptop decided to freeze before crashing. Thankfully I manage to pull two photos from the card before I hand it back as the second half starts. I send a message to a journo pal I’ve worked with on Fleet Street describing the situation. He replies: ‘Imagine running film to get developed before wiring back for the football special…’ Indeed.
10pm: 0-0 FT aet. With Hastings awaiting in the next round battle is the appropriate word after a ‘blood and thunder’ match – as Burkey describes the game to me afterwards. 120 minutes of hard-fought football cannot separate the sides after a tough cup replay in which no quarter was given - nor asked for.
10.01pm: ‘I hate penalties’ says a Didcot fan behind the press box….
10.15pm: Johnson is the hero, saving three spot-kicks to ensure his side grabs FA Cup glory. Moments before he blocks the final penalty I take a quick look at Roy. Despite the tension he is dignified and impassive. A class act.
10.15:07: So too is Burkey. Amid the joyous celebrations he seeks out the Didcot boss Andy Ballard to offer his hand, his stony countenance blocking out the emotion of victory he must be feeling inside. It is a small but significant gesture of respect which is appreciated by the home boss and indicative of the style the club possesses in abundance on and off the field.
10.16pm: I publish my on-the-whistle match report and player ratings on the CometSport website but I’m still looking for a killer headline quote for one of my many newspaper backpages this week.
10.21pm: The squad celebrate in the changing room after plenty of hugs out of the pitch. Laughter is abundant and the jokes are flying thick and fast between the plucky band of brothers. These are the moments you live for as a player.
10.37pm: Hitchin’s Mick Docking, Roy, Chris, Len and Terry commiserate the Didcot officials in the boardroom. I pop my head round to wish my Didcot counterparts all the best for the season before boarding the team coach.
10.38pm: The players are still celebrating so I have a quick chat with Dave the coach driver. ‘This makes up for the 8-1 defeat to Needham Market last month’ he says with a hint of emotion betraying his calm demeanour.
11.04pm: The boss and players roll onto the coach with huge smiles as the jokes continue, mostly at keeper Johnson’s expense as the genuine camaraderie is evident.
In the tough code of football brotherhood there is no higher respect proffered after a victory than to have your team-mates rip you to pieces with piercing wisecracks. Good-natured Johnson takes it all in his stride – and isn’t afraid to return the badinage in spades as laughter fills the air after a job well done.
11.21pm: I have a quick chat with a relieved Burkey. ‘They’re all heroes’ this dignified leader of Hitchin tells me with pride. I smile because he’s absolutely right. And because I now have my killer headline quote.
11.48pm: I look up from transcribing Burke’s interview I am about to publish online to see Len standing over me again. ‘Tip for the Dave our driver’ he says. I cough up immediately because a) hard-working Dave deserves it. And b) because Len is bigger than me.
1.17am: A third preliminary round place in the bag, the club £9k richer - and five in-depth pieces filed from this correspondent from the game and the bumpy coach - we finally arrive back in SG5.
1;21am: The boss, players, officials and fans bid each other a fond farewell outside wonderful old Top Field. Adrenaline still flying Michael says to me with wide-eyes: ‘It’s been an unbelievable night’.
Hitchin’s unassuming hero Johnson is spot-on as a tired but satisfied Burke adds: ‘This night will go down in Hitchin history.’
Follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29