Feature: Hitchin Town are reaping the benefits of North Herts Arena set-up

PUBLISHED: 16:40 27 March 2015

Mark Burke and Adam Balletta take training. Photo: Harry Hubbard

Mark Burke and Adam Balletta take training. Photo: Harry Hubbard


Canaries working with Luton Town and Central Bedfordshire College to give scholars a chance to succeed

Will Wright and Billy MurrayWill Wright and Billy Murray

Kane Smith’s recent emergence into the Hitchin Town set-up has seen him become the third player in the current squad to graduate from the club’s scholarship scheme and into the first team.

The 19-year-old joins Lucas Kirkpatrick and Shaun Okojie in making the step up from the college programme that the Canaries run alongside Luton Town and Central Bedfordshire College at the North Herts Arena.

The partnership aims to give players both an academic and footballing education, and there are currently 65 students aged 16-19 on their books.

Mark Burke is the community and development manager at the Arena, which is situated on Norton Road, Baldock.

He is also a Hitchin Town legend, having made more than 700 appearances for the club, and is the current first team manager at the Canaries.

He is also a very busy man. During the Comet’s visit, his phone rings and people pop their head into the office so many times it’s a surprise he has any time to talk at all.

In addition to the college programme, the Arena also runs a community coaching programme which has seen the likes of Conor De Lacy, the head community sports coach, go out to schools and help coach youngsters at a number of different sports.

De Lacy and Adam Sartini have been out in recent months doing just that, and this culminates in an afternoon of sport at the Priory School in Hitchin next Monday (see next week’s Comet).

The Arena is also home to three ability counts teams, see right, while a number of other clubs use the facilities for training.

“We keep busy,” says Burke, as the ring from another call drifts away to answerphone.

Specifically about the college programme, Burke says: “It offers exit routes to the boys, where they can go to university in either the UK or to the U.S.A.

“The American option is a popular one, giving them the chance to experience things.

“And if they’re good enough, they can see their fees reduced thanks to scholarships out there.

“Some also train to be coaches. Conor came through a few years ago.

“Adam did the college scheme and now works on the community coaching scheme where they delivered coaching sessions in schools such as Pixmore, the Grange [both Letchworth] and William Ransom [Hitchin].

“We’re looking to expand that. We want to keep building up those community links with schools.

“We want to raise the profile of the club and at the same time help coach those youngsters, and give out free tickets to games. Hopefully they’ll come back.”

For Luton Town, the programme can offer something of a safety net to the League 2 club.

They have their own youth set-up, but there may be some players who slip through the net. The partnership with the college and Hitchin Town gives the Hatters the chance to ‘keep their eye on the players’, says Burke.

Central Beds College tutor Ashley Atkins works with the students at the Arena, and, like Burke, sees football as the ‘hook’ on which to catch the scholars.

“They do an education programme which links to a BTEC subsidiary the first year, and in the second year they do an academic option which is a diploma and then an extended diploma in sport.

“They can do a personal training course which is more vocational, or they can do a coaching option.

“The main focus for us is the educational side. Football comes as the extra and the lads tend to see that as the focus and from that point you can use football as the hook to keep them on track and focused.”

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