Hereford FC fans cheered a second successive promotion with sun-warmed faces and bellyfuls of cider: a contrast to standing on cold High Court steps as they did when their dear old club Hereford United went to the wall in 2014. Back then, the winding up hearing over debts amounting to £148k was adjourned nine times before the club, formed in 1924, bit the dust. Looters ransacked the Edgar Street bar on hearing the news, taking TV’s and even the spirit optics.
Now the Hereford FC players and staff were soothed by the spray of champagne on being presented the Southern League South and West trophy as the phoenix club continued its course back to the Football League.
Peter Beadle’s men claimed promotion back in March, becoming the first club in the English football pyramid to do so. Former Bristol City and Rovers stalwart Beadle had also been caretaker manager at Hereford just as the wheels began to fall off in 2014, securing an escape from relegation from the Conference Premier. Yet, United were expelled weeks later for failing to pay their football creditors, of which Beadle was one as he had not been paid properly during his first tenure.
It was apt that, in its new incarnation, Hereford had to wait to get their hands on the grand title-winning shield given that instant gratification is not something that Edgar Street regulars are used to. On setting up their new club after the demise of Hereford United, they knew it would be a long road back to the Football League after being demoted to step 9 of English football.
Yet, for all the joviality of trophy day, there exists a rightful feeling of resentment at how things got so bad at Edgar Street that they had to pack up and start again. Every toast to current achievements is soured by memories of perceived neglect from the Football Association and other football authorities.
So troubling was the speed of Hereford United’s destruction between May and December 2014 that the club disappeared in about as long a period as it maintained its famous cup run of 1972. In that short 2014 timespan, United were passed from pillar to post, initially from the despised chairman David Keyte to ‘football man’ Tommy Agombar for £2. Except that as well as being Mr Football, Hereford fans found out that Agombar had been jailed for lorry theft in 1987. It took months for it to be revealed that Agombar had failed the FA Owners and Directors Test despite being able to buy a majority stake in the club.
Club advisor and later United chairman Andrew Lonsdale stuck up for Agombar saying ‘most people have a chequered past’ which was ironic since the cider country detectives amongst the Hereford fanbase then uncovered Lonsdale’s own colourful history which included a conviction for dumping 600 lorry loads of waste on green belt land in South Bucks. The Hereford Times also ran a feature on Lonsdale’s previous association with 27 dissolved companies including ‘debts totalling more than £7million’.
In August 2014, Agombar sold his shares to a ‘purchaser of distressed debt’ called Alpha Finance which, of course, is a description that every supporter wants to hear. As summer turned to winter, there came a downward spiral of court threats to wind United up, something that eventually occurred on December 9th 2014 with Lonsdale ‘stuck in traffic’ carrying a ‘£1m bank statement’ to pay creditors that never saw the light of day.
For beleaguered Hereford fans, whose mascot is a bull, it was almost a relief to rid themselves of the hangers-on that had swarmed around the club on its knees.
Again, they looked to the F.A with disbelief as an organisation with turnover in the hundreds of millions, which takes so much pride in handling the monied pros of the England set-up, yet appears indifferent to managing the complexities of modern club ownership.
At the time, the Bulls News website published a series of questions to the F.A pertaining to the Owners and Directors Test (ODT). In particular, they questioned whether the ODT was fit for purpose given Tommy Agombar was ‘able to take the club over and dispose of it without sanction?’
The FA had, seemingly, failed in its published intention to “protect the reputation and image of the game” via the Owners and Directors Test. Indeed, lax regulation is letting down clubs all over England and Hereford FC might well be seen as a symbol of hope to fans of Leyton Orient and Coventry City that, as the late, great Brian Lomax of Supporters Direct put it, ‘tin-pot saviours and two-bit conmen’ aren’t the only route out for clubs in crisis.
But for one day, with the cider and beers flowing, past pains were numbed and there was a chance to puff out the chest as goals one, two, three and four went in versus Winchester City on an immaculate Edgar Street pitch with its zigzag patterns that might symbolise the distracted path the club has been forced down in recent years.
Supporters packed the Meadow End terrace in a handsome gate of 4,125 excitedly discussing next season’s Southern League Premier campaign and derby matches to come against Welsh club Merthyr FC.
In the bad old days of 2014, with fans boycotting, Hereford recorded an attendance of 279 for one Saturday fixture, highlighting just how far they’ve come.
Not that next season will be as straightforward as this one in which they have amassed a staggering 107 points. Each promotion brings added financial pressures and players looking for extra cash. There is also potential conflict on the ownership front with some supporters wary of moving too high too soon and also the issues of private shareholder interests in a club that was saved by its supporters.
Still, nothing was going to prevent Hereford fans their pitch invasion and children duly sprinted onto the surface at the final whistle. If the pitch invasion dash were an Olympic event then Hereford fans would be up for a gold medal, their rapidity echoing the desire for a swift return to full-time football. The trophy was lifted to pyro light as fans felt the soft earth of their home ground underfoot. The phoenix is rising through the smoke and the fans, as the club badge says, are Forever United.
By Tom Reed.