It’s been a roller-coaster story of unpaid wages, fan protest and FA ruled unfit chairman with the inevitable ending being months in the making. Hereford United ceased to exist as a club as a High Court judge wound them up over an unpaid tax bill believed to be around the £116,000 mark. The question from many fans is how was the club allowed to slip into extinction and, more importantly, what is the best option going forward?
The judge’s decision came as the court heard that there was no evidence, which had been alluded to in previous hearings, that there was a source of finance to replace the built up debt. Hereford United owner Andy Lonsdale failed to present the necessary paperwork to the court and failed to reach the 4:30pm deadline to provide evidence of the promised £1 million transaction from Lonsdale to the club. It was the clubs 10th appearance in court and Lonsdale was believed to be stuck in traffic; one of the many ridiculous moments on the path to Hereford United’s demise. In 1998 the club was in a crippling financial situation but then manager Graham Turner, bought a majority shareholding and attempted to steady the club. Hereford was close to the brink in 2001 and Gavin William’s goal in the FA Cup qualifying rounds is seen to have saved them as they raked in the television money for the next round. Turner went on to complete unprecedented success with Hereford taking the club as high as League 1 whilst keeping the books balanced. However, in 2010 the clubs saviour decided to leave his management role and sell his shares in the club stating he felt the Bulls need some fresh impetus to take it forward. Hereford United as a result slipped down the leagues and the financial foundations built by Turner and co slowly started to crumble as a host of different owners destroyed the club.
The failure after Turner was the inability to balance the books as they fell down the leagues. David Keyte, now seen as one of the reasons for the clubs collapse, was announced as chairman in 2010. Despite being a Hereford fan his reign was defined by his lack of understanding in running a football club and failure to recognise that it cannot be ran like any other business. Rob Purdie, former player and coach, wrote on Bulls News at his first period with the club he left after Graham Turner said he couldn’t give him a penny more due to him trying to keep the club within League 2 budgets. In 2011 Purdie returned to the club which was still in League 2 ‘to find players on almost double the wages he (Turner) had offered me and they also had the added bonus of their accommodation being paid for them along with bills.’ He also quoted a player as saying ‘they asked me if I wanted a 10% rise or fall in wage depending on promotion/relegation or it just stays the same regardless. We finished 3rd bottom last season so why would I take the risk?’ The fact Keyte was allowing players to dictate clauses in their contracts highlights his inability to grasp how to run a club. Last season the Bulls survived in the Conference on the final day with Michael Rankine’s goal coupled with Salisbury scoring a late equaliser elsewhere. United, as a consequence of failing to pay off their football creditors, were booted out of the Conference meaning the final day heroics proved pointless. Players also revealed in the court proceedings, along with manager Martin Foyle, they had not been paid by the club in full.
The club was then sold to Tommy Agombar and what Jesse Norman MP called ‘a merry-go-round of company directors, the nominal changes of ownership, the endless empty promises of payments for creditors and new investment in the club’ began at Hereford. Agombar became instantly a figure to protest against from the Hereford fans along with Andy Lonsdale who initially came to the club as an advisor. Tommy couldn’t shake his London wheeler and dealer looking for a quick buck reputation and coupled with a previous criminal record angered Bulls fans who were worried the direction the club was going. He claimed if it wasn’t for his intervention the club would have gone under but Purdie stated ‘It soon became clear he was only here to make as much money as quickly as he could, football was a distant second in his plan.’ Luckily for Hereford fans Agombar failed the FA’s fit and proper persons test due to his more than 4 years spent in prison. He told BBC Hereford and Worcester ‘I kept the club going and I’ve become a fan. I was willing to pay everything to get the club sorted but if I can’t – then the club will crash. I’m gutted about the situation.’ Despite the failure of the test he remained a voice at Hereford as Lonsdale took charge; at one point it was reported Agombar threatened to fine players who refused to train due to unpaid wages. In this time the Hereford manager Jon Taylor is said to have been only paid £300 in expenses. Lonsdale in the role of chairman essentially bought more time in the court gaining adjournment after adjournment promising investment but with no money forthcoming by the final court date, the club was liquidated.
With Hereford United no more the focus is turned to creating a new phoenix club. The council took control of Edgar Street stadium on Monday 22nd December and will now consider the best tenant to ensure, in Council leader Tony Johnson words, ‘the continuation of football.’ Now the offers will begin to be put onto the table with the common trend between each potential offer being the emphasis on creating a new community club. A new Hereford FC is a possibility with the name already being registered with the Herefordshire FA. John Hale, fellow businessman George Webb, Phil Eynon and Hugh Brooks along with both the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Hereford United Supporters Trust are the group pushing forward the Hereford FC idea. If any Hereford side is going to perhaps return to the Conference and hopefully success of the past it will need some serious money behind it if the club is put into Fans or Trust hands. The precedent of Trust owned or partly owned clubs is one of a brief honeymoon period but eventual downturn. Bournemouth now has no Trust owned shares due to Fan ownership nearly destroying the club in 1997. Wrexham had to sell the rights of their stadium to a local University and Telford had to rely on the local council to buy their stadium; a luxury probably unavailable to Hereford FC considering the finances of the Herefordshire County Council. The shining light of hope for any new side would be that of now Premier League Swansea who were saved from the brink by local fans in 2003. Even to survive in non-league the Trust will need not only a solid financial plan but sound base of investment.
No fan is happy that the club in which Ronnie Radford scored one of the most famous FA Cup goals of all time is no more. The hope is now that with the old poorly run regime out of Edgar Street the club can be put back into the hands of the community. Though a fairy-tale ending to the demoralising story of the fall of Hereford United would be fans running the club they love, history suggests the chances of success is low and serious investment will be hard to come by if the Trust push for a 51% stake in a new club. One thing is a given: Every football fan hopes the best for whatever Hereford team rises from the ashes.