On the week that marked the start of another World Cup Finals, there was sad news from home with the expulsion of Hereford United from the Football Conference. Here’s John Perkins on how it came to this.
The week starting June 9, 2014 is one that will be viewed with a special horror by many people. On the Monday, many people were devastated to hear of Rik Mayall’s untimely death at the relatively young age of 56. Worse was to come for a much smaller segment of the population at 11 a.m. on Tuesday June 10th when Hereford United fans were told that that the club had been expelled from the Conference for not satisfying the requirements to continue in the League. This was expected by many of us but it made it no less difficult to come to terms with. So how did we get here and what does it mean for the long term? And honestly why should anyone care about a team from a small city in the gloriously scenic border country with Wales?
Hereford fans are occasionally accused of trading too much on the events of January 1972 but Ronnie Radford’s thunderbolt and Ricky George’s injury time winner against Newcastle are what set things in motion for the club after almost 50 years as a non-league outfit. They were promoted on the strength of this game via the bizarre election system of the time with Barrow the team that lost their place.
The first few years went well with promotion to the second division as high as the club went. The only lasted a season in the second flight and swiftly fell back to Division 4 where seasons spent flirting with re-election alternated with relative safety of 17th place. When automatic promotion was introduced it meant that as a fan of a financially struggling club you closely watched who would fall through the trapdoor because a single promotion spot meant that it wasn’t easy to regain that lost League position. Visiting the Shay in 1992 when we relegated Halifax the feeling of relief was tempered by the sense of but there for the grace of God ….
In 1997 the inevitable happened. Graham Turner had joined the club in 1995 and that season led Hereford to their best finish in years before losing to Darlington in the playoffs. The constantly ongoing cash crisis at Hereford led to players from the previous season leaving and being replaced with younger players on reduced pay to help contain costs. A 1-1 draw at home to similarly threatened Brighton on the final day of the season meant that Hereford were relegated on goals scored, a recent rules change. Graham Turner offered his resignation but it was refused so he was in charge for the following season in the Conference. Glossing over our position as a financial basket case, we were convinced that our stay in the Conference would be brief and even printed up “On Loan to the Conference” t-shirts. Optimism was swiftly dispelled by the 1-2 home defeat at the hands of Welling in our first game and we never bothered the league leaders for the rest of the campaign.
The next significant change was Graham Turner taking over as chairman in 1998. He retained control of the team as well as looking to stabilise the club. Graham Turner’s model was relatively simple focussing mainly on cost containment. He ran the place with a skeleton crew, relied on his ability to spot young talent and get more out of players who had failed to sparkle elsewhere. Off the field the Edgar Street facilities were allowed to decline. The most extreme example was the social club that was burnt out as a result of arson but was seen by him as too expensive to address.
Turner’s approach slowly turned the club around although it would not have been possible without cash injections from Hereford United Independent Supporters Association (HUISA), the much smaller Bulls On-Line Supporters Association (BOLSA) and other fans who helped pay bills when things reached crisis point. One sticking point for many people was that he didn’t necessarily work well with others so did little to endear himself and the club to the wider community.
On the field, though, the changes made slowly but surely built a strong team and the last few years in the Conference were a huge pleasure. An additional benefit of having Turner at the helm was that he managed to get access to quality loan players to help bolster the squad. The football was often superb particularly in the 2003-04 season when Richard O’Kelly was assistant manager. Hereford finished one point behind Chester City and 17 ahead of Shrewsbury Town but one automatic promotion spot meant play-offs beckoned. This didn’t end well but success breeds success and the high expectations of following seasons were justified as Hereford made 2nd place their new habitual finishing position. In May 2006, Hereford were promoted to League 2 after a 3-2 extra-time win over Halifax Town at the Walker Stadium.
The momentum continued into League 2 and Hereford were promoted again in 2008. This was a season where Graham Turner really showed how astute he could be in the loan market giving Gary Hooper’s career a kickstart amongst others. Promotion was confirmed at Brentford and the final home game against Grimsby was followed by an open-top bus tour.
However, this for me was the point at where we started the slide to where we are now. Turner’s speech on the steps of the City Hall was downbeat and reading between the lines I think he’d decided then that he was ready to move on. The season in League 1 was not good where a poor squad meant that we only saw occasional highs punctuating the overall malaise. The next season in League 2 was a failed experiment with John Trewick at the helm and at the end of the campaign it was announced that Turner was looking for a buyer.
Things didn’t end well under Turner but he gave us back our pride in our club. Also we were profitable several years in a row so were financially stable compared to most clubs at our level. The challenge for a new buyer seemed to be to build on Turner’s legacy while addressing the disrepair of Edgar Street. The buyers were announced as David Keyte, a local boy made good, and Tim Russon a sports journalist. It actually looked that team could address the gulf between club and city and initially the general mood was optimistic.
A vital cog in a team’s chance for success is in the choice of manager. The new boy in charge was Simon Davey, best known for a cup run at Barnsley in the 2007/08 season where the scalps taken included Liverpool. On paper this sounded great but a quick visit to Barnsley forums painted a very different impression. It took one game to confirm my worst fears and that the Barnsley fans’ verdicts were accurate. A close defeat at Crewe would have been easy to take but every post on the Hereford forum Bulls Banter talked about how woeful Davey’s team were. We’d been saddled with a lot of inadequate players on extended contracts and Davey’s non-existent tactics didn’t help. He lasted 10 games but the lack of a release clause meant he was expensive to get rid of.
His replacement came from within. Jamie Pitman was club physio but had played for Hereford in two spells under Turner. All credit to Jamie he kept us up that season after Davey’s appalling start but the chairman showed he’d learnt nothing by immediately giving him a two-year contract. The following season went very badly for him and a succession of people were brought in to help. The last of those was Gary Peters who was independently wealthy but was still being paid generously by Hereford. Sounds bad enough but the two ended up not talking to each other with Peters too expensive to get rid of. Pitman was fired in March 2012 after a succession of bad results (although his contract also lacked a release clause – more expense) and Richard O’Kelly returned to try to turn things around. The football drastically improved but unfortunately the run of victories at the end of the season were too little too late and Hereford were once again relegated.
Things got really bad now. Richard O’Kelly declined the manager role and went back to assist at Walsall where many of our relegation side flourished a league above the one they’d dropped from. No preparation was in place to deal with relegation and the loss of funding that comes with it. Players with multi-year contracts had no relegation clause so they remained on expensive league wages leaving little to spend on quality reinforcements. Martin Foyle was brought in as manager and did okay the first season back.
The next season was a different story as the out of control spending caught up with the club. The chairman budgeted for a £360,000 loss before a ball was kicked so he was accelerating our financial decline. The money that he put into the club to address shortfalls resulting from his decisions became loans instead. As the season progressed, tax deadlines were missed resulting in HMRC issuing wind-up proceeding against the club. The millionaire chairman regularly talked about how we were in danger of going out of business if we couldn’t pay bills. And the fans regularly banded together to raise cash to pay those bills. Keyte started talking about how the Conference North or South was the natural level for a club of our size despite the fact that we hadn’t been that low in the pyramid since 1939.
As 2014 rolled round another change was made. David Keyte decided that players and employees weren’t worth paying. Morale in a squad that had won the manager of the month award in January plummeted and we went on a horrible run of results. Martin Foyle seemed to lose it, talking up every opponent before games including already relegated Hyde and lambasting player after games. Inevitably he had to go. I have mixed feelings about Foyle. He was treated very badly but some of his football was woeful to watch and his tactics could be questionable. That said, no one deserves to be treated as he was by Keyte.
Once again a star rose from within. Peter Beadle had shown his managerial abilities with a youth team that had gone far further in the youth FA Cup than anyone had expected and proved to be one of the few highlights of the season. Slowly but surely he turned results around and my prediction of finishing third bottom was looking very shaky. Thank God. The players still weren’t being paid but Beadle instilled belief in them all. Come the final day of the season, Hereford needed a win to stay up so long as Chester didn’t beat Salisbury. Up until the 87th minute Chester were winning and Hereford were drawing which meant a Bulls relegation. As it turned out staggered 2nd half starts meant the two goals that changed everything came within a minute of each other. Hereford took the lead in the 88th minute and word filtered through that Salisbury had equalised making Hereford safe. An eternity later, full time was blown at both games to the jubilation of the travelling Hereford fans. We were safe or so we thought.
After the match the chairman stated that the game had given us a platform to build on and that we wouldn’t be in this position next year. It turned out to be another of his dishonest throwaway comments because his habit of not paying anyone was never going to be a model to build anything on. Peter Beadle went back to his youth team coach position without so much as a thank you. The fans would have given him the freedom of the city and 9if I was chairman my first priority on getting back to Hereford would have been to talk to him about the first team manager position for next year. But not only had Keyte given up paying people he’d given up talking to them too. Peter Beadle left to become the youth team coach at Sutton United. Keyte’s reaction was to whine that he was still under contract to us. Beadle’s assistant Steve Jenkins left for Merthyr. Daniel Lloyd-Weston, an excellent prospect walked out citing breach of contract by the club. And another challenge loomed.
Having survived the season, another tax bill could mean dissolution of the club. Again the fans went into overdrive in an effort to raise cash and we gained a guardian angel in the shape of Omid Djalili who raised cash by adding shows on his free day on tour and donating the proceeds to the club. Bulmers pitched in too with a generous donation. Where was our fearless leader – on a beach at his second home in Barbados doing absolutely nothing to help the efforts of everyone else. Oh, he was in touch by Skype but no one really knew anything about it because the club had decided total silence was their best policy. All we heard was that talks were progressing with potential buyers but we’d heard that many times before and his deals always seemed to “fall through” at the last minute.
He had one genuine buyer though. Hereford United Supporters Trust had asked for pledges from fans and provided the board wrote off their loans had cash in place to pay off football creditors. They offered a nominal fee to take the cub off Keyte’s hands. Their bid was refused even though this would assure the safekeeping of football in Hereford for a long time to come. For many this was the last straw. The local boy who’d made mistake after mistake and shown his ineptness had capped it all with a spiteful refusal to safeguard the club’s future.
The tax bill was met, no thanks to the chairman and without thanks from the chairman to those who’d helped. One 10-year old boy had sold his toys to raise money for the club and that was ignored too. The silence from the club was still deafening but rumours started to circulate that we had been sold with the added snippet that the owner did not want to reveal themselves, setting off massive alarm bells in anyone capable of thought. Meanwhile the conference AGM loomed with no payments to players or staff, despite repeated promises that the payments were on their way. The players were impressively restrained. Despite repeated broken promises of payment they said very little apart from the occasional veiled complaint on Twitter.
Things started to get surreal with parallel winding up proceeding issued by Martin Foyle and player trials held at Bedfont and Feltham. The winding up was adjourned for 28 days but the player trials gave more insight into the new regime and with it increasing unease. The trials were under the eyes of Mark Ellis who talks a massively good game. According to him he was integral to coaching successes at Arsenal, West Ham, Bournemouth and elsewhere but the only record of him on the internet is of a training camp in Nigeria. The new “owner” was there too. A Mr. Tommy Agombar. He met a few fans but asked them to promise not to reveal his name. Probably with good cause because a quick google revealed that he’d served time as part of a gang specialising in lorry thefts. Admittedly this was 27 years ago but the judge’s assessment of his character is telling referring to him as a “thoroughly dishonest man. You were earning a lot of money legitimately but you got greedy & wanted more.”
As his name became known the on-line Hereford community went into overdrive and swiftly came to the conclusion that there was no way he had sufficient cash to address Hereford’s problems. Tommy again proved himself a great talker. Unfortunately he was an even better liar and his promises of making sure payments were on their way to players and staff were totally empty. He started to try to play hardball with the Conference too, asking for assurances that we would retain conference status if football creditors were paid by the date they’d demanded. The Conference to their credit refused but did extend the deadline for payment most likely so they could show consistent treatment for Hereford, Macclesfield and Salisbury who were all in financial pickles.
The Conference showed they had the measure of Tommy by demanding a £350,000 bond as well as evidence of payment to creditors to assure their Conference status. Not surprisingly, nothing had happened by the 9th June deadline so the announcement on 10th June was a formality. We were turfed out and looking for a new home.
At least Keyte had proved himself right. We won’t be fighting for Conference survival on the last day of next season because we’ll only be able to look at the teams in the Conference with envy. Keyte is aware he sold the club to extremely dodgy characters. How much for? Two pounds, twice what the Supporter’s Trust offered because Tommy didn’t have change. But the Trust had no position for Keyte whereas Tommy needs his relative respectability for the fit and proper person’s test and has (as far as we know) retained him as chairman for now.
Once expulsion was confirmed, more and more facts and rumours are emerging that point to the truly dodgy nature of this deal. Tommy’s son Harry played football for Floriana in Malta, a club owned by Stephen Vaughan Jr. That seemed to point to a link with Stephen Vaughan who is an incredibly unsavoury character (his Wiki page isn’t pleasant). Hereford’s only assets are the leases to the Edgar Street ground. This is a prime bit of real estate next door to the recently developed shopping centre on the old cattle market site. Tommy has already asked the council to reassign two of the three ground leases to one of his businesses. The only motive that we can see is that this would allow development of those end for his (or his backers) financial gain. A connection between Tommy Agombar and Stephen Vaughan has been discovered where they were making enquiries about potential building work in Hereford although we have yet to see documented proof of this.
Mark Ellis seems to have become the mouthpiece for the group but comes across as nothing more than a conceited fantasist. Keyte has proven himself untrustworthy over the course of four years and Agombar has shown he is just as bad in the two weeks he’s been in public. He claims that payments have been delayed because the debt turns out to be much bigger than he previously thought. There are other characters in this too, Stuart Blake who runs a recruitment firm from the club using the space rent-free set up the deal between Keyte and Agombar despite repeated assurances that he was nothing to do with the club. A players’ statement issued on 11th June mentions that he was present at most board meetings too, so one more compulsive liar to add to the mix. Colin Addison, responsible for that miracle result against Newcastle is still involved with the club and has done nothing to distance himself from this. This truly saddens me.
One last comment on the state of the club. Amongst the employees who still haven’t been paid are Mark Farmer and Jamie Griffiths. Both resigned their positions on 11th June. Mark was one of the webmasters for club sites and forums from day 1 and has selflessly ensured that the club has a professional presence on the web. His reward is to be in danger of being evicted because he can’t pay his bills. Jamie Griffiths acted as Media Officer but has always gone above and beyond the club. An early contributor to the Hereford Forums, he was one of the first people I met when visiting Hereford and he was totally welcoming. If you saw the Dagenham 0 Hereford 9 game on Sky in 2004, he was one of the Mexicans whose appearance coincided with the run that almost took us to automatic promotion.
These are the people who truly represent a small club like Hereford but they felt they could not continue with the new regime. I hope Jamie doesn’t mind me lifting his Facebook post because he says it so much better than I can “I’m sat in the Blackfriars End crying my eyes out because the club I love has died. It’s been a massive part of my life but the time has come to leave. #HTID”
And what about the fans? Currently we’re in two camps. There are those who despite the growing body of evidence about the total lack of morals shown by Keyte, Agombar and cronies still view Hereford as their club and will be back at Edgar Street no matter what league Hereford are playing in. My stance is very different and I’m increasingly heartened to see that a growing number of people agree.
Those currently in charge are a cancer on the club and need to be forced out. If it means Hereford United 1939 closes and we restart as a phoenix club then that is a worthwhile price for the long term survival of Hereford United 2014?2015? The only way forward is a complete boycott of Edgar Street. If people need a football fix, go to the away games, give the money to much more ethical clubs and use it as an opportunity to protest against the current owners. The model of fan-owned clubs like Chester City is where we want to be and our long term aim has to be to become an integral part of the community.
A petition and email campaign is underway to persuade the council that the leases should not be transferred to Agombar’s companies. At least one councillor who happily helped the club in the past is on our side and trying to help. Additionally, Jesse Norman, the local MP is pushing the FA to look into what is going on at Hereford.
I don’t believe we’ve heard everything yet. As of today, 12th June, we have no idea what league may feature Hereford United. The only payment that we know has been received was a token payment to the groundsman who locked gates with his own padlock. Still nothing for players or staff.
Where Graham Turner made me proud of my club, David Keyte, Tommy Agombar and their cronies make me thoroughly ashamed. There is no way that I will set foot in Edgar Street while they’re involved and I will do everything I can to persuade others not to part with money that might go their way.
Finally some thanks to fans of Chester City, Liverpool, Newport County, Royston Town and Wrexham who have given us practical advice about how to deal with this situation. Thanks to Supporters Direct who are working with Hereford United Supporters Trust (HUST). I look forward to thanking those who chime in as this becomes more public knowledge.
HEREFORD UNITED 1924 to 2014. RIP.
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