The middle of July is not usually a time of year to be associated with club matches of significance. Elsewhere, the women’s singles final was being played at Wimbledon, whilst the England cricket team were on their way to a comprehensive first test win against Australia in The Ashes. In one small corner of the West of England, however, these two sporting events were only at the back of many people’s minds, because yesterday afternoon saw saw the return of football to Hereford, with a match between Hereford FC and FC United of Manchester, a pre-season friendly of considerably more symbolic significance than could ever be achieved on the pitch from a single, non-competition match.
The final collapse of Hereford United Football Club in December of last year was the final chapter of yet another tale of a very specific type of financial mismanagement that has become all too familiar in the lower divisions of English football in recent years. Under previous owner Martin Keyte the club ran up debts of over £1m, and in May of last year ownership of the club was passed to Tommy Agombar, a London-based property developer with no previous connection to the club. Agombar, however, was not considered to be a “fit” or “proper” owner of the club, having spent time in prison during the 1980s after being convicted of lorry theft and the club was passed in turn to a company called Alpha Finance, who claimed to be specialists in “distressed debt.”
Alpha Finance’s record, however, seemed to be as patchy as that of Agombar himself. The company was represented by one Andrew Lonsdale, who himself had already served a six year disqualification from acting as a company director, been declared bankrupt and been convicted of illegal waste dumping. Lonsdale’s previous football involvement had come with non-league club Feltham, where his time running the club had coincided with the club being evicted from its home, which was subsequently rendered unusable as a result of illegal dumping carried on the site. Of course, Lonsdale made he presumably felt were the right noises with regard to resuscitating fortunes of the football club, but by the time this information made its way into the public domain – and it’s worth pointing out that this information became public knowledge as a result of the work of Hereford supporters rather than as a result of any confession on the part of Lonsdale himself – there little reason for supporters to believe him.
Hereford United limped through the first half of last season in the Southern Football League, having been demoted from the Football Conference at the end of the previous season, but with the club’s Supporters Trust leading a supporters boycott, it was clear that the death of Hereford United was a matter of “when” rather than “if.” A winding up order against the club at the High Court in London was repeatedly adjourned to allow Lonsdale an opportunity to put the investment that he had promised into the club. Six days before Christmas, however, and with Lonsdale somewhat laughably claiming to be stuck in traffic in London, the court’s patience ran out and the club was wound up. Shortly after, its Southern League record for the season was expunged. Hereford United, founded in 1924, was dead.
Anticipating this eventuality, however, the Hereford United Supporters Trust had already been making preparations for the club that was to follow Hereford United. Fortunately, its Edgar Street ground was owned by the local council and in February a deal was agreed that allowed the newly-formed club, Hereford FC, to move in. The dream of complete supporter ownership of the club had to be conceded, however, when the state of decay into which Edgar Street had fallen became apparent. Such was the lack of care and attention that had been put into the ground itself in recent years that the cost of making Edgar Street safe to use again was £200,000, more money than the supporters trust could ever have found in a period of time short enough to allow football to begin again there from the start of this season.
They have sought to remain anonymous, but four benefactors – who are known to be long-time supporters of the club who helped Hereford United out financially in the past – were able to put together the money required to bring Hereford United up to scratch again. The supporters trust has already put in £25,000 itself, and the long-term aim is for the trust to be able to raise the £200,000 that would be required for the club to be able to take a 50% shareholding in the club in itself. In the first place, however, the critical job was return football to the town of Hereford as soon as possible. On a day-to-day basis, though, the club has taken its cue from FC United of Manchester, in particular its phenomenal efforts in motivating match-day volunteers. Practicalities may have got in the way of bringing a supporter owned club to Hereford, but a similar spirit of building a community around a football seems to have a chance of evolving there. The new club has already sold over 1,000 season tickets for the coming season, after all.
There has, however, been no automatic return to anywhere near the top end of the no-league game for Hereford FC. The club has been placed into Step Nine of the English National League System, four successive promotions from the top division of the non-league game, and will be kicking off the new season in the Premier Division of the Midland Football League, alongside the likes of Boldmere St Micheals, Coventry Sphinx and Loughborough University. None of this is to say that the clubs of this division don’t have stories to tell. Highgate United hit national news headlines when one of their players, Tony Allden, was killed by a lightning strike during an FA Amateur Cup quarter-final match against Enfield in 1967, whilst Alvechurch FC is the successor to a club of the same name that played the longest ever match in the history of the FA Cup, when during the 1971/72 season, their Fourth Qualifying Round match against Oxford City went to five replays before Alvechurch won by a goal to nil.
Yesterday afternoon at Edgar Street, the first signs of the revival were more than apparent. A crowd of over 4,000 people turned out on a warm summer’s afternoon to watch the match and, whilst it is difficult to read too much into results at this early stage of the summer, the home side could take considerable encouragement from winning the game by a goal to nil. More importantly than that, however, something else happened in Hereford yesterday afternoon. After months of protesting to get the previous owners away from the club and the eventual understanding that Hereford United had to die in order to be reborn, followed by fundraising, volunteering, donating and getting the skeleton of a football club back in place, the visit of FC United of Manchester was a reminder at the best of all possible times of what this is ultimately all about – a game of football on a Saturday afternoon. There will be a new season starting next month for Hereford FC, but this is only the latest in a series of new achievements that all of those involved in the new club have managed both before and since Hereford United died in the High Court, six days before Christmas.
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