When the end finally comes, it is usually the mundanity of that is the most striking thing of all. At the High Court in London, five days before Christmas and with most “football people” focusing their attention on the forthcoming rush of holiday fixtures, Hereford United Football Club passed quietly into the night, another of the English game’s relative footnotes cast asunder shifted to its “History” section. Yet the story of Hereford United and its demise doesn’t end with the scratching of a judge’s signature on a document in a hushed courtroom. When it comes to football clubs, these stories seldom do. Hereford United Football Club may be no more, but football in this particular town will continue, under a subtly different name. Enter stage left, Hereford FC.
The demise of Hereford United came about at considerable speed, and where exactly this story even begins may be open to question. If we are to trace the roots of the sequence of events that ended in the High Court a couple of months ago, though, we should probably begin in June 2010 with the arrival of local businessman David Keyte as the club’s chairman. At the end of the following season, the team finished one place and three points above the League Two relegation places, a position not helped when it was deducted three points by the Football League for fielding an ineligible player, Rob Purdie, in a match. The following season, however, the club’s luck began its slow, inexorable process of running out, and it was relegated back to the Football Conference.
This was a position in which Hereford United had found itself before, and it might have been presumed that the club would, given this experience, have been better prepared for such a drop than most. On the pitch, it seemed that this may have been the case. Hereford ended their first season back in non-league football in sixth place in the table, one place – albeit with a ten point gap above them – off the play-off places. The following season, however, the wheels began to fall off the wagon completely. By the end of the 2013/14 season, the club had avoided relegation to the Conference North on goal difference from Chester, but it was at this point that the full scale of the club’s precarious financial predicament truly became fully apparent.
Keyte sold his shareholding in the club to an East London based businessman by the name of Tommy Agombar for the princely sum of £2, but it was Agombar’s involvement with the club that seemed to accelerate its demise more than anything else. Such had been the scale of the club’s financial difficulties that it had been instructed to pay £350,000 to its football creditors or face expulsion from the Football Conference. It failed to do so, but was granted an extension on account of the club’s new ownership. When this amount remained unpaid, the club was duly expelled and demoted two divisions, to the Premier Division of the Southern League.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, details of Agombar’s colourful past had started to come to light, and these cast serious doubts over whether he should even have been in a position to buy the club in the first place. In 1987, at Southwark Crown Court, Agombar had been sentenced to four years in prison over his involvement with a gang of lorry thieves who had been active for the previous two years. After being found guilty on one count of conspiracy to steal and three counts of theft, the presiding judge described Agombar as, “a thoroughly dishonest man,” and this dishonesty was cost him any further formal involvement with the club. He therefore failed the FA’s Owners and Directors Test just thirteen days after taking it over, and with just one match played of the new Southern League season in August, ownership of the club changed hands again, this time to one Andrew Lonsdale, of a company called Alpha Finance, a company described – without apparent irony – as being “specialists in distressed debt.”
Lonsdale had been with the club as an “advisor” since the earlier in the summer summer, but his name may have rung a bell or two amongst non-league aficionados with anything like a reasonable memory. Lonsdale had been a director of number of haulage companies that had been liquidated and was himself disqualified as from acting as a company director between 2006 and 2012. He was convicted for dumping waste on green-belt land in Buckinghamshire in 2008, but it was his involvement at Feltham FC that raised the most eyebrows of all. Whilst acting as the president of the club, Feltham’s ground was to be renovated, a job which bringing in soil (16,000 m3) from other sites. However, a subsequent investigation revealed that almost five times as much soil and rubble (73,000 m3) had been deposited with an estimated value to his company, All Transport Limited, of about £1.2 million. Lonsdale claimed was that he’d made a loss because the revenue was much smaller, based on his assessment that he’d only deposited 2/3 of the amount the council survey claimed. All Transport ended up, as so many of his other companies did, in liquidation, whilst Hounslow Borough Council have since confirmed that they now need to renovate the area upon which the ground once stood at a cost to the taxpayer of £300,000.
By the time the new season started, though, the story of Hereford United’s season on the pitch already seemed less important than what was going on in the boardroom. The club’s supporters trust, which had seen its membership swell as Hereford’s difficulties mounted, polled its membership on boycotting future matches in July of last year, and the supporters, sickened by the events that had overtaken their club, voted overwhelmingly for it. The new season started with the club limping, hamstrung, playing in front of rapidly shrinking crowds at Edgar Street. The council sought a winding up order against the club over the non-payment of rent, but Lonsdale, Agombar, or whomever, came up with the required £50,000 at the last minute. By this time, however, the view that the only way to starve the owners out of the club was through boycotting had completely paralysed the club’s finances, with crowds – which had, in the Conference, comfortably been into four figures – dropping to three hundred or less.
The end came, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a hint of farce about it. A winding up petition been brought by HMRC over an unpaid £116,000 tax will had been adjourned at the start of December, when Lonsdale told the court that he had £1m to sink into the club in investment. This amount went, of course, unpaid. On the previous Saturday, Thirteenth of December 2014, the Hereford United team had travelled to Bedfordshire to play Dunstable in the Southern League. They drew one-all in front of a crowd of just 167 people. Six days later, the court met again and this time the club’s luck ran out, with the presiding judge remaining unimpressed at Lonsdale’s claims to be stuck in traffic with proof of funding for the all-important £1m. This time though, there would be no further extensions for Hereford United. The club was formally expelled from the Southern League on the fifth of January and subsequently evicted from Edgar Street by the council. It says much about the condition in which the club had found itself by this point that these events, whilst inevitably upsetting for those that had followed the club, were seen as the only course of events that could result in some degree of sanity ever returning to football in the town.
That there would be a new football club for Hereford was never in doubt, but what form would it take? The Hereford United Supporters Trust (HUST), which now has over 1,700 members, might have been prime contenders for the role, and immediately after Hereford United was wound up HUST announced its intention to move towards starting a new club, Hereford FC. However, three days later it was established that a local businessman, Jon Hale, who had earlier been chairman of HUST, had registered the name Hereford Football Club with the Herefordshire Football Association, in conjunction with the trust and a group of local businessmen. The new club will see HUST being given the opportunity to become the largest single shareholder, with individual and corporate benefactors being barred from owning more than twenty-five per cent of shares of the new club, and when the proposal was put to the Trust membership, almost 97% of those who voted voted in favour of it.
There are, of course, possible reasons as to why the Trust decided that it would be unable to go it alone. For example, the club’s Edgar Street ground is in need of considerable repair after years of neglect, and this might prove to be expensive. Another factor to take into consideration is the fact that the new club needed to be registered by the first of March to stand any chance of starting with effect from next season, and the financial backing of others makes this considerably more likely than it might otherwise have been. Early signs, however, have been encouraging with the council agreeing a lease for the use of Edgar Street to the new club for the next five years. Which division of the English league system the club slots into is also open to debate, for now, at least. The club is expected to be invited to join the Midland League, but it remains possible that they could be placed higher than that. These decisions usually seem to be taken based upon the whims of whoever happens to be reviewing the case.
Through this grim story of disingenuity and shadiness, though, there is one group of people that deserve considerable credit for their role in it, and that is the supporters of Hereford United themselves. The vast majority of the digging to expose Tommy Agombar, Andrew Lonsdale and others for who they were came from ordinary supporters of the club, and now that their names are common public currency mention of those names will set alarm bells ringing should they pitch up elsewhere in the future. The supporters who made these sacrifices – up to and including the boycotting of their club – played an invaluable role in what we should surely hope will be a happy and successful future for Hereford FC, and that role is unlikely to be forgotten in the set-up of the new club. At a time when various authorities failed to act in order to prevent a thoroughly avoidable state of affairs coming to pass and seemingly everybody expressing an interest in the club from outside gave the impression of having an agenda that was more about lining their own pockets than the well-being of the club itself, the supporters of Hereford United often seemed to be the only people who were prepared to take a stand and to act with any great integrity. They did it for the love of their football club, and now that football club will be returned to them. It was the absolute least they they deserve.
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