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Forever United: How Hereford’s fans saved their club

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In 2007, Hereford won promotion to League One, the third tier of English football. Their legendary manager/chairman Graham Turner, who had helped save the club from bankruptcy in the late nineties, had turned the club around and the days of collection tins to keep the club going seemed like a thing of the past. It was not to be. Hereford were relegated from League One and a few years later, Turner had resigned as both manager, and later as chairman, in order to return to Shrewsbury Town where he had started his management career in the 1970s. Despite moving to their closest rivals, there were no hard feelings among Hereford supporters. However, since Turner’s departure, Hereford’s story took a turn for the worse. They dropped out of the Football League in 2012 and, with huge debts, ended up in the hands of a London property developer, who happened to be an ex-convict, for just two pounds. Fans knew something was wrong at that stage, and memories of former attempted takeovers re-emerged; the club’s historic Edgar Street ground lies in the city centre and is a financial bonanza for anyone who could knock it down and build on the land. Fans easily put two-and-two together and started boycotting what they saw as out-of-towners trying to make a quick buck out of their club.

The end of the 2013/4 season saw Hereford on the verge of relegation from the conference. A dramatic three-two win against Alfreton Town in their final home match of the season gave United a slim chance of staying up, they needed a win away at Aldershot Town on the final day of the season and results in other games to go their way though. On the last day of the season, Sam Smith bundled home a corner to give Hereford the lead against Aldershot in the twenty-eighth minute, and with Chester drawing at half time, it looked as if the Whites might just manage the impossible. However, Chester took the lead early in the second half and when Aldershot equalized with ten minutes to go, Hereford looked doomed once again. There was another twist to come when in the eighty-sixth minute, Salisbury did Hereford a huge favour, scoring against Chester to make that game two-a-piece, then, in the eighty-eighth minute, Hereford’s Michael Rankine scored a late winner from close range to complete the fairy-tale escape and keep United up on goal difference.

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It was not to be. Those last minute heroics on the pitch were all for nothing as just over a month later Hereford were expelled from the conference due to financial irregularities. The circumstances of the relegation were too much to bear for many supporters of the club, and by now fans were already considering all possible measures that could help remove United’s owners. The following season saw more and more fans boycotting the club, choosing to watch the Hereford United Supporter’s Trust team instead.

Hereford limped on for half a season in the Southern League, but by now the boycott was in full effect as fans could see their club being destroyed before their eyes. By the time that the club was finally wound up, with the director claiming that he was unable to present the proof of funding required to court because he was ‘stuck in traffic’, fans had had enough of the destruction of their club and there was almost a sense of relief that the whole affair was over.

There is still a lot of bickering about the reasons for Hereford United’s demise, but one thing was clear, and that was that from the 19th December 2014, the city didn’t have a football club.

When the club was being sold for two pounds, fans could already see that their club was in trouble, and just a few days after the takeover, a few local businessmen announced their plan to launch a new phoenix club in conjunction with the Hereford United Supporters Trust. Without the foresight of these businessmen, it is very doubtful that Hereford would have been able to set up a football team for the 2015/16 season. Clubs in England have to submit documents by the beginning of March if they are to be admitted into the league for the following season, giving the consortium just a few months to get the club off the ground.

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The biggest issue was where the new club would play. Such was the state of disrepair that Edgar Street had found itself in that, in Hereford United’s final season, it only had a safety certificate for a thousand supporters. Even if the ground’s owners, Herefordshire County Council, were to allow the new club to use the ground, a lot of refurbishment work was needed to be done.

While a club owned 100% by the supporters’ trust would have been the ideal model for Hereford, the club’s financial circumstances dictated that this wasn’t possible. Rather than use this model, Hereford FC have created their own model for a football club. This new model involves the club creating half a million pounds of equity from selling shares, fifty percent of which are reserved for the supporters club, and the other fifty percent for individuals. The individual shareholders must be vetted by the board before purchasing shares, and may not own more than twenty-four percent of the club. However for administrative reasons, individuals wishing to purchase shares must buy at least two thousand pounds’ worth of shares. This arrangement has allowed the club to raise the capital required for playing this season in a short space of time, and should in theory mean that the club is fifty-percent owned by the supporters’ trust. There are also regulations in place to prevent any shareholder from profiting from their ownership of shares in the new club, and to ensure that any profits made are reinvested into the club.

Although many fans would prefer a 50+1 model, they acknowledge the reasons why they can’t have such a set-up. However, the supporters’ trust believe that with the model that Hereford FC have developed never again can people come in, get hold, and ruin this football club.’

With fifty-percent of the shares ring-fenced for the supporter’s trust, volunteers have been working hard to raise the two-hundred –and-fifty thousand pounds required. Bulls News’ Graham Goodwin estimates that the trust has raised over fifty thousand pounds, but they still have a long way to go.

Hereford’s new model is designed to be sustainable, with budgets set based on the club selling around two hundred season tickets. Such has been the enthusiasm for the phoenix club, that Hereford FC have sold over a thousand season tickets. Edgar Street has been refurbished, and was filled with over four-thousand supporters for the club’s pre-season friendly against FC United of Manchester.

With such large support, Hereford will be looking to rise up through the divisions quickly, and the man tasked with that job is manager Peter Beadle. Beadle was in charge of Hereford United for their heroic but ultimately futile last-day survival in 2014, and is now tasked with building a squad that can win Hereford promotion back towards the Football League. Several of his signings have played for Hereford United in the past, including former club captains Tony James and Rob Purdie, who were both part of United’s 2005-6 team that won promotion back to the football league. James has since left the club in order to free up wages for Ryan Green who himself scored the goal that got Hereford promoted back in 2006. Beadle has also brought in what looks like the strongest strike force in the league, with John Mills and Pablo Haysham joining from Didcot Town where they scored seventy goals between them last season in the league above Hereford’s current level. This season, it only took Mills until the beginning of October before he had twenty goals to his name. Defensively, Hereford started poorly, and after conceding five goals against Coleshill Town, Beadle called for reinforcements, bringing in Stourport Swifts’ captain Jamie Willets to tighten up the back-line. The change at the back was the catalyst for a fantastic run of eighteen wins in a row (a run which is still ongoing as of November 20th) which has taken Hereford to the top of the table.

While promotion is the aim for this season, in the long-term Hereford need to secure their home ground, with the lease on Edgar Street currently only running for five years. Keeping hold of their famous old ground is a priority for the club, along with reaching the 250,000 pound target that would give the supporters’ trust 50% ownership of the club. However, with the club now in the hands of loyal supporters, and with sensible budgets and safeguards in place, it looks like Hereford can finally enjoy a bright future.

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