The Lazarus Club: Hereford's Rise From The Dead

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Hereford is a city with a proud, if not illustrious history. Formed in 1924, the original team named Hereford United F.C. spent 31 seasons in the Football League which peaked with a brief spell in the old Second Division and a famous 1972 giant killing of Newcastle United in the FA Cup. Hereford’s club motto is “Our greatest glory lies not in never having fallen, but in rising when we fall”, and never has that sentiment been more apt than today. The club was wound up in the High Court in December 2014 and thus ceased to exist. The HUST (Hereford United Supporters Trust) led by Jon Hale, immediately set about creating a phoenix club and secured a place in the ninth tier in addition to the use of the club’s historic Edgar Street stadium ahead of the 2015-16 season. Hereford came back from 3-0 to win 4-3 at the weekend in front of over 4,000 people, remarkably a higher attendance than six League One sides.

The club’s demise; which came to a head in December 2014, can be traced back to their fall out of the Football League in the 2011-12 season and beyond. Hereford United had amassed debts of £1.3 million under the stewardship of local owner David Keyte who in fact played for Hereford’s reserve team in the 1970’s. The club was then passed around between individuals who did not have the club’s best interests at heart. Keyte sold the club to London-based businessman Tommy Agombar for a reported £1, rejecting an offer from HUST in the process. Agombar failed the ‘fit and proper owners test’ due to his history of lorry theft and prison sentences. Andrew Lonsdale was the next man to become heavily involved with the club, a partner of Agombar’s with an equally checkered past.

Hereford fans and the supporters trust were unsurprisingly cautious and not all too quick to trust the dodgy pair and as such, HUST already had plans in place to form a new club should that possibility become a reality. There was little surprise when; in December of 2014, the club was wound up. By this stage, Hereford had already dropped out of the Conference due to the club’s failure to pay the bond required to remain in the division. This decision had angered fans and the club’s crowds had dropped as low as 200 for some games, with supporters boycotting matches in an attempt to voice their extreme disapproval.

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Phoenix clubs are nothing new. They have sadly become all too common in the English game and after the tales of Accrington to Aldershot, Wimbledon to Halifax and, even more recently, the likes of FC United of Manchester, Chester and Darlington, one may wonder why one should take any interest in Hereford’s sad demise. However, the level of community support, the passion for the game, and the sheer number of people backing the newly-formed Hereford FC; despite their lowly-status down in English football’s ninth tier, is outstanding. They had a crowd of 4,250 for their first ever game; a pre-season fixture against FC United of Manchester in which they won 1-0, and have recorded 4,000+ crowds in both home league games so far this season.

In a city of just shy of 60,000 inhabitants, Hereford’s crowds have generally been impressive given their lack of on-field success. In their ‘golden era’ during the mid 1970s; when the club reached the Second Division for the only time in their history, Edgar Street often saw crowds in excess of 10,000 people. A record attendance of 14,849 came against Newport County as the club averaged over 8,000 fans a game for consecutive seasons. between 2,000 and 4,000 consistently came through the turnstiles throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s, right up to their last couple of seasons when attendances plummeted as fans began to boycott games. The recent crowds of 4,000+ in the ninth tier; boosted by the club’s sale of more than 1,000 season tickets, is nothing short of remarkable.

The fact that crowds have almost doubled for the Whites’ games, despite them being five divisions lower than when those figures stood at around 2,000, is a glowing example of what fan involvement can do for a club. With HUST now having major influence and power at the club, Hereford can finally rest assured that those who make the decisions at the top of the club do have the club’s best interests at heart. They have had a large number of volunteers who have helped make the revival possible and fans have flocked back to Edgar Street in their thousands to watch their truly local club. Their opening attendances have been higher than that of League One sides Burton, Colchester, Bury, Scunthorpe, Fleetwood and Rochdale, and is over double the average achieved by many League One sides. The average attendance in Hereford’s current division; the Midland Football League Premier, is around 100, with some clubs averaging around 65. That means the Bulls are hitting around 40 times the league average. When the team lost 2-0 to Stourport Swifts in their first away game, there was a Stourport record attendance of 1,070. Strourport average 80 fans a game. That says it all really.

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Of course, one would expect a former league club to dwarf the attendances of historical non-league stalwarts, but to this extent, it is still a rarity. FC United of Manchester were rightly commended for their impressive average attendance of 2,155 in the Conference North last season, but for Hereford to almost double those figures three divisions lower down, is really quite exceptional. As things stand, should Hereford maintain their current levels of support, they would likely have the highest average attendances outside the Football League, and would be vying with the likes of Tranmere Rovers, Grimsby Town and Wrexham for that title.

The newly-formed Hereford FC have started their first ever season with mixed form. They have won two and lost two of their first four games and as such lie in tenth place. The club will be hoping that the remarkable turnaround in their seven-goal thriller at the weekend will set the tone for an impending rise up the table. With the backing from the stands that the club has, they should have no problem making a swift return up through the leagues. Unlike the likes of Portsmouth, Wimbledon and Chester, Hereford are not owned by a fan majority. Edgar Street needed over £200,000 worth of repairs and in securing benefactors to complete that work, they sacrificed majority ownership. That being said, the benefactors are said to be long-term Hereford United supporters and as such, HUST had little doubts over allowing them such control at the club. Hereford’s next encounters include the likes of Coleshill Town, Westfields and Shepshed Dynamo. It is worth keeping one eye on The Bulls over the next few years and their attempts to return to the Football League.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Mark Lee

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