Football: Hereford's healing will be helped by settling an old score

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Hereford lost their League status after a 1- 1 home draw with Brighton on an emotional final day of last season. By extraordinary coincidence the two teams meet again in the FA Cup first round today.
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When the season opened, a new set of photographs adorned the walls of the manager's office and home dressing-room at Hereford United. They showed players and supporters weeping, or with heads bowed, after May's fight to the finish with Brighton & Hove Albion. Now, like Hereford on that feverish afternoon, the pictures have come down.

The stark, black-and-white images were intended to instil in everyone connected with the club what it meant to relinquish Football League status, filling them with a desire to regain it via promotion from the Vauxhall Conference. But when the FA Cup's infinite capacity for coincidence brings Brighton back to Edgar Street today, they will be gathering dust behind a cupboard.

"We don't need photos to remind us of how bad it felt," reasons Graham Turner, Hereford's director of football. "That day, I remembered Bill Shankly's famous saying about football being more than a matter of life or death. He wasn't talking literally - there are obviously many more tragic circumstances - but the feeling of loss made me understand what he meant.''

At the risk of opening old wounds, it may be appropriate to put the contest in context. When the final day of last season dawned, Hereford occupied bottom place in the Third Division. Brighton, the only other side who could be relegated, were level on points but had scored more goals. They needed only a draw to escape.

An own goal by Kerry Mayo threatened to earn him the freedom of Hereford and cider for life, only for Robbie Reinelt to equalise and set up the most fraught 28 minutes imaginable. When it was over and Brighton had slipped their chains of seven months, the emotions which engulfed Turner's team belied the belief of many football fans that they have a monopoly of feeling for a club.

Hereford reportedly changed in silence, broken only by Sussex's songs of relief outside. "Oh no," says Turner. "What you could hear was our lads sobbing, some of them hardened pros who've been in the game a long time. Whatever noise Brighton or their supporters were making was blotted out. It was like a dream.

"I've never seen so many grown men crying - on the pitch, in the boardroom, in the stands. It really was traumatic. I didn't think I'd ever see sport get to people so intensely. People might think `Hereford's only a backwater, so it doesn't really matter', but it was shattering for those involved. The next day on TV I saw Middlesbrough fans in tears because they'd gone down. We lost far more.''

Turner recalls feeling an "enormous sense of responsibility" as the final whistle sounded and snarling police dogs barred his way down the tunnel. There had been mitigating factors: he had not bought anyone for the best part of two years because of a transfer embargo and he was forced to sell five key players. He decided, however, that offering his resignation was the only honourable course.

Hereford's chairman, Peter Hill, refused to accept it, though it was the reaction of the supporters that persuaded Turner to battle on. "I got dozens of letters urging me not to give up. They even stuck posters on the doors saying I had to stay.''

As one who was hounded out of Wolves, a victim of the very expectations he had raised, he appreciated the irony. When he was at his lowest ebb that Sunday, the Molineux owner Sir Jack Hayward rang and insisted on treating Turner and his family to a holiday in the Bahamas. He did not stop calling until his former manager agreed.

After the initial grieving, the club and city came round to thinking positively. The Conference offered a way back to the League, and by staying full-time Hereford planned to emulate Lincoln, Colchester and Darlington in bouncing back. Currently lying eighth, they are handily placed, but even that position was not achieved without pain.

Only weeks ago, the club's cash-flow crisis deepened to the extent that they were unable to meet their obligations to the players. Those paid monthly had to wait seven weeks between salary slips; the weekly earners were more than three weeks behind.

"These fellas, who aren't on big money anyway, have got young families, mortgages to pay and need to put petrol in their car," Turner says. "But they responded superbly. In a strange way, adversity seemed to bind them closer together.''

The situation had another unexpected side-effect. Several of the squad live a considerable distance from Hereford and were struggling to make ends meet, so Turner cut the training back to a couple of days a week. The next Saturday he was struck by how well they performed. The following weekend they won 5-1 at highly placed Morecambe.

"I don't think you could do that every week, but they did look refreshed. I heard a rugby union player recently say that when they were part-time and trained just twice a week, the Saturday game was the highlight. Since they'd gone full-time and were training every day, it didn't have the same magic.''

A Cup replay with Sittingbourne brought in urgently needed revenue (helping Hereford see the bright side of Trevor Matthewson's diving header into his own net in Kent). Likewise an average gate which, at 2,800, is up on this time last year. The Brighton tie has generated further revenue, fuelling Turner's optimism.

"There's a lot of pressing debts - the VAT people and taxman are chasing us - and we've lost pounds 100,000 in Football League money. But we're actually operating profitably because we've cut right back on wages and support has been so good.''

Hereford have no chief executive or commercial manager, and Turner reckons he spends as much time doing the accounts as on the training ground. "It's been all hands to the pump to keep the club afloat. I've done everything from driving a dumper truck to rotivate the pitch to selling advertising boards.''

The Cup was the making of Hereford - their epic victory over Newcastle helped them gain election to the Fourth Division 25 years ago despite failing to win the Southern League - and it could be the saving of them. Two years ago they netted pounds 200,000 from two tussles with Tottenham. According to Turner, a similar draw this season could wipe out their problems overnight.

Before they start dreaming of Old Trafford or Anfield there is a score to settle. As they emerged into the night at Sittingbourne, a press man said to Turner: "You'll never guess who you've drawn." He did not need Mystic Meg to know that the answer was the B-word.

"Brighton haven't started well and won't relish coming back here," Turner says. "I won't regard it as revenge - one Cup win can't compensate for losing League status - but we'd take a lot of satisfaction from beating them.''

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