Last season Hereford United fans shaved their heads, auctioned memorabilia and organised charity walks in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy. This season many die-hards are doing something very different; they are staying away.
The Bulls, fabled for their FA Cup giant-killing exploits, have become one of those cursed clubs torn apart by the arrival of a controversial owner, setting fan against fan and exposing the lack of business safeguards in the English game.
On Monday the club’s owners are due in court to answer another winding-up order, the latest part of a saga that shows no sign of abating but accelerated towards crisis when the club were thrown out of the Conference in the summer.
Hereford are now in the Evo-Stik Southern League, a level they long thought behind them. Equally humiliatingly, they were bundled out of the FA Cup – in which they made their name 42 years ago by knocking out Newcastle United – by Ellistown & Ibstock of the East Midlands Counties League in the first qualifying round. Most damaging of all, Hereford are attracting gates of barely 400.
Five years ago the club were in League One. But cash was already tight and after being relegated they were taken over in 2010 and David Keyte, a local accountant who is said to have played for their reserves, was installed as chairman.
Keyte’s tenure was marked by financial problems and relegation to the Conference in 2012 followed by a series of winding-up orders, including one from former manager Martin Foyle over unpaid wages in May. Other staff had gone unpaid, or been laid off.
At this level that meant missing mortgage payments. Club photographer Steve Niblett sold his memorabilia to help pay fellow employees. “I’d just transfer it to my bank account and go round to people’s houses and give them the money,” said Niblett, adding, “I don’t think David Keyte is a nasty bloke. I think he’s just very incompetent.”
In April Hereford won at Aldershot to preserve their Conference status. A large travelling support put £600 in Niblett’s bucket to thank the players. That month the supporters’ trust offered to buy the club for £1 and pledged £220,000 to help clear the debt. Instead, Hereford announced that a businessman, Tommy Agombar, had bought it for £2. Seven days after his arrival, Hereford were expelled from the Conference for failing to clear debt and deposit a £350,000 bond.
Supporters’ attention turned to Agombar. They discovered that in 1987 he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing lorries of mink skins, designer clothes, and £100,000 of cigarettes.
“It’s not the vicar coming along to buy the football club, is it?” said Keyte . “He was 27 years of age, with a group of other lads who came up with an idea that they didn’t get away with.” The conviction led to Agombar failing the Football Association’s owners’ and directors’ test (ODT) . He was forced to sell his shares.
The next chairman was Andy Lonsdale. His CV reveals he had held 21 appointments at 17 dissolved companies and spent six years as a disqualified director. In 2008 he was convicted of dumping 600 lorry loads of contaminated waste on green-belt land.
Fans also found out that Agombar asked Herefordshire Council to transfer leases allowing the development of areas around the stadium to a company under his ownership. They feared he was more interested in developing the site than the club, an accusation Agombar and Lonsdale deny but which grew with the appointment of directors with interests in waste management and the construction industry. One, Philip Peter Gambrill, the company secretary of Savannah Construction Limited, was an associate of Alan Gerald McCarthy, owner of Alpha Choice Finance Limited, the company to whom Agombar had sold his shares.
“But that doesn’t mean anything, does it?” said Lonsdale. “Philip introduced [McCarthy] to Tommy. Alan buys distressed debt. Tommy needed to get rid of his loans and his shares, and Alan was the only one willing to buy them at the time.”
Lonsdale added: “The leases say that football has to be played at Edgar Street forever. The fans have known that since day one.”
“That’s what the leases and the covenant on the ground say, yes,” said Hereford United Supporters Trust chairman Chris Williams, “but if you pay enough money you can eliminate those conditions.”
The crisis united and mobilised fans who marched, lobbied and, in July, called for a boycott. Subsequently there have been more redundancies, a wholesale turnover of playing staff, and a series of winding-up orders adjourned. The local MP, Jesse Norman, became involved. The council sent officials climbing over a fence at Edgar Street in an attempt to repossess the ground.
The club are marooned mid-table in tier seven of the pyramid, the majority of fans staying away. Last year’s average crowd was 1,758. This season’s is 409. Some who do go have struck up a rapport with Agombar, who bought a season ticket and watches most games.
Meanwhile McCarthy was this month charged by the FA with acting as a club official without taking the ODT. But Lonsdale, who has passed the test, said: “I’m not going to give in. We’re here to win the war.”
Williams claimed he told Agombar early in the season he would ask the Trust to call off the boycott in exchange for a solicitor’s letter guaranteeing football would continue to be played at Edgar Street. Williams alleged Agombar replied: “Yes, you’ll have that in your email inbox by Monday.”
Williams added, “I still haven’t received that letter,” so today, when Hereford host Sutton United, Williams, like many other Bulls fans, will be elsewhere.Reuse content