Turner takes Bulls by the horns in bid to end exile from league

Hereford can end nine years in the Conference tomorrow with a play-off final win. Their chairman and manager talks to Phil Shaw about the biggest game of his life

King Charles I once stayed there. Pitt the Elder convened Cabinet meetings within its walls. And Queen Victoria's daughter planted a tree in the grounds. Like the clouds of midges that swarm around the Hereford United players as they train on the front lawn, history hangs heavy over Holme Lacy.

Graham Turner, Hereford's chairman, manager and majority shareholder, knows the feeling. As he holds court in one of the lounges in the stately home turned scenic hotel, having overseen preparations for tomorrow's Nationwide Conference play-off final against Halifax Town at Leicester, he reflects on the events nine years ago this month that rewrote his own and the club's history.

Hereford, where he had become manager of an ailing Fourth Division club in 1995 after bringing Wolverhampton Wanderers back from oblivion, hosted Brighton in a last-day showdown to decide which of the two would surrender League status. The Sussex side survived, and the image of a distraught Turner, staring grimly down at the ground, was plastered across the sports pages.

"I'm over it, but people are forever bringing it up with me," says the 58-year-old Turner with a smile. "We had a meeting at the Walkers Stadium about the final recently and the Nationwide representative was a Brighton supporter who'd been at the game. Talking about it brought back memories of a terrible day. It seemed like the end of the world.

"But the Conference can be a stepping stone. Look how Carlisle, Yeovil and Doncaster have kept climbing since being promoted. Supporters will come and watch a winning set-up, whatever the division. Carlisle's gates are miles better than before they were relegated from the League."

According to Turner, whose CV also includes a spell in charge of Aston Villa, after going into management while still a player at Shrewsbury 29 years ago, "The Bulls" were drifting ominously long before the fateful afternoon when they slipped off the League radar. "We were always down near the bottom. Relegation waiting to happen."

When it did, he felt his first responsibility - the honourable course - was to resign. He offered to go after the match, but the then chairman, Peter Hill, persuaded him to stay. When Hill wanted out, two years later, no one came forward to buy the shares. Turner and Joan Fennessy, who is now company secretary, dug deep to save the club.

Have there been times - for example, as Hereford fell at the play-off semi-final hurdle in each of the past two seasons - when he wondered whether it had been worth the trouble? "Every other week! Seriously, there was real despair four years back. We had no money. We'd sign cheques for the players' wages [they have remained full-time], not knowing where the funds were coming from.

"But since then, we've stabilised the club and worked our way out of a company voluntary arrangement which meant we weren't allowed to sign players. We've got cash in the bank now, too. In the past two financial years, we've made a profit of nearly £300,000 each time.

"It has been a relief not to have the anxiety of a delicate financial situation. It means I've been able to concentrate on the football, which has been a pleasure, especially the way we came from seventh place on Boxing Day to finish runners-up for the third season running."

When the club were demoted, fans staggered around the pitch, numbed and sobbing. Last week, after they beat Morecambe in extra time to set up the showdown with Halifax, the invasion was of the joyful kind with which Hereford have been synonymous since the 1972 FA Cup win over Newcastle as a Southern League team.

"The atmosphere was fantastic, even with only 6,500 people there," says Turner. "The buzz about the city has been unbelievable. It looks like we may have 11,000 following us. We've been taking calls from exiled Hereford fans all over the country asking how they can get tickets."

To avoid the clamour, at least for a day, the squad sampled what Turner terms "the beautiful surroundings" at Holme Lacy. As the eight-a-side kicked into a final five minutes of one-touch football, his directive could have been a rehearsal for his pep talk at Leicester. "If you haven't got quick feet and a quick brain," he calls, "go and sit on the wall.

"We've done 10 months on the practice pitch at Edgar Street. Coming to an environment like this lifts the pressure. We were offered a look at the Walkers Stadium - dressing-rooms, pitch - but I thought it might build up the tension too early in the week for what is a youngish side."

Hereford's captain, Malawi-born defender Tamika Mkandawire, is 22, a West Bromwich Albion reject for whom Turner predicts a bright future. The top scorer, local boy Andy Williams, is 19. Star quality comes from Cameroonian striker Guy Ipoua, whose clubs range from Torino and Atletico Madrid to Livingston and Gillingham. "Guy was injured for most of the season," he says, "but when we needed something special against Morecambe, he went on and scored a terrific winner."

Halifax will be formidable opponents. "They get the ball down and play, and they've got experienced guys like Peter Atherton, who was at Sheffield Wednesday, plus a young manager, Chris Wilder, who has done superbly," says Turner. "But we're ready for a battle."

Ready, too, for League Two. "We've got a good base of support and we would have six derbies if we went up: Wrexham, Chester, Shrewsbury, Walsall, Bristol Rovers and Swindon. The League holds no fears for Hereford United. But we have to get there first."

Fittingly, amid the grandeur of their rural retreat, the past converges with the present and future in Turner's thoughts. "This is the moment we've waited for since 1997. I was asked at a supporters' meeting on Monday how this final ranked in my career. Because I'm chairman as well, it's the single most important match I've ever been involved in."

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