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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor