...while Hereford's new start recalls familiar failings

Phil Shaw sees Graham Turner's team begin Conference life with a 2-1 defeat
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The Independent Online
Two framed photos adorn Graham Turner's spartan office. Far from celebrating the day fate and romance conspired in Hereford United's favour, when Ronnie Radford's shot found the Newcastle net like a heat-seeking missile to launch the invasion of the parka coats, they are a constant reminder of the club's darkest hour and a half.

One shows Turner striving to control his emotions as he leaves the manager's touchline post - and the Football League - after the draw with Brighton which saw the Sussex club survive and Hereford relegated in May. In the other, his half-stripped players bow their heads and weep.

Similar shots hang in the dressing-room, their presence designed to inspire a "never again" determination rather than self-pity. But on Saturday, when Hereford made a fresh start in the Vauxhall Conference, the picture remained sadly familiar for Turner's team, who opened with a 2-1 home defeat by Welling United.

The Hereford faithful comprised all bar 39 of what Turner described as an "incredible" crowd of more than 3,000. Such loyalty made it all the more galling that his defence seemed determined to accommodate opponents who were robust and resolute yet otherwise as mundane as last season's 18th place would suggest. Two crosses, two soft goals and with half an hour gone, a summer of goodwill was all but betrayed.

One of the ex-League players in whom Turner is trusting, Tony Agana, halved the deficit against his first club. Hereford's full-time status was expected to tell, but Welling, whose edge in strength and size might force a reappraisal of the "seasoned pro" strategy should it prove typical of the Conference, held out comfortably.

Agana was not the only one coming full circle. Hereford went into their first non-League fixture in a quarter of a century - since they were voted in as Southern League runners-up on the back of their FA Cup heroics - encouraged by the fact that Lincoln, Darlington and Colchester all secured a swift return to the senior ranks.

Turner, who works under the title of director of football, admits he took several weeks to get over the trauma of Brighton; or as he refers to it, apocalyptically, "the last day". He was helped by Sir Jack Hayward, who called from Wolves within 24 hours to offer his former manager a family holiday in the Bahamas.

Further heartened by the refusal of his chairman, Peter Hill, to accept his resignation, Turner set about rebuilding. The pounds 110,000 Hereford received from the League, half the sponsorship payment made to members of the Third Division, enabled them to avoid going part-time. It did not ease a long-running financial crisis at Edgar Street, encapsulated by Hill as "living hand to mouth".

"For a long time we couldn't sign anyone, let alone buy them, because of a transfer embargo," Turner explained. "I've just paid my first fee, pounds 20,000 for Neil Grayson from Northampton, but I've been surprised at the money clubs like Rushden & Diamonds and Hednesford are offering players. It's much more than a lot of Third Division teams, and I've missed out on people because we can't compete."

Turner has also had to make staff cuts, behind the scenes and on the playing side. He now doubles as club coach and even mucks in on commercial chores. Only by pulling together, he argues, can Hereford stop the rot.

"There's a lot at stake for everybody, not least me. You're working now to salvage your career. I don't think I've ever worked harder."

Since the Last Day, Turner has made a point of meeting Hereford fans, attending forums and chairing meetings. He detected "a real buzz" in the city, a feeling that the Conference need not be a disaster. After all, they still had their own ground, and no one has to trek 150 miles for home matches.

"The Brighton game showed you should never underestimate the depth of feeling for a small club like this," Turner said. "I've never seen so many grown men crying. But once the public accepted our plight, they rallied round magnificently. We've sold loads of T-shirts saying `Hereford: On Loan to the Vauxhall Conference'. After 20 years in the bottom division, I think people are looking forward to seeing new teams and visiting new grounds."

The more resilient will make a start tonight at Hednesford, deep in his old Molineux constituency, although the sardonic laughter which greeted the injury-time announcement of travel details suggest that Turner will need to turn the tide soon to keep Hereford united.

Goals: Copley (4) 0-1; Cooper (27) 0-2; Agana (56) 1-2.

Hereford United (3-4-3): DeBont; Matthewson, Norton, Walker; Rodgerson, Mahon, Hargreaves, Fishlock; Agana, Foster (McGorry, 85), Grayson. Substitutes not used: Pitman, Warner.

Welling United (5-3-2): Knight; Watts, Copley, Horton, Skiverton, Farley; Lakin, Chapman, King (Simpson, 72); Cooper, Watson (Turner, 85). Substitute not used: Dimmock.

Referee: R Olivier (Sutton Coldfield).

Bookings: Hereford Agana; Welling Watts, Chapman, Turner.

Man of the match: Agana.

Attendance: 3,138.