Friday, July 04, 2014

This Isn't About Football Anymore

Distant Bulls fan Andy H has watched the current situation unfold from 3,000 miles away:

I live more than 3,000 miles away from Edgar Street, the home of Hereford United. Having not lived in Hereford for more than 20 years, I am used to keeping up with all news Bulls related from afar via an unofficial site, a fans forum and an official site and following the "action" on the BBC website.  My US neighbours have as little an idea of where Hereford is as my old ones in London. Telling anyone who I support generally draws a blank expression and the question, what league do they play in? Some also resort to facetiousness - a Norwegian friend began to refer to Hereford United as Herefordshire International. But, for me and my friends, that has become  a term of endearment for the club we support.

In writing this, I have spent some time pondering why the events at Hereford, particularly over the last 6 months, have troubled me so much. Although I lived in Hereford for 18 years, after school I moved away. All my friends did the same and aside from family, the club is the only genuine link I have to the place where I grew up. I have had the opportunity to introduce my nephew to the beautiful game at Edgar Street (2-1 loss at home to Port Vale, not that beautiful) and I want to be able to do the same with my kids. Following Hereford has been a struggle this past season, even from a distance. And although financial problems had been rumoured for a while, what has happened recently could and should have been avoided.

Financial problems at Hereford are nothing new. Graham Turner managed to steady a sinking ship and then brought some great players and football to Edgar Street. He left in 2010 with the football side in reasonable shape (okay, we had been relegated from League 1 the prior season, but having spent years in the Conference, being in the Football League  was satisfying enough).  The facilities on the other hand, and to put it politely, could have done with some modernization, although  I still lament the passing of the Meadow End trainer.  

David Keyte took over as Chairman and it's impossible to discuss the current plight without mentioning Mr. Keyte, since we find ourselves in this position due to events that occurred under his tenure.  During the 2013/14 season we were apparently losing 30,000 per month. This came to light around halfway through the season. At the time I thought that Mr. Keyte, a local gentleman and apparent long term supporter, would come good on the promise to not let the club go under on his watch. By that I assumed that the necessary cash would be found to keep the club afloat for the season. It transpired that instead Mr. Keyte had actually stopped paying staff and players. It was no surprise then that performance on the pitch deteriorated and left Hereford needing little short of a miracle on the last day of the season to escape relegation from the Conference (which, incidentally, would have been the second relegation of Mr. Keyte's tenure). I was resigned to the fact that we would be going down, but the stars aligned and in the last five minutes of the season both our result and that of Chester went our way and we stayed up. The feeling of elation was as good as any I have experienced following the club. With Conference status secure, and with Mr. Keyte looking for a buyer I thought things may be looking up. 

Without going into the details of quite why we were losing so much money suffice it to say that Mr. Keyte was no longer prepared to bankroll the club. With this the case, I believed that the way forward was through a Hereford United Supporters Trust (HUST) takeover. HUST  began asking for pledges in order to offer Mr. Keyte a nominal amount for the club with the wiping out of directors loans and the intention of paying off football related creditors. Mr. Keyte did not let them look at the books, and indicated instead that there were other interested parties, which were better deals for the board. Towards the end of May it was announced that investors were preparing to put cash into the club, but there was some secrecy as to who exactly they were. In June, it was announced that Tommy Agombar was the purchaser. It quickly surfaced that he had an unspent criminal conviction and may not pass the FA's fit and proper test. 

Given the previous regime's later opaqueness, I was skeptical of his sound bites but was at least prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.  He had that benefit until it became clear that he was not going to pay off football creditors to satisfy the Football Conference so that we could take our place for next season. There was some bluster from Mr. Agombar about debts being four times what he thought they were when he took over. But unless I am very much mistaken the majority of debt is in the form of loans from previous directors, which I assume would have been disclosed during the takeover due diligence. Mr. Agombar also refused to pay a bond to the Conference for the season. Understandably, the Conference want to make sure that any club in their leagues can complete the season. Since Hereford looked like a basket case they asked for a bond, refundable at the end of the season (so opportunity cost, the interest lost on the bond, not the bond itself) Since football debts were not settled or the bond posted, Hereford were then demoted 2 further divisions to the Southern League. On relegations, Mr. Agombar 2 Mr. Keyte 1.

Mr. Agombar had stated on numerous occasions he is "a football man". I am still not really sure what this means, but take it that he is more interested in the football than the business side. But, If you were in it for the football, wouldn't you want that football to be played at the highest level possible? Wouldn't you also want to engage your fan base? Hypothetically, if you didn't have the cash to satisfy the Conference, but still wanted to put out a decent side in the Southern League, wouldn't there have been at least one player signed by the start of July?  Unless of course the motive for taking over the club was not football related.  
It transpired that very soon after taking over the club Mr. Agombar had asked the council (who are the clubs landlords) if he could move the ground's leases to a holding company of his own rather than keep them with the club's company. The leases had been secured by Mr. Keyte with some fanfare. They represent the clubs only real asset and through development would hopefully bring either a lump sum or a future revenue stream to the club, depending on how the land was developed. Why, if you main interest is the football, try and move the leases away from the club?

Whilst all this has been happening on the non playing side, on the football side there was an initial flurry of reports in the local paper, the Hereford Times. Mark Ellis, football "consultant", who had a extremely impressive CV (seemingly coaching jobs at a host of Premier League, La Liga and Championship clubs) for someone working at what by now was a Southern League club, indicted that any new team was going to storm the league. But he suggested that the manager's job was too big for Peter Beadle, who had engineered Hereford's relegation escape at the end of last season.  Peter was held in extremely high regard by supporters and such comments were received with disbelief. Mr. Ellis has remained very quiet ever since. Rather like his employer in fact. In the last 3 weeks, there have been two updates on the official Hereford United website (since the previous media officer, who had gone unpaid for months, quit). We have learnt that we are in the Southern League. We have also learnt that we will play a friendly against a Help4Heroes side. This match seems like a deeply cynical ploy given that supporters are rightly upset at what is going on at the club, but do not want to be seen to be snubbing a worthwhile cause and because it may be used by the club against the supporters. So, as an exile, I am learning nothing from the club directly anymore. What a strange way to run a consumer oriented business. 

Instead I have been turning to the excellent Bulls News and a fans forum (Bulls Banter) for updates. But wait a minute, there have been some updates from the club on the fans forum! Although to an outsider, insulated from the barmy goings on at Hereford, this is likely to be quite confusing. Two users, whose identities were checked by the forum admin, posted suggesting that they wanted to set the record straight and answer questions about the club. The users were Andy Lonsdale, who turned out to be the President of Bedfont and Feltham FC and Joel Nathan, CEO of Grays Athletic, both friends of Mr. Agombar. Given the understandably combustible nature of a fans forum, not least when there is no official information coming out of the club, and the inability of either individual to answer anything but the most rudimentary questions, forum admin decided that both should be banned. Rather than describing fans as "fools" and "idiots", Mr. Lonsdale and Mr. Nathan may have been better served addressing fans genuine concerns (most pressingly, why have the creditors not been paid?!).  At best, it strikes me as extremely odd that the method that the club chooses to use to engage fans is an online fans forum, and even odder that their choice of mouthpiece is officials from other clubs.

So, where are we now? HUST have just asked members to vote to see whether they want a boycott of Hereford United until creditors are paid. I will vote "yes". I will be home in August. So I will miss my annual visit to Edgar Street. Putting aside that communication does not appear to be the new owners strongest suit, I keep asking myself if Mr. Agombar really is a football man, where are the signings, where is the manager, where are the season ticket prices, and where is your engagement of the fans and the local community? As the previous 1,000+ words testify, this isn't about football anymore, at least not in the way that I understand it. Yes, football is a business, but if you persistently break promises and alienate your fan base you will run the club into the ground. Perhaps that is the crux. Clearly Edgar Street is a valuable piece of development land. The lease situation with the council is complex and appears to depend on whether the club continues to function in its current form. The club is still facing a winding up petition (perverse that this almost the least of my concerns!) and a CVA (administration) is also being explored. Neither option looks good for creditors including hard working former staff and, presumably, former directors who extended loans to the club. 

At this juncture, I have severe doubts as to whether a ball will be kicked competitively at Edgar Street this season. Would things have been different if Mr. Keyte had been prepared to talk to HUST? I doubt that creditors would have been treated as shabbily as they have been and there would not have been a mass exodus of loyal staff from the club. We may also have been able to mend bridges with last year's team and some of the emerging youth teamers who have a very bright future. We would be looking forward to pre-season matches against local clubs, rather than local clubs spurning invitations to play due to the state of the club. 

Realistically, there may still have had to have been a liquidation of the club or a CVA, but that is no worse a situation than we find ourselves in now - at least local fans who care deeply about the club would be in charge of our destiny, rather than a board of directors that appears to change almost weekly and that have no links to the local community. It begs the question, how has the deal with Mr. Agombar been better for the previous board exactly, since it is not working out too well for the club?

But amongst all the gloom there are beacons of light. There are continual words of encouragement from supporters of clubs such as Chester and Wrexham, who have had similar problems to Hereford and fought through them successfully. Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct is actively involved, local councilor Jim Kenyon and MPs Jesse Norman and Bill Wiggins are on the case. HUST is also backing a consortium of local businessmen who are looking to pick up the pieces. Unless the situation evolves rapidly and there is either a about change in the way Mr. Agombar operates, or he decides to walk,  I will not visit Edgar Street this year on my return home. 

But with the groundswell of local (and more far flung) support for the club I am hopefully that by this time next year, and in whatever league, I will get to see the Whites play again.