At the end of last season, two clubs were booted out of the Conference. I take an extensive look at both, their fortunes since and what the future holds…
Salisbury were booted out of the Conference on 4 July 2014 having failed to pay football creditors and the give the Conference a required bond (here). They had already been demoted to the Conference South for missing a previous deadline. Seemingly, Salisbury are just a club who refuse to learn their lessons and fans who seem to have been apathetic in organising a culture change at the club.
The club had previously come close to winding up in the early 2000’s but were bailed out and funded up the leagues until they returned to the Conference Prem for three seasons. Then in 2009-10, they were put into administration and placed in the Southern Prem (Step 3).
2009-10 was the same year Chester City were to fold and would be reformed by the fans as Chester FC, whereas Salisbury would yet again go with the private benefactor model and recent events would prove which one is more superior.
Salisbury would gain two promotions in three seasons but last season it was a case of Groundhog Day and just four seasons since the club went into administration, they were back at it again. I first heard that the owners were begging fans to put more money down a black hole when I was heading back down south from FC United vs Chorley, FC United of course who have always been committed to doing things the right way and as a result find themselves higher in the pyramid then Salisbury FC.
Still lessons weren’t learned and Salisbury City ended up being owned by Otail Touzar, a Moroccan ‘businessmen’ who somehow ended up getting hold of 98% of the club and doing fellow investor Mark Winter, who did put money in, out of £75,000. He said he felt ashamed and I’d have to agree with him (here).
Yet again the club were taken in by promises of riches when a rich Sugar Daddy walked in, I still find it unbelievable that anyone would fall for it. More amazing is that people did not step forward and say ‘No more. This time we want to have a club we can safely pass down to our children.’ If the people in Salisbury aren’t conservative anymore then God help us.
Salisbury fans yet again are paying for the club spending money it doesn’t have.
Eventually Touzar was ejected and the club is now run by… Another set of businessmen, probably because it’s worked out wonderfully well every other time. I’m being a bit harsh now but it just amazes me there was no supporter movement or stake in the new club and nothing to stop the same thing happening again.
In this piece by Mark Sanderson on the always excellent When Saturday Comes website (here), Salisbury are painted as a club that would command the sympathy of us all and it’s the mean FA who did them over.
They certainly didn’t have my sympathy and all the clubs who have lost out to Salisbury by running their clubs sustainably, whilst Salisbury have been engaged in financial doping, meant sympathy is very thin on the ground.
However, in the same way I may be inclined to forgive Cardiff fans who gave those of us asking them to boycott over their identity when they were in the Prem nothing but abuse (yet now they are awful again have ‘woken’ up), we can forgive those at Salisbury.
The new owners have appointed Steve Claridge as Manager and chillingly he did an interview for BBC radio which was simultaneously engaging and sensible. He was talking about how the club needs to be run sustainably, how the previous owner (Touzar) had done nothing for the club, that Salisbury are in reality a top Conference South team with forays into the Conference Prem.
I can’t find existence of this interview online now the BBC has pulled it so maybe this was all a dream, I only wish the Steve Claridge on The Football League show sounded more the one on Wiltshire Radio when Coventry City were marooned in Northampton or the countless clubs living beyond their means who he will heap praise on throughout the show.
Still, I do hope that there is a culture change at Salisbury and would love to see the fans organise to gain a stake in the club.
The other club to have been booted out from the Conference would have much more symptathy from outsiders and also a fanbase whose bloody single mindedness has been rewarded by the removal of the leeches who sought to destroy the club.
After surviving in the Conference Prem on the last day, the HUST offered to buy the club off Keyte who promptly sold it to convicted criminal Tommy Agombar, whose very first move was to try and move the leases from the councils control to his own private company.
When former workers weren’t being paid and Agombar, Lonsdale et al were merely a more horrific version of owners then what had gone before the Hereford fans did something which must become standard practise for all fans. They boycotted.
Led by the Hereford United Supporters Trust (HUST), the vast majority of fans refused to give a penny to those running the club and the aim was clear: Starve the bastards out. Long story short; the fans won the victory but in looking to form a phoenix club, have they won the war?
The same year Salisbury and Chester went bust, Chester fans took a different path.
The only option that has emerged after the winding up was the offer of Jon Hale which has the backing of the HUST leadership but by the looks of things, not all the members. To my surprise, the HUST had not developed an independent plan for 51% fan ownership from the time of the boycott to the winding up of Hereford United in court.
I am starting to feel this blog is recently a place of friendly fire, where I spend more time having a pop at Supporters Trusts such as Cardiff and to a lesser degree Newcastle, for not having the same level of radicalism/conviction as the HUST boycott. Still, issues and serious questions remain over the offer that is about to be laid before rank and file HUST members.
The Hale/HUST partnership is trying to put together what they feel is in the best interests of the club and although I will spend the majority of this post looking at problems, it is right and proper to give both the credit they deserve. Let’s not forget that the very first video to appear of the HUST account was of Jon Hale asking fans to come to a meeting, to see whether they would like to set up a supporters trust.
I do not doubt that Jon Hale wants to see a successful, financially viable Hereford FC and he is not in it for financial gain. Might there be a slight desire to be more well-known and have his own form of legacy? Perhaps, though even if this is the case that does not make him the devil and some of the hostility towards his offer is slightly overstated.
He has been on the radio just last Saturday for over an hour in an interview that the H&W radio has frustrating failed to put up in one go but bullsnews has covered for those of us who couldn’t listen (here & here). He has at most stages tried to be a visible presence, Jon has urged people to join the HUST and also the Hereford FC website has stated that it is closely monitoring the concerns of fans.
This is a complete contrast to the ownership of recent years and is to his credit. Lastly, the contents of said meeting and the model proposed is online for all to see and discuss (here). This is where the several concerns that have surfaced start.
First and most importantly, the HUST appears to be banned from ever owning more than 50%. Sadly, as soon as I heard that “HUST to be biggest shareholder in Hereford FC plan” I knew it meant less than 51% and was pretty dismayed. The HUST is the fans, certainly the vast majority of them. As Jon Hale has said himself, without the HUST support there is no plan.
Also, the HUST will be “given the opportunity to own up to 50% by buying shares” with the amount doing the rounds being that HUST have to raise £150,000. Do they not start with 50% from the beginning of the club? If not, this means they don’t even start with half of the club and in effect have 0% to the businessmen’s 100%. Any argument that they have to make a contribution is nonsense. The fans make a contribution every time they step through those turnstiles, 1000 fans over 15 games at £10 is £150,000 so in my eyes, there’s your contribution.
I would’ve thought that the fans had already shown what happens when people assume the money they pay is not a contribution to the running of the club, mainly through the massive boycott they successfully pulled off.
Of course, what incentive is there to raise the money anyway now the club has been secured by someone else? All urgency and momentum is completely sucked out of this by the fact that the final goal is a miserable compromise of never being allowed to own your own club. Combine this with the fact that the directorships will be a 4/3 split with the businessmen having four and the trust having three.
As a result, they will always be in a position to be outvoted if it ever came to a group gaining shares against the trust. Now the plan proposes that someone can only own 24% but you can easily find (as we have seen at Rangers in a positive way) people can gang up to gain a majority stake. What is to stop people doing this and gaining a majority stake whilst the HUST is paying for theirs and just changing the rules so they can buy the shares allocated for the HUST? They couldn’t be blocked in the boardroom.
Also, how come if the HUST get 50% and thereby making them the majority shareholder they can still be outvoted in the boardroom? We have already seen at Exeter City how despite being fan owned a board, which does not have the majority of fans on, tried to seize control and make the supporters trust no more than a fundraising group.
The reality is that although the people who are in charge now may be great people this isn’t about them, this is about making sure what has happened can never happen again. Under the current plans, this is not secure.
Still, there is a meeting where these proposals will be presented to fans and I am sure fan Tommy Agombar will be joining me and others there (because he loves his football, he’s a football man) but as there is no other offer and as the HUST did not develop one, it has the feeling of being a fait accompli.
A valid criticism that noone else at Hereford has come up with anything for a fan owned football club has been met with the fair response that HUST members, on voting for the leadership, were under the assumption that they were liasing with fellow clubs and perhaps Supporters Direct to be given the advice and expertise to put forward a plan before the club inevitably went pop.
I must admit to part of my criticism is just how big a missed opportunity this all is. I mean think about it, all the free publicity due to the Ronnie Radford goal etc, the boycott gaining national coverage and widespread support. It could’ve been the HUST came out in September after the boycott and asked all football supporters to put money into a holding account to use to reform the side when United goes bust.
Putting forward a vision of a club that would never again return to the dark days and this fan owned club would be different. I could easily see a lot of money come in from many ordinary fans and the call to arms go viral with the help of FC United, David Conn and others. Also, how many sponsors or national brands would’ve wanted to jump on this bandwagon and gain some easy PR by helping the club? I guess quite a few. I am confident they would have raised enough cash through fans and sponsors.
Fan owned and reforming in Step 5, having a massive attendance for the first game with big coverage, perhaps the ground redevelopment being funded by using a community share scheme as pioneered by FC United. Hereford could’ve been the new poster boy after AFC Wimbledon for fan owned clubs and media coverage but instead the story will be ‘businessmen reforms Hereford’ and they will be just another club.
Maybe the HUST has spoken to people at AFC Telford, Chester, FC United and for whatever reason decided it wasn’t suitable for a future Hereford to be fan owned but it is a great shame that the feel good factor on removing the leeches seems to be ebbing away, if only slightly.
The likely reality is the Club will reform at Step 5 and get promoted under the consortium (which they would have done under fan ownership anyway). In fact, Hereford FC will be unlikely to meet many teams who can compete in terms of crowds or ways to generate money, thereby attracting players who want to score a winner in front of 1000’s rather than a few spectators, until at least the Conference South. By the time HUST get 50%, the glorious rise up the divisions will be over and the long hard slog of trying to escape the Conference Prem with a dozen other teams will be their inheritance. Sadly, it just feels that all the sacrifices were made by the bulk of the fans and yet the success is to be owned by someone else.
Again, I am being too much of a depressive. Would this be the end of the world for Hereford fans? God no. They still have wonderful moments to come, regular promotions with a team to support and a board who are fully committed to the club. Re-entering the FA Cup in a couple of seasons time, running a surplus every year and going back to the Conference in a far stronger shape then when they left it.
Of course, let no one say I offer only criticism and have no solution. If Hereford fans feel due to time running out they have to vote for the Hale option but still want to take Hereford into fan ownership there is a way. You can copy the example of Rangers First, which (ignoring the internal politics) is separate from Rangers Supporters Trust but still a fan led group. In simple terms, Rangers First (here) is getting subscriptions from people and then using that money solely to buy a stake in the club. You could set up a Hereford First scheme and save enough money to hold until you have enough cash to buy a sizeable % in the club shares that is not reserved for the HUST, thereby putting you into being 51% fan owned.
There can be no serious criticism of you doing this because under the current plan becoming fan owned through the HUST has been blocked, so you are merely using two avenues to get the result I feel the majority of fans wanted in the first place.
Still (and this is where we can leave it for now), Jon Hale and the HUST leadership have shown themselves to be far more competent in the way they have handled criticism and questions whilst, it must be noted, having full time jobs to hold down. They should be commended despite understandably valid concerns after all that has happened at Hereford.
Finally, cheap attacks on them which have come from certain people who were far too close to the leeches running the club beforehand should be dismissed as a desperate attempt to deflect attention from their shameful actions in this sad, sorry saga.
There we have it then, two clubs who for the same reason fell into similar problems and found themselves in the clutches of scummy owners, from which they are now free. Both will probably start at Step 5 and be promoted in one season. It won’t be long until they cross paths as they re-climb the pyramid, we can only hope that at both Salisbury FC and Hereford FC, lessons have finally been learned.
BBC Sport- Salisbury kicked out of Conference
Southern Daily Echo- Winter ‘ashamed’
WSC (Mark Sanderson) – Salisbury attack FA
Bullsnews- Jon Hale BBC Interview Part 1 / Part 2
HUST- New Club Proposal