Death of the Giant Killers
Hereford United are one of the most celebrated minnows of English football, so how could they collapse into bankruptcy?
On a dark Friday afternoon in a small courtroom the week before Christmas 2014, Hereford United Football Club (1939) Limited was dissolved. The owner Andy Lonsdale had failed to arrive with proof that he had £1million to pay the club’s creditors. “I’m instructed that the transfer has been made,” Lonsdale’s lawyer told the progressively incredulous judge, “Mr Lonsdale is stuck in traffic.” He conceded that he had personally seen no evidence of the transfer taking place. The liquidation order was uttered with such little fanfare that some of the supporters and reporters in Courtroom 7 were initially unsure it had actually happened.
The hearing followed a five-month boycott which had seen the club attracting gates of barely 400. The previous evening Lonsdale had reneged on his promise to address a meeting of the Hereford United Supporters’ Trust. Instead, HUST members and the local MP had discussed plans for a supporter-run phoenix club they hoped to rebuild.
Outside the High Court, fans expressed sadness and relief when they spoke to reporters. As far as they were concerned, their club had been dead since the summer. Hereford United had been torn apart by the arrival of its controversial owner, which had set fan against fan and exposed the lack of ownership safeguards in the English game.
United’s supporters followed their club for decades, at home and away on windy terraces from Carlisle to Canvey Island, keystones against the rapacious free-market plunder of the upper leagues. Fans spent the better part of the 2013-2014 season fundraising as their club teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, shaving their heads, auctioning memorabilia and organising charity walks.
Five years ago the club was in League One. But cash was already tight and after being relegated they were taken over in 2010, with David Keyte, a local accountant who is said to have played for their reserves, installed as chairman. “I shall be continuing the prudence that Graham Turner has set for this club,” he said.
His four years in charge were marked by economic difficulties and a decline in form. Hereford United were relegated from League Two at the end of the 2011-12 season. The first winding-up order was served over unpaid VAT and PAYE bills in October 2012. Those bills were paid with the money generated from an FA Cup first round win and £20,000 raised by fans.
Hereford United’s board responded to the constant threat of administration with ill-conceived schemes and increasingly brazen requests: the Pitch Maintenance Fund, a Hereford United Debenture Scheme launched by Michael Portillo. In December the club’s board asked supporters to chip in: “We need to raise £35,000 over the next 14 days.”
Steve Niblett was the club photographer for 11 years. “Predominantly it’s been unpaid, that never really came into it,” he said. “It was just the love of doing it.” He could recognise about 1000 supporters by face and over 100 by name. “After Christmas  some of my friends who worked there weren’t being paid… They were just getting sporadic little bits of money. I know the youth players in April had only been paid £7 since Christmas. I mean it was really bad, it really was. It was financial mismanagement. I don’t think David Keyte is a nasty bloke, I really don’t. I think he’s just very incompetent.”
HMRC served Hereford with two more winding-up orders between March 2013 and January 2014. The club continued to collect thousands of pounds from fans at matches. In February, the youth team assistant manager, the goalkeeping coach and two first-team masseurs were made redundant. The manager Martin Foyle left in March after two years. His winding-up order against the club over unpaid wages was issued in May.
Hereford’s fans kept going to games, shaving their heads, organising charity walks and passing the bucket. Niblett said that the money raised never made its way into people’s wages. “I sold a lot of my memorabilia, shirts and things like that… quite often they paid by PayPal, so I’d just transfer it to my bank account and go round to people’s houses and give them the money.”
On the last day of the season he took a bucket to the Aldershot game and raised £600 for the players who had just secured Hereford’s Conference Premier status. Exemplars of dedication and professionalism, they were frequently repaid with empty promises.
In April the Hereford United Supporter’s Trust made an offer to buy the club for £1 and pledged £220,000 to help clear the debt. Just over a month later the club announced that a London businessman named Tommy Agombar had purchased Hereford United for £2. Agombar said he’d met with the HUST chairman Chris Williams shortly after taking over. “I said, ‘Chris, listen, let’s take the club forward, me and you. You’re the Supporters Trust, lovely, we need the supporters, I’ll come in with my money. I’ll put in 300, you put in 300, we’ve got 600 bags there.’ He went, ‘Well, I can’t do that, Tom.’ I said, ‘But you’ve told me you’ve got all this money,’ and he went, ‘No, I’ve got pledges.’ I went, ‘So what you’ve really got is IOUs.’ They’re worth nothing, you can’t buy a cup of tea with them.”
“None of that is true,” said Chris Williams. “We got pledges of sufficient numbers to bid, but the owner felt the regime that has taken over the club had better opportunities and more finances that we did, and he chose to sell it to Mr Agombar for £2.” Seven days after Agombar bought the club. Hereford United were expelled from the Football Conference.
“We were talking to Mr Agombar and trying to support his activities to bring the club together,” recalls Williams. “But he made a number of promises and those included paying the bond that the Conference League required for us to stay in the league, and he failed to do that so we were kicked out of the Conference, which meant we then had to apply to the Southern League to get into a football competition which is two leagues lower than we’d managed to stay in.”
Supporters were in an uproar. They unearthed old stories about the new owner they posted on an unofficial fans forum called Bulls Banter. In 1987, Agombar had been sentenced to 10 years for stealing lorries of mink skins, designer clothes and £100,000 worth of cigarettes. “It’s not the vicar coming along to buy the football club, is it?” said Keyte when he confirmed the story. “He was 27 years of age, with a group of other lads who came up with an idea that they didn’t get away with.”
The club had signed a 30-year lease for the Edgar Street stadium with Herefordshire Council in February. Fans worried Agombar was solely interested in the development opportunities at the Merton Meadow and Blackfriars ends. On June 12 it emerged that he had asked the council to transfer the leases allowing development to a company under his ownership. Jesse Norman, the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, asked the Council to defer making any decisions about the Edgar Street leases for a month.
Speaking to Steve Sabel and Kev McCall, fans who confronted him outside a meeting with Herefordshire Council officials, Agombar denied he was only interested in the leases. A video of their encounter, “HUFC Fans meet Tommy Agombar”, was posted on YouTube. Agombar was accompanied by a sombre adviser named Andy Lonsdale, then one of two presidents at Bedfont & Feltham FC.
“I went to Feltham 15 years ago, [when] the club was close to closing,” Lonsdale told me. “I ended up investing a whole lot of money, paying off all the bills and turning it into a club that’s in credit at the bank. The council then decided to take the roof off the ground, we got demoted for [having] astroturf and ended up ground sharing for a few years. And two years ago we merged with another local club. It’s now called Bedfont & Feltham.”
Lonsdale’s CV on the Company Check website was posted on Bulls Banter. He has held 21 appointments at 17 dissolved companies. His longest current appointment was 14 years at Seagrave Haulage Limited. Lonsdale spent 2006 to 2012 registered as a disqualified director by Companies House and in 2008 he was convicted of dumping 600 lorry-loads of contaminated waste on green-belt land.
Of particular concern to the fans was Lonsdale’s role at Feltham FC. In 2007 the club was granted permission to build a new stadium on the site of its former ground. Five times the permitted volume of soil and building rubble was dumped at the arena over the course of five years, during which time no stadium was built. The disposal work was carried out by a since-liquidated company called All Transport Limited, run by Lonsdale. “At the outset there was a lack of clarity as to who the Council was dealing with,” stated the Report of the Feltham Arenas Scrutiny Task & Finish Group. “The proposal and agreements were with Feltham Football Club (FFC). Yet the importing of soil was to be undertaken by a company owned by Mr Andy Lonsdale.”
In July Lonsdale confirmed he’d left Bedfont & Feltham to advise Hereford. On August 4 he was announced as the new chairman. Fans marched in a mock funeral procession from Edgar Street to Herefordshire Council with a 7,300-signature petition rejecting the proposal to transfer development of the land leases to Agombar. The London Bulls supporters group called for a boycott of the club on July 3 and HUST followed a week later.
“The leases say that football has to be played at Edgar Street forever,” Lonsdale said. “There’s development at both ends. The fans have known that since day one. The fans have actually put on Bulls News copies of the leases for everyone to read, yet they still think that we want to develop the whole of Edgar Street, which we don’t… No development’s going to happen there for at least two years, so we’ve got to develop the football.”
“That’s what the leases say,” said Williams, “and that’s what the covenant on the ground said, but we know that if you pay enough money you can eliminate those conditions.”
Agombar said development talks had been in progress for five years prior to his purchase of HUFC, with plans for residential units for the Meadow End and retail units and possibly a hotel at the Blackfriars End: “When I took over the club… [David Keyte] said, ‘Look, I want something out of the club.’ I said, ‘You’ve took £1.3m out of it, David, so what more do you want?’ ‘Well when the development is done, I want £300,000 out of the development.’” (David Keyte has declined to respond to this allegation).
Lonsdale and Agombar were unprepared for the online backlash: the evidence of past misdemeanours fans tracked down and the forums where they organised and shared information. “In this country everything is transparent and can be seen on Google,” said Lonsdale. “If anyone’s abroad, you can’t see that, can you? So they get away with it. If someone from Canada came over here, they can’t look at their past, can they? If you’re a British citizen, it’s there to be seen. The internet is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s very easy to find things out on it.”
“If they really wanted to connect with the fans from day one, they should have been open and honest,” said Steve Niblett. “That’s all it would have taken.”
“Let me tell you what HUST and the supporters are trying to do,” Lonsdale said. “Everything we say they try to discredit. That’s why we don’t put out a lot of PR on the social media. We don’t talk until we know for definite it’s a fact.”
John Harold Edwards and Elke Thuerlings were announced as directors on June 26. Thuerlings had previously held directorships at two companies engaged in environmental and consulting activities. Edwards was the company secretary or director at 12 companies involved with waste management, the sale of machinery and industrial equipment. July 1 brought the appointment of Philip Peter Gambrill, the company secretary of Savannah Construction Limited, a firm involved in the construction of residential and non-residential buildings.
By July, Hereford’s physiotherapist, kitman, groundsman, club secretary, media secretary and webmaster had left the club, as well as staff involved with accounts and sponsorship. “It was almost physical intimidation, almost,” recalled Steve Niblett. “I think they were making all these promises that they’d be paid by the end of the week and none of them got paid. So questions were asked and they did nothing, nothing to keep the staff at all. It was almost like constructive dismissal.”
“You can listen to all kinds of people and what they’ve got to say, they’re not for the club,” Agombar said when asked about Niblett’s statement. “How can I bully anybody? Listen, the simple thing they do is: ‘I’m not coming in to work in the morning, but this is the bill you owe, quite simple.’”
Agombar’s appointment as director was terminated on June 18 when he failed the owners’ and directors’ test, but he remained United’s majority shareholder. He attended the first game of the season when Hereford lost to St Neots in the EvoStick Southern League. Three days later, “A Message from the Directors” was posted on Hereford United’s website. Signed “Elke & John”, they urged “anyone who is allowed to vote for the (upcoming) Company Voluntary Arrangement to do so” and confirmed that Agombar had failed the FA’s owners’ and directors’ test. John Edwards was photographed standing on the pitch buying Agombar a season ticket. Agombar attended all of the home and away matches, where he enjoyed a warm rapport with the Hereford United fans who opposed the boycott.
“I’ve become a supporter. That’s what I’ve done, I watch all these games. ‘Cause I’m backing me mate and he’s not going to fail.”
His shares in Hereford United were sold to a purchaser of distressed debts called Alpha Choice Finance Limited. Alpha’s owner, Alan Gerald McCarthy, had been the director of a dissolved company called Infiniti Consortium Limited. Infiniti’s registered address was the same Herne Bay, Kent address as the dormant Philip Gambrill & Company Pension Scheme Limited, which was headed by Peter Philip Gambrill, who was appointed to Hereford United’s board in July.
“But that doesn’t mean anything, does it?” countered Lonsdale. “Philip introduced [McCarthy] to Tommy, I think… Basically, Alan buys distressed debt. Tommy needed to get rid of his loans and his shares, and Alan was the only one who was willing to buy them at the time.”
The MP Jesse Norman had written to the FA with his concerns about Agombar’s suitability and later pressed them to make public the results of the owners’ and directors’ test. Norman cited inadequate disclosure about the status of the owners’ and directors’ test, whether the insolvency has been properly handled and whether individuals should be allowed to drop in and out of the Companies House director’s register as contributing factors to the current situation, as well the pernicious aspects of the football creditors rule.
“What the football creditors are saying in effect is if a club is worried about getting relegated, it can load up on debt in order to buy and sell players and the other clubs will trade with it on the basis that they know they’ll get paid out first.”
Creditors gathered in Edgar Street’s Starlite Room to hear the nominee Marc Landsman present Hereford United’s CVA proposal. Elke Thuerlings, John Edwards and Andy Lonsdale sat with Landsman at the top table. Philip Gambrill, subject to an individual voluntary arrangement, did not attend. At the shareholder’s meeting the CVA failed when 61.7% of members voted in favour of the voluntary arrangement and 38.3% of members voted against it. Landsman said he expected the club to be wound up by the High Court in September.
But it wasn’t. The main claimant was paid and Hereford United’s winding-up order was adjourned in the High Court for 42 days, then they were granted another extension, then an adjournment of 15 working days – the club’s eighth.
In June, Jesse Norman had contacted the Southern League and the Football Association to warn them Agombar was unlikely to pass the FA’s owners’ and directors’ test. He had phoned Agombar “very soon after he’d invested in the club to find out what his intentions were, and to find out what kind of person he was, and I got cut off – so I didn’t regard that as a very encouraging sign.”
“He told you that?” said Agombar, who told me Norman had hung up on him after phoning to ask when the staff were going to be paid.
“And I basically said, ‘Jesse Norman, shouldn’t you be sorting out the major problems that you have in your town, rather than phoning a businessman up, about when is he going to pay his wages?’ There’s businesses all around Hereford who have not paid their staff or perhaps not paid their bills, does he phone them up every day?”
In September, Norman secured a debate on the floor of the House of Commons focusing on the future of non-league football. “Football clubs are not purely private organisations,” he said. “They are not merely the private playthings of their owners – they are public as well. What gives the clubs their life and energy, even in the Premiership, is the passion and love of their fans.”
Norman described his attempts to warn the FA that Agombar was unlikely to meet the requirements of the owners’ and directors’ test and their refusal to make the results of the test public. He called the events at Hereford United “a catastrophe for the club, for the city, for the county and for Bulls fans everywhere”.
Agombar called Norman “a politician who wants to jump on the bandwagon and bring a club down. Why don’t he say to people, ‘Please, give them a chance, please let them see what they can do within a year.’”
“The FA have been toothless,” said Steve Niblett. “How can you do a fit and proper test after you’ve bought yourself into the club? It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.”
“In late August, early September,” the HUST chairman Chris Williams recalled in November, “I spoke to Tommy Agombar and said to him, ‘Look, we’ve got to work together, we’ve got to get this thing to go. We want to try to sort this out, we need to get together to talk about it. If you send me a letter from a solicitor guaranteeing that football will continue to be played at Edgar Street, for the foreseeable future, I’d ask the Supporters Trust to call off the boycott and ask the fans to go back and support the team.’
And he said, ‘Yes, I’ll do that.’ This was on a Friday night, and he said, ‘Yes, you’ll have that in your email inbox by Monday.’ And that was the end of August, early September, and I still haven’t received that letter.”
“Yeah, I did say, ‘Yeah, I’ll get the letter, I’ll get a letter for you,’” Agombar conceded, “But then as I put the phone down, [I thought,] ‘What’s the point?’ My lawyer said to me, ‘He knows in the leases that football’s got to be played at Edgar Street.’ What did he expect me to do? Build on the middle of the pitch?”
Ellistown and Ibstock knocked Hereford out of the FA Cup in September. HUST organised a protest at the televised October 8 match between Kidderminster Harriers and Welling United, chanting, “We want Tommy out!” throughout the match. Fans were divided between those who attend matches and the much larger number who wanted the club to be liquidated so they could build a supporter-run club like Chester FC.
“They’re not doing us any good at all,” said Eddie Pobiega, who attended matches for 46 years and didn’t support the boycott. “At the end of the day we want the club to survive. So you’ve got to pull together, haven’t you? So the gates we’re having or not having are not helpful and we could do with some of those thousand odd people coming back to us.”
“[It wasn’t] about supporting Hereford United,” said Chris Williams. “It [was] about protecting Edgar Street so that Herefordshire can have the potential to play league football for the future. As soon as that stadium goes, that opportunity is lost forever.” In September Herefordshire Council added its name to the list of creditors for £65,000 in rent arrears, business rates and legal fees. On October 24, the Council announced it had attempted to take possession of Edgar Street and issued proceedings against the club for forfeiture of the leases and repossession of the ground. “In response to this action, we can confirm that HUFC has paid outstanding sums due to the council.”
“I’m not going to give in,” Lonsdale told me in October, “We’re here to win the war. It’s a war of wills between us and the fans. Not all the fans, some of the fans. The fans are actually brilliant, a lot of them, but we’re not going to give in.”
I asked Steve Niblett if he thought it was possible the impasse might have been the result of ham-fisted public relations and a series of misunderstandings. “No, not at all. Not at all,” he replied. “We’re not thick, we know what’s going on. This guy’s trying to pull a fast one.”
Fourteenth in the table, Hereford United struggled along. 43 players were involved in the season, with only 13 accumulating 10 or more appearances. The club returned to the High Court on December 1 and told the Registrar a £1.5million investment from Newell Properties Developments Ltd. had fallen through due to “aggressive social media”. On December 10, Alpha Choice Finance issued the statement that it was ending its involvement with Hereford United after “many weeks of harassment and misinformation”. The same day Andy Lonsdale – who had passed the FA’s owners and directors test in October – announced that he was the new owner.
Staff and players still weren’t being paid. The left-back Daniel O’Reilly, who left the club in October, told the Hereford Times he was owed a month’s wages. He said players were paid in cash with handwritten payslips and Agombar remained involved with the club: “Tommy once deducted us £20 for not training even though we weren’t getting paid.”
On December 15, a Monday morning, the club was granted a four-day extension after Lonsdale’s lawyer argued that the 15-working-day adjournment had included two weekends. The supporters who filed into the courtroom on Friday afternoon were half-expecting another extension.
The liquidation order took about five minutes. Hereford United’s results were expunged from the Southern League, with any future matters to be dealt with by the office of the Official Receiver. The creditors, among them Steve Niblett, Wye Valley Brewery, ID Sports and Leisure, Mowtech Landscape Contractors and Quickskip Hereford Ltd, would remain unpaid. The players were left without a club.
“We’ve been lied to from day one as far as we’re concerned, we had a lot of promises and obviously nothing’s come to fruition,” Hereford’s manager Jon Taylor said on BBC Hereford & Worcester Sport, “In hindsight, I should have believed what the supporters were saying.”
HUST issued a statement that a plan was already in place to secure the use of Edgar Street: “Hereford United is the supporters that have had the club at their hearts, in many cases for generations of their families, and the spirit of the club will live on through each and every one of us.” In early January HUST announced an open meeting and a member vote on the acceptance of a partnership proposal from the Jon Hale Benefactors group. Hale had been among a group of local businessmen who’d approached Herefordshire Council with plans for a phoenix club, Hereford FC, back in August.
The Hereford FC proposal states that HUST will be able to own up to 50% of the club by buying shares, with all profits funnelled back into the club. The club will offer the stadium’s development rights to the Council, with no profits assigned to the benefactors. The FA has indicated that in order for a phoenix club to be accepted next season matters must be resolved by March 1.