Hereford United, Population and Economy
Hereford United fans we chatted to in the aftermath of the club’s 1-1 draw with Plymouth Argyle on Good Friday seemed resigned to their fate. Given the club’s history – one that saw them controversially elevated to the Football League status in preference to Chelmsford City back in 1972 plus a spell of Conference purgatory in the mid-noughties, expectations never get ahead of themselves at Edgar Street.
I first saw the Bulls play as a second tier concern – a 5-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Day in 1977. They have never approached such heights since, although it’s frustrating to recount this. Other one club counties – Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Cumbria, Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Norfolk – have witnessed their chief standard bearers enjoy sustained periods in clover, so why not Herefordshire?
Population and economy are the likely two reasons. Tucked away, hard up against the border with Wales, the environment has always been predominantly rural, attracting little of the industry that has transformed other British regions into round ball hotbeds. Nor is Hereford close enough to anywhere else to collect service and tourist industry dollars in their millions – The Rough Guide to England describes the town as a pleasant, if ‘not exactly riveting’ pit stop and if this is perhaps unfair given the presence of the proud cathedral and stunning Mappa Mundi; that blight of British urban planning, the dual carriageway, has obfuscated the city’s potential to attract custom.
Still, Edgar Street remains a wonderfully characterful throwback. Curved ends remind one of the main raison d’être in these parts – livestock sheds – while the curiously narrow two tier Len Weston or Cargill stand is an unusual feature for a lower league ground. Bulls fans are affable and welcoming and the ground was abuzz for this visit to well supported Argyle.
The squad is peppered with loan players and the first half was torrid for Hereford. Looking lightweight against a green army of old pros, it was occasionally men against adolescents. Warren Feeney and Nick Chadwick are not the most potent strike force, but the former in particular knows how to scrap while veteran returnee Paul Wotton and the ever preening Simon Walton presented a formidable central midfield barrier in front of Darren Purse – locks shorn and as vigorous in the tackle as ever alongside one of the Devonian club’s players of the season in Maxime Blanchard.
But after an own goal from Dutchman Stefan Stam and a missed penalty from Walton had constituted the significant events of the first period, Bulls got the ball down on the deck and probably edged the second half. Tom Barkhuizen in particular shone well in an advanced midfield role, returning the affair to equilibrium after the Argyle defence melted away. The Blackpool loanee was the stand out man on the day for the home side, taking his seasonal tally to an impressive 11 (this is a bottom of the table team, remember) and no doubt providing Ian Holloway with good cheer.
Also responsive to new boss Richard O’Kelly’s half time team talk were the rangy Richard Peniket, a Fulham employee and a relative local, hailing as he does from Bromsgrove across the border in Worcestershire. He, the feisty and equally lanky Will Evans and static totem pole striker Nathan Elder formed an attacking plalanx enhanced by the addition of lower league ‘face’ Delroy Facey as a sub – Facey has piled on the pounds but his ability to flick the ball on did lead to intermittent jitters in the Plymouth back line.
Behind the offsensive quartet, Nicky Featherstone and Kenny Lunt sat deeper. I have always liked Lunt – ever since he and David Vaughan formed an effective second level midfield partnership for the Crewe of Dario Gradi. An ill-advised move to Sheffield Wednesday came a little late into his career – he should probably have attempted to add to the 373 starts he made for the railwaymen. Now 32, he was his usual calm self without being scintillating, while his partner has been one of Hereford’s chief appearance makers this campaign.
The Bulls have now conceded 65 times this season – and a combination of willing trier Michael Townsend and Stam at centre back is perhaps not the strongest the level can offer. There is reason for optimism out wide however – the man christened ‘Lord Byron of the Anthony’ by Bristol Rovers fans is filling in at left back and after struggling with the grit of Alex MacDonald initially, showed enough poise in possession and the occasional flicker of intent going forward; while James Chambers, a temporary victim of the Willie McKay cull at Doncaster, is a highly experienced right back and it’s surprising to see him operating here. Young Welsh keeper David Cornell is also on loan – from high flying Swansea City.
So the club from the Welsh borders remain in a pickle, level on points with an ever plunging Macclesfield and three points adrift of Barnet. Next Friday, the Bulls will take the A40 to Underhill – a match that will go a significant way to deciding their fate – one that is hardly worth contemplating given the competitiveness of that oh! so tough league below decks.