Ronaldo was at Wembley on Sunday. No, not that preening Portuguese. But a ton of beef and a champion in his own right, and to give him his full name, Hawkesbury Ronaldo. The Hereford bull was paraded around the pitch at Wembley before the match between Hereford FC and Morpeth Town in the FA Vase final.
If you thought Leicester City’s winning the Premier League was the stuff of football dreams, a similar story was unfolding at the club in the town where I grew up and started watching football seriously.
Only seven years ago Hereford United even played in the same division as Leicester City. Go back even further and they were part of F.A. cup legend, when Ronnie Radford’s 30-yard rocket toppled first division Newcastle United in an Edgar Street replay and West Ham were grateful to escape from Hereford with a 0-0 draw.
But Hereford have had a history of financial difficulties in recent decades as they bounced from Conference into the Football League and then back down again. Matters came to a head when the club were taken over by a group of London businessmen who many thought had designs on the Edgar Street site as real estate rather than a viable football club. In June 2014 United were expelled from the Conference over unpaid debts , and in December 2014 were wound up at the High Court in London when director Andrew Lonsdale failed to produce a required £1million proof of funding – claiming he was stuck in traffic!
But the club has risen from the ashes of financial oblivion with a new name – Hereford FC- and a new identity. After all the turmoil a fresh start beckoned in the summer of 2015. The supporters club set about starting a new club and, with the backing of four local benefactors, they registered to play in the Midlands League, the ninth tier of the English game.
Their first season as phoenix club has been a remarkable tale of redemption and success. A squad had to be put together from scratch, but they won their league with 108 points and with the Herefordshire County Cup and Midland Football League Cup already in the display cabinet, the quadruple was on at Wembley.
Hereford were due to bring not only a one-ton bull but 20,000 supporters to the national stadium. From a low of around 100 spectators under the previous, despised owners, home attendances have risen to an average of nearly 3,000 this season. The attendance at the Vase semi-final against Salisbury in March was 4,683 – an increase of 300 on when Leicester were the 3-1 victors in League One back in 2009.
Which must beg the question, where have all those 20,000 fans come from. Many,no doubt, like me (who went en famille) part of the Hereford Diaspora.
The Southern League awaits next term, so they will be competing, not for the FA Vase, but the FA trophy, the final of which was played at the same venue later in the day.
Hereford FC (1) v Morpeth Town (4) – Wembley Stadium – Sunday 22nd May 2016
The match could not have started better for Hereford. Rob Purdie opened the scoring with a fine 25-yard strike after 78 seconds for the Midland League champions. It looked good for the team who went into the final on the back of a 22-match winning run. They could even have been three or four goals to the good, such was their dominance for the first half hour, but found Karl Dryden in the Morpeth goal a formidable barrier.
Enter Morpeth defender Chris Swailes to write another chapter in football’s fairytale season. At the age of 45, and two years after heart surgery, the defender became the oldest man to score at the new Wembley. Hereford’s goalkeeper misjudged a corner, and allowed the former Ipswich Town player to bundle the ball home in the 34th minute for an equaliser. Hereford heads fell, and when Luke Carr put Morpeth in front after only 42 seconds of the second period, from Sean Taylor’s cross, it was clearly game over.
The Midlanders ran out of steam and ideas. Taylor added a third in the 59th minute before substitute Shaun Bell scored a fourth in stoppage time to rub salt into the wound. Northern League Morpeth Town deservedly lifted the FA Vase for the first time in their history.
Perhaps Hereford should have tried to get their Ronaldo on to the pitch.