Hereford: We will always have Ronnie Radford Reply

Hereford 3So poor old Hereford United have passed into footballing folklore. They are deceased…no more…they have shuffled off this mortal coil. Before we get too Pythonesque about the death of a football club, let’s recall that Hereford United have delighted us all with one piece of football magic that gets replayed every single year. “Radford again….oh what a goal”…February 5, 1972, one of the great FA Cup goals, scored by Ronnie Radford, that produced a major cup shock – Hereford United 2 Newcastle United 1.

That cup win, one which BBC commentator John Motson will always remember as it was his big breakthrough on Match of the Day, propelled the club into the Football League in 1972. They gave West Ham a difficult time in the next round and finished runners-up in the Southern League (to Chelmsford City) before being elected to the big time.

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round Replay - Hereford United v Newcastle UnitedSadly, Edgar Street, the home of Hereford United, is unlikely to ever play host to such a momentous occasion again, unless a new club rises from the ashes. It’s a sad, messy and some might say, unnecessary outcome. There is talk today that the club’s owner, Andy Lonsdale, was stuck in traffic and could not reach the court on time to provide evidence that he had the £1 million needed to pay the club’s creditors. How often have we heard such tales – why the 11th hour solution that falls victim to traffic in this age of electronic media and communications?

Hereford supporters, some of whom tried to protect the ground from looting after the decision to wind the club up, have long mistrusted Lonsdale and his associates. They are now delighted that, at least, this regime is no more.

This is a club that has struggled for years. Some 20 years ago, their then-Chairman Peter Hill, who seemed a pragmatic individual, told me that his horses had been attacked and wounded by supporters who were unhappy about the club’s lack of success. At the time, Hereford were struggling in the bottom division of the Football League. They were relegated from the Football League in 1997 and 2012, the latter proving to be the death knell of the club.

But it may not be the end. Inevitably, there are already plans to start a fan-owned club. But how many people will really care about Hereford’s demise? In their first Football League season, the club averaged almost 9,000 at every Edgar Street league game. Attendances never hit that level again, despite Hereford reaching the old Second Division in 1976-77 with former England winger Terry Paine in their ranks. By 1981, gates were down at the 2,500 level and in 2013-14, they were as low as 1,800. This season, amid protests, boycotts and uncertainties, the average is barely 400. It does seem that Hereford United experienced a long, slow and painful decline and death.

herefordThere does, however, seem enough interest to start a new, fan-run club. Many Hereford fans had already considered that their club had died in the summer of 2014. A fan-run club – undoubtedly the future of non-league football – will have its limitations, and it may be that the city that was the birthplace of Nell Gwynne (there is a pub near Edgar Street under threat of closure at present) and the legendary rock band, Mott the Hoople, and, incidentally, hosts the Mappa Mundi, the famous medieval map of the world, may have to get used to much more humble fare.

But the Hereford United story is a case of “there but for the grace of God go I,” because many non-league clubs are vulnerable to bad management and sub-optimal club ownership models.

The local council, owner of the freehold to Edgar Street, are looking to take over the ground, but this will take time and with the Christmas and New Year period upon us, little action can be anticipated until January. Meanwhile, the Hereford fans, who are “shocked, hurt and angry”, are promising a fresh start for a club who once delighted the British football public. There’s nothing like a crisis to conjure-up community involvement and Hereford United’s long suffering fans will be hoping right now that they can rekindle long lost support for their club. We wish them well.

Champions League, the same old balls? Reply

Greed. That’s the problem with football. At every level, around every corner. The footballing authorities don’t know when enough is enough as they continue to drink from the trough of TV rights. That’s why the World Cup comprises 32 teams and explains why a grand total of 77 teams play in the UEFA Champions League and 195 will eventually compete in the Europa.

The UEFA Champions League has become too predictable, although you cannot deny that from the knockout stage onwards, it is a captivating competition. Take the current round of 16. Ten of the entrants also featured at the same stage in 2013-14. Over the past five years, four teams – Bayern, Barca, Real and Arsenal, have featured in every last 16. A further three have been in four times – Chelsea, Schalke and Milan – and five more have been in three. There’s an obvious and understandable pattern which creates a compelling argument for an examination of the purpose of the qualifying and group stages of the competition.

For a start, champion should mean “champion” and not “third place Bundesliga 2013-14”. It’s difficult for UEFA to ween itself off a bloated land of milk and honey by ensuring that the same old gang of half a dozen make it through to the latter stages each year, thus ensuring that sponsorship, TV, gate receipts are kept at an optimal level. By including teams that have finished second, third and fourth, the poor old Europa League gets weaker and more anonymous by the year. For a moment, let’s play “it was better in my day”, a game show for ageing football fans. The UEFA Cup circa 1972 was a strong competiton that required staying power. But there were only 64 clubs. It comprises teams that finished second, third and fourth, and boy, was it tough. We need to revert to those days, to make the UCL just that and to give credibility to the Europa.

UEFA might point to the honours list to underline the value of including teams other than title winners. Over the past decade, only four Champions League winners have entered the competition as reigning champions of their respective domestic league. Last season, Real Madrid had finished second in 2013 in La Liga, Bayern in 2013 had finished runners-up in 2012 in the Bundesliga and Chelsea were second in England in 2011, a year before they won the competition. Barcelona, the 2011 winners, were the last champion to win the trophy. Of the past 10 finals, none have been between two champions.

If UEFA wants a competition that truly reflects European elitism, then it should dispense with the pretence and change the current format of the UEFA Champions League. Yes, we know it’s all about money – being part of the juggernaught is very lucrative – but what do we end up with in most cases? A clash of the titans.

Since 2004-05, 11 teams have reached the Champions League final, with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United all reaching three apiece. The 2014 final was the first since 2007 that did not include either Bayern, Barca or United. Inter’s victory in 2010, with “you know who” in charge, seems a remarkable achievement just four years on, as does Milan’s 2007 win given the sharp decline of Italian football. That said, UEFA would miss the likes of Juventus, Milan and Inter if they never came back to the party.

By all means invite champions from all UEFA member countries, but leave it at that. Pick off the weaker clubs through qualifying rounds to end up with 10-team Champions League. Nine games each and then a final comprising the top two. It may end up as Real v Bayern, but the competition will truly reflect the real “pecking order” in Europe.

This year’s Champions League could read something like this: Manchester City, Paris St. Germain, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid (as holders), Shakhtar Donetsk, Benfica, Ajax Amsterdam, CSKA Moscow.

What about Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund? They would be in the Europa!

Of course it won’t happen. If it ever did, TV would insist on a 10-team league with quarter-finals, semi-finals and final!