Riders on the Storm: Assessing the Wreckage of North Ferriby United, and the Hope that Remains.

“This has left a huge void in the community and the wider football area in our region and I feel it really is a tragedy.”
Les Hare, former Chairman of North Ferriby United

The reaction of their former chairman at the news that, after eighty-five years, North Ferriby United Football Club would be liquidated was echoed across the landscape of English football. From surprise FA Trophy winners to an untimely demise in less than four years, now that the dust has settled on the shock expungment of the club from the Northern Premier League, the inquest  into how a longstanding community club could be brought down by £8,000 worth of debt can now begin. 

Formed in 1934 in the small village of North Ferriby in East Riding of Yorkshire, United started out in the East Riding Church League, winning the Division One title in 1938. After tasting success in the post-war years, the 1970s saw The Villagers regularly picking up trophies, as they earned promotion Division Two of the Yorkshire League and lifted the East Riding Senior Cup three times across the decade. Progression continued into the ’80s, as the club made their first strides towards the FA Cup first round proper, eventually losing out to Boston United, before earning promotion to the newly established Northern Counties League East Premier Division in 1986. Their reputation as a cup team continued towards the end of the decade, reaching the semi-finals of the FA Vase, and sealing another Senior Cup. 

By the mid-90s, North Ferriby were regulars in the latter stages of the Vase, and reached the final at Wembley for the first time in 1997, eventually losing out to Whitby Town. That disappointment was shortlived however as, after a decade of challenging, The Villagers finally earned promotion to the Unibond League Division One at the turn of the century, all the while on an unprecedented run of seven straight East Riding Senior Cup wins. Promotion to the Unibond Premier Division – now the Northern Premier – followed in 2005, and for eight seasons the club were a staple at Level Seven of the English Football Pyramid under the watchful eye of chairman Les Hare.

The appointment of Billy Heath as manager in 2010 sparked the beginning of the most successful period in the club’s history. After slowly climbing the Unibond Premier table, promotion to the National League North was secured with another league title win in 2013, and with it the increased attention of investors looking to ride on the coattails of an extraordinary story. Towards the end of 2013, the club was purchased by Steve Forster, owner of EON Visual Media, and his wife Eman, the daughter of nearby Hull City’s unpopular chairman Assem Allam. Rather than alienate the club’s fanbase within weeks of arriving however, the Forsters began to plunge money into the club at a reported rate of around £200,000 a year. That investment helped the club to Wembley again in 2015, and saw The Villagers lift the FA Trophy after a breathtaking 3-3 draw with National League Wrexham saw the underdogs win on penalties.

Though the club were riding the crest of a wave, goings on behind the scenes were less harmonious, as Les Hare ended his long association with North Ferriby United amid rumours that the Forsters were preparing to pull the plug on funding for the club. Regardless, the team ploughed on and off the back of their remarkable Trophy win went on to earn promotion to the National League the following season, beating AFC Fylde in the playoffs. With the national press descending on Grange Park to draw parallels with Leicester City’s Premier League victory in the same season, it seemed that few could predict the dark twist in this fairytale story.

Just weeks after taking the club to the apex of non-league football, Heath and his assistant Mark Carroll left for Halifax Town, who were heading in the opposite direction to North Ferriby. With them went captain Liam King and striker Tom Denton, while player of the year Ashley Palmer also left the club for Guiseley. Preparations for their first season in the National League were in tatters. Former Gainsborough Trinity manager Steve Housham was appointed as Heath’s successor, but with a reduced budget and a lack of quality in the squad, The Villagers’ spell in the fifth-tier of English football lasted a solitary season.

Whilst its difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the end for North Ferriby United, the takeover by Jamie Waltham, a former player at Grange Park, marks the point where the club’s future began to spin wildly out of control. Though only at the club for six months, Waltham managed to alienate supporters by sacking the coaching staff and bringing in former teammate Chris Bolder as manager, and embarking on a campaign to relocate and rename the club as East Hull FC; ironic given his predecessors familial reputation.

By the time Waltham had left, having allegedly cleared a chunk of the club’s debts, North Ferriby had suffered their second successive relegation. Ownership was transferred to local construction firm Chadwick Builders, who arrived with a mission statement of making the club financially sustainable once again following the excesses of the Forsters.

Back in the Northern Premier League, the club’s fortunes on the pitch showed no sign of changing. By the beginning of March, The Villagers were rooted to the foot of the table with just ten points all season. Another gut-wrenching relegation beckoned. The reality however, was far worse. On the 15th March, North Ferriby United were liquidated over unpaid debts. The measly sum of £7,645.25 called in by Chappelow Sports Turf Limited enough to scrap decades of hard work and dedication by the staff and supporters of the club. It marked the end of another depressing chapter in the ongoing struggle of clubs outside the elite of English football.

But where does the responsibility lie for North Ferriby United’s downfall, and what lessons can the rest of the non-league community take from the swift death of a club that were celebrating a trophy win at Wembley just four years ago? We caught up with Matthew Kempson, editor of the independent North Ferriby United fanzine View From The Allotment End to get the inside track on this tragic tale. Matthew has been following The Villagers since 2015, having moved into the area and been swept along with the FA Trophy euphoria, and has seen first hand how a collection of owners have torn the heart out of his local club. So who do supporter’s blame for the club’s liquidation?

There are a number of factors which led to the eventual liquidation. It’s been like watching a slow motion car crash in recent times. Increasingly, it seemed inevitable that we would go bust sadly.

“I suppose the most obvious ones to start with are Messrs Waltham and Chadwick. They clearly had no interest in making a success of Ferriby as a going concern. Despite all Mr Chadwick’s bravado about ‘coming out fighting’ when he took over, I think it can only be concluded that he was sitting on the club for Mr Waltham. Perhaps the more important question is how it was that these two came into our club to inflict such ruinous havoc? They should have never been allowed to get hold of our community club.

“When Mr Waltham took over there were significant fears as to how it would end up. His track record was not great. I suppose we were naive to think that things had changed with Mr Chadwick coming in. He came out of nowhere but with a stated commitment to the club. Mr Waltham’s reappearance and increasing involvement in Ferriby destroyed that hope.

While the blame seems to lay squarely at the feet of the unpopular Jamie Waltham, are the Forsters responsible for leaving a sinking ship?

I think the Forsters could foresee trouble. Steve Forster repeatedly said in fans forums when the club was up for sale that there had been no serious interest received. And yet, as it turned out, Mr Waltham had already made enquiries of taking the club over. I suspect he was the only one willing to accept the terms offered by the Forsters for the club and, at the same time, the Forsters were increasingly desperate to offload it.

“As previously mentioned, Mr Waltham is well known in the local football scene, and not for the right reasons. I would have fully hoped that the Forsters were aware of the controversies surrounding him.

The biggest myth that North Ferriby supporters are keen to quash is that it only took a debt of £8,000 for the club to fold, a paltry sum given the amount of money swashing around in the top level of the game. That small debt was just the tip of the iceberg.

We believe there was significantly more debt in the club. It just so happened that it was the £8k to the turf management company that was called in. We estimate the total debt as being closer to £60k-£70k. On top of this we think there were further debts to utility companies and other suppliers. All these were racked up in Waltham and Chadwick’s tenure. They did complain that some were for orders made before they took over. This all sounds like Mr Waltham did not undertake sufficient due diligence.

“Knowing the extent of the debt, uncertainty as to what financial records were made, and a feeling that fans would not want to pay off their debts, it was increasingly inevitable that the club would fold.

Given that North Ferriby United’s tale is hardly unheard of, with Gateshead and Hartlepool United both fighting for their lives in the National League amidst the spectre of financial ruin, can other non-league clubs learn anything from the club’s demise?

Strong governance and careful financial management of a club is key, and if a club strays out of its means, then it will run the risk of going under. Les Hare bought the Forsters into Ferriby and that injection of cash delivered what Ferriby fans could only dream off. Fans are dreamers; we live in perpetual hope of something special – game after game, season after season. 

“For Ferriby, the problems came with the lack of exit planning when, undoubtedly, the funding would be withdrawn. When the money is withdrawn, careful financial planning is required to restructure the club. It’s not just the playing budget that is affected, the whole business model needs to change. Perhaps, the sensible thing, as we have seem with other clubs, is to take voluntarily relegation to a more sustainable level where our budget would have made us competitive. Ironically there were rumours of this immediately after the FA Trophy but the club pushed on and was promoted the following season.

“I think the FA have some questions to answer too. The FA present themselves as the guardians of the national game. There are clearly some people who are a threat to the brand and shouldn’t be in football club ownership.

There is light at the end of this particular dark night for North Ferriby’s supporters. As the club began to spiral out of control, and Jamie Waltham attempted to uproot 85 years of history, fan groups were already being contacted by Les Hare to discuss the possibility of forming a phoenix club. Less than a fortnight after their forbears liquidation, Hare announced that permission had been granted by the Parish Council for a new club to play at Grange Lane, and an application with the FA to enter  the new side into the Northern Counties East League Premier Division from next season followed. For Matthew and the rest of the Ferriby followers, it marks a new beginning, and lands another punch for fan involvement in football.

Fan involvement at the heart of the new club is key. I firmly think this is required at Ferriby and I will push for it. Fans should not be seen as just the volunteers who do important roles, such as manage the club shop, raise funds, and collect litter. They are often the ones that suffer in the hard times and who may have to consider picking up the pieces when it all goes wrong.

“Ideally, a fan-owned club will ensure this but if not then bringing the fans into the heart of the club and raising their capacity can put them in a stronger place if it all goes wrong again. I had marvelled at the achievements of Clapton fans, for example, in sticking two fingers up to their intransigent owner and going to alone to form Clapton CFC.

“After all, it was the fans successful Save North Ferriby campaign which helped see off the applications of Messrs Waltham and Chadwick. This is important because in so doing the phoenix club can reform at Step 5 or 6, and not 7 or lower, if they’d been successful. The fans should be rightly proud of this and this achievement should be reflected in how the new club is formed. With Les Hare now being back at the helm, we can look forward to the future with confidence, enthusiasm and most importantly, the firm hope of stability.

And, having seen 85 years of history crumble to dust, can supporters see the phoenix club emulating the success of North Ferriby United?

In recent years we achieved things that a village club can only dream of. The significant financial backing from the Forsters certainly helped to achieve this.  I don’t think, , we’ll see the top-flght National League again. The resources required in steps 1 and 2 are way beyond us. There is, however, no reason why the club, more generally, can’t be successful again; after all, the Trophy was not the first time we’d been to Wembley…and so I dream once more.

 

A massive thank you to Matthew Kempson for providing the North Ferriby United supporters’ insight for this piece. You can buy ‘The View From The Allotment End’ fanzine online here, and follow them on Twitter, along with sister fanzine ‘The View’, covering football, culture and music.

 

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