We’re Going Up!

From the Talking Bull archives – A mere 13 years ago this weekend Hereford supporters were enjoying a momentous day at the Walkers Stadium with the Bulls securing Football League status thanks to an epic Conference play-off final against Halifax Town.

WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE HEREFORD PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS?

By Glynis Wright

Arguably, at the very least, that’s the sort of message that should have been posted on the walls at Edgar Street this morning. As I understood it, the Bulls had managed to flog well in excess of 10,000 tickets for the Leicester caper; an incredible total, that, when you also bear in mind that the entire population of the city runs to around 50,000. Sure, not all those travelling today came from within its boundaries – not a few farming folk and similar domiciled out in the sticks are partial to a bit of weekend Bull, oo arr, oo arr – but even when you factor in their presence, approximately 10% of the place upping sticks for the day and trekking to the East Midlands is a pretty impressive away support by anyone’s lights.

Living approximately 60 miles away from the place as we do, I wasn’t really in a position to see that almighty coach convoy for myself – 19, and still rising, according to the very last hard figures I saw first thing this morning – head off through all those country lanes in search of the M5’s northbound carriageway, but I do happen to have a vivid imagination. Am I right in thinking that Hereford city centre today took on the air of one of those USA hick towns situated about as close to the Mexican border as makes no difference? Aw, you know, no cars, no buses, people ditto – just various swirls and eddies of dust chasing each other down a deserted Main Street like boisterous young kids, with vagrant bits of tumbleweed in hot pursuit?

And, as far as the activities of indigenous townspeople were concerned, the sighting of a very testy Victor Meldrew-soundalike shuffling along as fast as their Zimmer frames would go being something of a bonus? Whichever way you want to look at it, having around tenth of your normal Saturday population disappear for the day must have led to some pretty spectacular images of what got left behind! Shades of the end of “On The Beach”, the post-nuclear apocalypse film set in Melbourne, Australia, anyone?

Still, it was all worth it in the end, rendering the entire place almost devoid of human inhabitants, wasn’t it? Congratulations on resuming League membership once more, your 3-2 triumph being a feat only matched by that of Ronnie Radford And Chums, a complete generation ago. My goodness, I bet all those boozers in the town have taken a bit of a bashing on the strength of what was achieved this evening – but I get ahead of myself; my personal account of Saturday’s triumph starts back in Bearwood, which is an outpost of West Bromwich, in the West Midlands – and this is what happened.

It’s not all that often I give visitors to our place such a gushing welcome, but in the case of Dave Watkin, our Baggies-loving travel companion, I had no real choice. How come? Easy. Question for all those lawyers reading this out there; does having to put up with a Bulls-mad husband flying at 35,000 feet all morning constitute good grounds for divorce? Yep, that’s right, ever since hubby arose from his pit ere break of day, his adrenal glands had been secreting in quantity. Result? One seriously-hyped-up spouse, and for that reason, one very rapid greeting of Dave when he finally arrived!

The journey itself proved quite trouble-free. The only real hazard to contend with en-route was the awful weather, clouds everywhere chucking most of their surplus cargo onto the M6 southbound carriageway. Even relatively early in the journey we managed some sightings of yellow-shirted Bulls on the move; this coming about four hours before the kick-off, it become pretty clear that there was going to be quite a bovine presence at The Walkers Stadium.

En-route, we spent some considerable time acquainting our chum with Graham Turner’s penchant for hands-on leadership, as per his ground-painting, pitch-mowing, and, on one memorable occasion when a howling gale blew off the Meadow End roof, hanging like grim (and sweaty?) death onto a rope holding the rest in precarious place! Then, giving a hand in effecting repairs to make that end safe once more. Apparently, for the greater part of the preceding week, and because on the massive upsurge in publicity for the club, he’s been smitten by the old ‘hands-on’ bug again, callers surprised greatly by suddenly finding themselves speaking to ‘yer man’, helping out by manning the club switchboard! You certainly don’t get that sort of thing in the Premiership – trust me on that one.

Finally reaching the outskirts of our destination after around an hour on the road, the volume of traffic increased to almost gridlock proportions. Roadworks, mainly, although the delays did give rise to some cheeky speculation on my part as to precisely what form of transport Bulls supporters making the journey privately had commandeered for the occasion, that amazing 19-strong coach convoy notwithstanding. Bullock carts? Tractors? Combine harvesters? Hmmm. And, in the case of those opting for animal propulsion, how many miles per bale of hay, I wondered.

One curious road sign as we crawled at walking-pace towards the Walkers Stadium, though: PARKING, LOADING, AND CERTAIN MANOEUVRES PROHIBITED! – a stern warning to the masses indeed. The ‘parking’ and ‘loading’ bits I understood – but ‘certain manoeuvres’? Oooh la la! While my mind was busy boggling like crazy at the import of that notice, we’d gradually hove in sight of our destination for the late afternoon and early evening, The Walkers Stadium, aka ‘The Giant Crisp Packet’. Once parked up, the walk to the ground was but a mere bagatelle. The real problems arose because of our tickets, and there was sod-all we could do about it.

Memo to myself: never go to an important game on a promise of getting your tickets from supporters at the other end. To be sure, the fault was most certainly not that of Nick Brade and his Bulls-lovin’ chums, who had the precious goods in their hot little hands and were, collectively, more than ready to give them to their rightful owner: no, the real fault was that of the authorities for wildly underestimating the policing arrangements for literally hundreds of Herefordians making their way by coach. No police escort at that end, see; what with that and the road works, this put quite a delay on things. When we first arrived, we’d checked via our mobile, Nick giving us the good news that they were the first coach, and would arrive in around 20 minutes.

Not with roadworks, they wouldn’t, and not knowing either the area or the vagaries of the local plods was not exactly the sort of bonus they were seeking. Having discovered much later (after a pre-match ice-cream, mind, in order to keep going the ‘winning run’ we’d established on the back of regular ice-cream consumption prior to the games that mattered!) the awful problems they were having getting off the motorway, we awaited their arrival just outside the away end turnstiles, this column choosing to update notes in the club’s tastefully-designed Memorial Gardens – and waited, and waited, and waited?.. Half an hour to go, and there was hubby, nerves twanging mightily, still, attempting to reach the lower regions of the stratosphere through the handy portal of grossly-elevated adrenalin secretions. High? Too true; had any well-wishers spoken to him at that precise moment, I reckon he would have burst into tears on the spot.

Then, in what amounted to a re-enactment of the classic movie moment when the beleaguered wagon-train, suffering greatly at the hands of a bunch of marauding Sioux Indians, suddenly espies in the distance, the column of dust and the thin silvery sounds of an army trumpet being wielded in anger that generally presaged the arrival on the scene of the 7th Cavalry, along came Nick, and his sorely-missed entourage. Allelujah, praise the Lord! Apparently, those last few miles had been a real horror-show for those paying punters, delay after delay, and the rapidly-growing realisation that the clock was running down fast. It strikes me that if the football authorities genuinely want to persuade supporters to forego the joys of independent car travel for those of official coach trips to away fixtures, then it seems to me that they’re going about it totally the wrong way. Who in their right mind wants to sign up for a service that can only get you to a ground just minutes before the kick-off?

Mind you, it wasn’t just the sight of Mavis and Marion that got my eyes bulging in true hyperthyroid fashion; what really left me coughing and spluttering with uncontrollable giggles was the sight of Nick wearing some sort of Roy Chubby Brown tribute get-up. Aw, you know, ‘Crazy Frog’ flying helmet, outrageously-coloured patchwork-quilt “suit”, pillar-box red bow tie on white shirt, that sort of thing. No wonder my disbelieving shriek of “WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS THAT?” reverberated throughout that bit of the ground reserved for visiting supporters! Once I’d calmed down a bit, though, I did suggest that perhaps their coach had made a diversionary stop via the local psychiatric hospital to pick up Nick. Or maybe they’d turned up for medication only – had they seen in Nick’s unusual get-up a clamorous signal for someone with the authority to section him on the spot? Whichever way the mop flopped, the considered view of most Bulls followers was that it was high time to scarper, and quickly, too.

And, talking of peculiar sights, once inside The Giant Crisp Packet, what was the very first thing we clapped eyes on? No, not a little blue bag of salt carefully concealed underneath our seats, just Malcolm Boyden, temporarily forsaking his normal Albion ‘gig’ for one based in the very heart of the surrounding countryside. We’d heard he was going to be doing the ‘roving mike’ bit at the Walkers Stadium, and the living proof was there, right in front of us. One vagrant thought – would he forget his more normal allegiance in the hurly-burly of pre-kick-off hype?

Once seated, it didn’t take us long to realise that in the next two seats to our left we had some very familiar company indeed. Enter into my little tale our two Bluenose-Bull hybrid chums, who greeted our arrival effusively; it was while we were doing this that the ground went crazy for the entry of both sets of combatants onto the park below. The Bulls, enjoying tenancy of both the area behind one of the goals, also most of the area along the nearest touchline, certainly made their superiority in numbers count. Very noisy were their greetings, ear-splitting cacophony of hooters, drums, the works, including some assistance courtesy rockets ascending towards the heavens, Roman Candle-type bursts, and all the pyrotechnical rest of it. I could only hope that the people responsible for that little lot weren’t the same ones that stuffed up so badly when trying to perform the same service at (spit!) Molineux, a few seasons back.

The two sides out, it was then down to the formal stuff, presentations of both sides to some stuffed-shirt or other, the National Anthem (a surprise, that one), the daft shaking-of-hands ritual seen in the Prem this season, then both sides breaking in readiness for the toss-up. Hereford kicking towards the Halifax end it was, then, and without much more ado, the show was finally on the road.

Looking at my notes, I see the first testing of the Bulls’ collective mettle came just a minute after the start, the exploratory move ending with a shot rattling just wide of the right-hand post. Of those early exchanges, it seemed that Hereford were the more likely to draw first blood, although as time passed, it was increasingly noticeable that Halifax were quite capable of turning on worrying runs with the ball as and when the occasion suited them. And there was one piece of pure jam on the part of the cider-slurpers; by rights, they should have been one down very early on in the game, when Halifax had a pretty good shout for a spot-kick turned down – erm – on the spot! Mind you, they were on the wrong end of a similar decision themselves on at least two occasions, so I suppose that it was even-stevens all round.

With Halifax grabbing a couple of corners and genuine attempts on goal over the course of the first 20 minutes, it seemed very much as though control of the game had passed to them. They seemed to be finding their players much better than did The Bulls, one such move drawing a top-class save from keeper Brown. Then came that penalty shout for Hereford, on 13 minutes, waved away by the ref, and on the balance of probabilities, the correct decision. Gradually, though, after being almost overwhelmed in those opening minutes, the Bulls began to get up a head of steam, and before too long, had created a superb chance courtesy a wonderfully-intelligent Ryan Green step-over right in front of the target, allowing Purdie the chance to run onto it – sadly, he blew it.

It was around that time, Purdie had to go off, for stitches, as far as I could see. While was being attended to on the touchline, though, disaster struck, in the shape of Halifax’s Killeen, whose impressive strike gave Brown no chance whatsoever. Sounds of joy from the Halifax faction, of course, but from Hereford, naught but stunned silence. Oh, whoops.

Four minutes later, Hereford supporter-frustration came to the boil following two unproductive shouts of “HANDBALL!” in rapid succession. Frustrated? They should try the Premier League sometime! Not that their followers had long to wait, mind; a minute later, Williams restored parity in high style, his header ending up just inside the left-hand post. Pandemonium in Hereford territory, as their itinerant supporters celebrated what was rightly theirs; meanwhile, in the next seat to mine, I had a jubilant other half gibbering “YES! YES! YES!” to the point of complete exhaustion, almost. A timely strike, that, as just prior to it hitting home base, I’d felt more and more that Halifax were about to completely boss the game. Whatever the timing, it certainly had the desired effect, that of steadying the ship.

And, with just six minutes left to the break, they nearly did it again, getting right behind the Halifax defence, the resultant shot bringing forth one hell of a save from the keeper. It was jubilation unbridled in our part of the ground; so much so, even Nick Brade took the trouble to tell us: “I can see we’ve got a ‘relegated’ section here?” Gee, thanks for reminding us, Nick! What we didn’t need reminding of was the fact that buoyed up by that lovely strike, The Bulls were now running at full throttle. Example? Just before the break, a wonderful interplay of passing and movement from the Bulls had the Halifax keeper getting some totally-unrequited exercise once more, the quality of the play not all that far short of the stuff commonly seen at Premiership level – and having sampled that league’s wares for two seasons on the bounce, now, I reckon I’m particularly well qualified to make that distinction.

Half-time, then, the break much needed if only for temporary relief from unrelenting tension. And, as my eye wandered lazily around the ground, who did I spot in the seats in front, but our old chum Malcolm Boyden, ‘working the crowd’ with a roving mike and, much to my delight, grabbing hold of Nick’s little party for the benefit of the folks back home. As they were sitting several seats further along, I couldn’t quite catch what they were saying, but from the amount of giggling going on there, I took it as read that their comments were going down well. Mind you, I did thank our lucky stars that Malcolm was interviewing for radio, and not the dreaded goggle-box. How come? Easy: on account of Nick’s sad sartorial state – and had his errant dress-sense been displayed to a wider public, I don’t think the viewers would have quite believed what they were seeing, somehow!

Back to the matter in hand, then – and on 53 minutes, another chance for the Bulls, the Stansfield effort coming when he got the ball, beat several opposition players in succession to the punch, then let fly just a matter of feet from the keeper. Selfish? Probably, should have laid it off for someone else, really. Time, now, for yet another observation. As the game progressed, it seemed very much to me that Hereford weren’t getting their fair share of the important decisions; on this occasion, within the space of around a minute, both whistler and assistant managed to cock up badly, the first being with a Hereford penalty shout, a good one as far as I could tell, getting dismissed, the second being an offside flagged totally wrongly. Remembering only too well three seasons ago, when poor refereeing cost the Bulls a play-off Final appearance, I was hoping like hell similar diabolical luck wouldn’t stage a late comeback.

Another ‘near-miss’ about a minute later, but around that stage of the game, it was becoming abundantly clear that correct hydration would play a significant part in the outcome of this game. There were players out there on both sides who were plainly knackered. The side needed a further whack of choral support in their hour of need, which is why the opening stanzas of the refrain “Hereford United, we all love you.” suddenly reverberated all around the Walkers Stadium. Tucka’s lads needed a bit of a lift, and who better to provide it but the club’s ‘infantry’?

Another Halifax effort went a bit too close for comfort shortly afterwards: it was at that point, I happened to notice Nick – in full flight, worried as hell, and screaming like a whole host of banshees given exclusive access to one of Leicester’s executive boxes for the day! Again, his wacky dress-sense didn’t help; how many of those kids present would cite him as the reason for them having bad dreams later that evening?

Remember what I’d said about players’ energy levels starting to flag a bit? Well with just 20 to go, we saw a classical example, in the shape of Andy Williams, clearly struggling, and by that stage, totally without hope of recovery. Halifax must have scented their moment, because before too long, they had the ball out on the left, and their lad Grant making it two and the lead back in their hot little hands, too.

Returning to that Bulls subbing once more, while the change was being effected, the decibel level inside the ground rose to a dangerously hair-curling sort of pitch. The buzz had got around their supporters that Ipoua was about to come on, which he did just after that successful Halifax strike. If the change had been made that much sooner, perhaps? Who knows.

For those reading this who aren’t regular Bulls followers, it’s an article of faith among their supporters that Ipoua can be a very frustrating sort of body to manage, when he puts his mind to it. The problem with the lad is simple; he tends to underachieve, to drift in and out of games, which is why the overall lack of enthusiasm among supporters for the lad. But he does have a God-given talent for the beautiful game, even a residual amount, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him set the upper division completely alight next term.

When he can be persuaded to bear arms with some degree of success, his inspired presence at the scene of the crime generally proves too much for opponents to cope with. ‘Erratic’ some might say, and others ‘inconsistent’. His mood can literally change from minute to minute, and we were about to see a prime example of this undesirable side to his nature in but a couple of minutes. His moment of glory came with but 11 minutes of normal time remaining, not only landing himself on the score-sheet, but partially constructing the goal that was to play such a decisive role in Hereford’s subsequent fortunes also. Salvation from heaven, redemption, even, in the form of an unstoppable header. Long and loud had those Bulls supporters cursed their flighty player, but it was easy to discern who was having the last laugh this time. Had he been one of ours, I could have quite cheerfully strangled the guy, but Bulls followers are made of much sterner stuff, so it would seem.

With that equalising strike, the stage was set for 30 minutes of extra time, and the resultant shedding of much more nail tissue on the part of my other half. But not before rampant Hereford almost repeated the feat, when one of their finest managed to break free of a static Halifax rearguard, and the lino suddenly flagging energetically for offside. A totally ludicrous decision, that one, and one of the worst cock-ups I’ve ever seen on a football pitch. The tension then twanging-taut for the duration of the four minutes added on time – and then it was ‘extras’ all round.

Time for a break, then, and some more hydration courtesy the administration of some obscure isotonic sports drunk or other. Subbing time, also, with Stanley off and Jamie Pitman on. Off we went once more, then, and within the space of two minutes, Halifax had the ball in the back of the net once more. Just as well, then, the effort was offside. (See, they CAN get it right, sometimes!)

The first piece could really be summed up as ‘irresistible force meets immovable object’, a war of attrition, with neither side making significant gains. More and more, this game was looking very much as though penalties would separate the two, some 30 minutes away. Either that, or a crowbar – but not all that long after coming, reluctantly, to the same conclusion as the pundits. But things were about to change drastically – now, it was Green who managed to gain immortal stature within the club.

Personally, I’d thought the effort, what looked very much like a misplaced goal attempt – or a botched cross: you tell me, all those with access to TV – but whatever the provenance, they all count. The very instant that shot hit the roof of the left-hand corner, hundreds – no, thousands – of Bulls took it as their cue to celebrate. “Are they taking things just a bit too far?” muttered my other half, as he commented upon the strange number of creatures to be found celebrating after that successful strike. Oh – and another thing. While whooping it up at the Hereford end, Purdie took his shirt off, and was duly shown ‘yellow’ by the referee for his sins.

From then on in, the name of the game was defence, pure and simple. Not long afterwards, Hereford’s keeper sustained a nasty head injury after being kicked in same accidentally going for a fifty-fifty ball. A heart-stopping moment, that one, as The Bulls had used all their subs, but life did return to the stricken custodian, eventually, so much so, he was still able to defend his goal with full vigour.

And, as the clock advanced steadily, many hearts were in mouths, not least because having got Hereford back into the game with that marvellous strike of his, Ipoua had now seemingly decided that to be the sum total of his contribution to the game. Now, he had just two speeds – dead slow and stop – to the fury of his admirers. When he reverted to that sort of thing, you could quite easily see why so many foreign clubs had washed their hands of him. Six full minutes of stoppage time, largely because of the injury to Brown, and for Bulls everywhere, a seemingly-endless nerve-twanging sort of time. And then, with just about every Hereford follower screaming blue murder at the ref, imploring him to blow up for the final time, he did. Finally, after nine miserable years out of it, The Bulls were back in the League.

Poor Simon – as the celebrations began, you could see the tears weren’t all that far away. A nice circular end to their exile, having witnessed them lose their League status to Brighton all those campaigns ago – but all that forgotten as rapidly-rising rockets signified The Bulls’ final acceptance of that precious Conference play-off trophy. Then the celebrations after that, during which I have a vision of the lad Ipoua grabbing a multi-coloured flag from one of his admirers, then proceeding to do an improvised hula-hula dance with it fastened firmly around his waist! And, watching everything from afar – after all, it was the players’ party, not his – there was Tucka Trewick, an enigmatic smile on his tanned face and applauding his players’ efforts from time to time. What a satisfactory outcome for him, too, not to mention Graham Turner, whose faith in the side had finally borne fruit. As for ‘Im Indoors, well?.. I’d had difficulty keeping him on terra firma that morning – now, it was going to be a complete impossibility to achieve!

A quick couple of celebratory drinks in a nearby pub, and it was back home for us – but not before we’d listened to the numerous discordant honks emanating from drivers of Bull-ish vehicles as they quite Leicester for good. As Neil Diamond once put it, “A Beautiful Noise”, and one achieved in spite of much heartbreak, doubt and anguish from the Edgar Street persuasion.

At least we’ll be in the right place for any civic parade: today, we’re off to – yep, you’ve guessed it – Herefordshire!

Next year’s League fixtures? Bring ’em on, I say.