When your club are on the edge of an abyss, it can shape your attitude towards football. In 2008, I was playing for Bournemouth when we started to hear things weren’t right. Our wages were being paid late and rumours began flying around the place. We had a meeting with the hierarchy and our fears were confirmed: we were going into administration.
I was 24 and had just taken out a mortgage for the first time. I had to borrow money to keep up with payments, while many of my teammates had mouths to feed at home. It was a turbulent period: we had 10 points deducted and, even though our squad pulled together and fought to the last, we were relegated to League Two. The club was so close to going under.
The dire situation at Derby has rekindled those memories, even if the causes are not identical. Administration can strike at the very heart of a community, no matter what level of football it involves, so this will be an anxious time as those in charge consider what cuts to make. The workers at a football club are its heartbeat and often the extension of its local area. When people start losing their jobs, all of that begins to ebb away.
Bournemouth was, and still is, a set-up with great family values but it became a ghost club for a while. You would know everybody at the offices, the training ground and the club shop, but one day people with whom you had forged meaningful relationships would be missing. It was horrendous and you felt deeply for those involved. As a footballer you can usually find a new employer but it is not always that easy in other jobs. You look on and wonder how things can have come to this. Clubs need to remember that, if they do not run a tight ship, they are playing with people’s lives.
I was our PFA representative and learned a lot from the discussions between the players, the club and the administrators. The lads were not happy when I relayed the magnitude of the situation but I tried to mediate as best I could. We agreed to defer our wages for a period: we had a great group of people, many of whom had Bournemouth in their blood, and saw it as our responsibility to keep the club moving. We knew we were fortunate we were still able to work, even if the money was not coming in immediately. We stuck together and tried everything to get things back on an even keel in a way we had some control over.
Derby’s players will be doing the same, as you can see from their most recent performances. Make no mistake, guys will have agents offering them a way out and some of them may well see this as a route to getting a better deal somewhere. But anyone who assumes footballers will down tools in this position is mistaken. Players and coaches have professional pride like everyone else. When things aren’t going well you feel as if you’ve let yourself, the fans and your family down. People in football are sometimes viewed as separate from normal human beings but we’ve got feelings and emotions too.
As manager of Hereford I can draw upon those lessons from the past, particularly regarding financial stability and value to the local community. Our club was re-formed in 2014 after Hereford United, where I spent time on loan after leaving Bournemouth, were wound up. The pain of that time still informs plenty about how we work: we are very cautious about how we operate within our budget, knowing that the city of Hereford cannot lose its club a second time. There is a proud Football League history here, so explaining to our fans we cannot buy the best players in our division – National League North – is not always easy. But we need to make sure the club is around for a long time after all of us have gone, so that is how we run it.
Supporters just want to have pride in their club and feel close to it. At the highest level players can become detached from the public but we’ve got guys who are relatable. At our level they may not be earning more than those who watch them.
On Saturday, after our 1-1 draw with Leamington, we held a boxing night where the lads were with the fans watching Anthony Joshua’s fight. We have a range of other initiatives in the works, going beyond football, such as a series of events where we try to build bridges between ethnic minorities and the police. Our fans stuck by us in dark times and we will do anything for them: our club has to be at the very heart of the community.
The same applied to us at Bournemouth and is true of Derby, too. There is a long road ahead but I am sure they will find the right buyer: hopefully one who understands how profoundly local people need their club.