Saturday Interview: Wembley return not the end of North Ferriby story

Les Hare, the chairman of North Ferriby United. (Picture: Simon Hulme)
Les Hare, the chairman of North Ferriby United. (Picture: Simon Hulme)
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LES HARE, chairman of North Ferriby United for the past 21 years, has an inkling as to the emotions that tomorrow’s trip to Wembley will stir.

He has been here before, you see. Back in 1997, the Villagers reached the FA Vase final at the old national stadium and Hare, a stalwart of grass-roots football for the best part of four decades, was sitting on the front row of the Royal Box.

United's players celebrate their semi-final victory over Bath City. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).

United's players celebrate their semi-final victory over Bath City. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).

“We lost 3-0 to Whitby but it is a day I’ll never forget,” said the 62-year-old when speaking to The Yorkshire Post in the East Riding club’s neatly-appointed clubhouse.

“Reaching a final on the national stage was something no-one would have ever believed happening. We weren’t expected to win and we didn’t.

“But what I will always remember is looking round in the Royal Box and seeing my entire committee, plus their wives, and I have never seen so many grown men actually weeping.

“The emotion had got to every one of them. As I turned round, I felt like the proverbial conductor at the front of an orchestra as I urged them all to get to their feet.

“All that was missing was the baton in my hand. It showed just what North Ferriby getting to Wembley meant to everyone involved with the club.”

Hare, his fellow committee members and those supporters who also headed to Wembley in 1997 will, of course, get another taste of the big time tomorrow.

North Ferriby, as a North Conference outfit, have defied the odds to battle through to a showpiece occasion that is usually the preserve of teams from the top tier of non-League football.

For Hare, the Trophy final will represent a personal hat-trick after being at the helm of North Ferriby for the Vase defeat against Whitby and also B&A Scaffolding when they battled through to the FA Sunday Cup final in 1995.

The latter defeat to St Joseph’s (Luton) marked the end of his involvement with the Sunday League club, Hare instead deciding to pour all his efforts into taking the Villagers forward rather than split his time.

It may, as he wryly puts it, have meant: “What seemed to be a bit of a hobby ended up with back-to-back life sentences.”

But Hare has overseen a remarkable rise that has taken what was then a ninth-tier outfit watched by around 70 fans every home game to one that only missed out on automatic promotion to the Conference last May by three points.

As pleasing as that upward trajectory has been, Hare seems to get just as much satisfaction from how the club has become a focal point for the community of North Ferriby.

“We made a decision in 1996 that proved to be the most crucial of all,” explains Hare, who somehow combines his ‘day’ job working in the insurance industry with the countless hours demanded by the duties of being chairman. “We introduced youth football into the club.

“There had been a stagnation, as can happen at a lot of clubs. The committee was very old and the club wasn’t going anywhere, languishing at the bottom of the Northern Counties with attendances of 70-80.

“To me, there was no heart within the football club. And without a heart beating, you are never going to survive.

“That is when we took a long, hard look at how we could create the football club. We spoke to local people with regards what children were doing in terms of playing football and decided to try and fill what was clearly a gap.

“We introduced a couple of youth teams and I remember saying at the time, ‘We are going down the road towards becoming a community club’.

“The plan was to have four or five teams within the next five years. But that went wrong somewhere along the way, as we had 12 in next to no time and now we have 25 teams. And still growing.

“About 300 children play football here every week and there is a stat from the FA that says we have the highest percentage of participation per capita of population of any other club in England.”

Among the youth set-up’s proud boasts is a girls section of more than 100 members, aged seven upwards.

In total, the state-of-the-art 3G pitch that sits behind one goal at the club’s Church Road ground plays host to more than 80 per cent of the local primary school children on a weekly basis.

It is a second generation surface, the first having been made possible by the sale of North Ferriby’s most famous former player.

“Dean Windass moving from Hull City to Aberdeen earned us around £60,000,” said Hare about a striker who joined the Tigers from Ferriby in 1991.

“We had a sell-on clause, which is an interesting story in its own right. The sell-on clause was for 20 per cent but Hull City had a winding up order on them.

“The sad thing was that the deals coming into Hull City were primarily spread across a few years. Norwich offered £1m but over four years and City needed the money up front.

“He went to Aberdeen (in a £700,000 transfer) and (Tigers chairman) Martin Fish made the call to us, pointing out that essentially they wouldn’t be able to honour a 20 per cent sell-on clause and settle the debt to the Inland Revenue.

“It was a bit of a no-brainer for everyone and we took a 10 per cent share by agreement. We got a cheque for £60,000 and the rest is history.

“Dean Windass moved on and had a wonderful career, Hull City got themselves out of a dire financial position and, for North Ferriby, that £60,000 was the catalyst to build what was then the ‘Dean Windass Centre’.”

Being involved with a non-League club can be time-consuming. And it is not for the uncommitted.

Just this month, North Ferriby completed a 1,000-mile road trip inside the space of eight days due to having three games on the road at Hednesford, Solihull and Brackley.

As all of Billy Heath’s squad hold down full-time jobs as well as play in Conference North, such a heavy schedule can bring its own logistical nightmares. Ditto those responsible for running the club, which is why the army of 70 or so volunteers are so integral to the Villagers’ plight. The reward for such commitment comes tomorrow.

“Us making the Cup final is, in many eyes, the end of the story,” said Hare. “But not to us. I was asked recently what my proudest moment in football has been. I said, ‘It is still to come’.

“Going to Wembley will be a hugely proud time. Piles of emotion for everyone. The prospect of seeing a billboard with ‘North Ferriby versus Wrexham’ in an FA Trophy final at the national stadium is something even two years ago people would have seen as pure fiction.

“But, here we are. And I don’t believe anyone connected with this club is going to Wembley just to have a nice time.”