Matt Healey continues the feature.
Richard Walker was born in Derby on November 9th 1971. He was signed by former Hereford United Assistant Manager John Barnwell at Notts County, and stayed at Meadow Lane until 1997. He joined Hereford United that summer as the Bulls were about to start life as a non league club again.
Walker told me “Sam Allardyce released me at Notts County and I was one of the 100’s of professional footballers out of a job. Hereford United got in contact and they were full time, so it meant that I could stay in pro football, my ex colleagues from Notts County Dave Norton, John Brough and Tony Agana were at Edgar Street. Me and Dave Norton had a chat beforehand and I agreed to sign for the club”
Walker would make his Hereford debut in the infamous 2-1 home defeat to Welling United on the 16th August 1997. This was the first home game of the season and the famous “On loan to the GM Vauxhall Conference” that supporters were wearing only seemed to motivate the opposition that afternoon.
Hereford struggled to adapt to life in the GM Vauxhall Conference “It was tough, I had played in the division before when I had a loan spell at Kettering, so I knew what it would be about, I would say the club had suffered a hangover from the relegation and it caught a few of the players by surprise”
Hereford would then suffer a financial crisis. The Football League money had disappeared, some of the players were still on lucrative financial contracts from the season before, the crowds were dwindling and the club got only half the parachute money from the Football League that they were expecting.
“Those were tough times, my daughter had just been born and we went six weeks without any wages. We weren’t on life changing money at Hereford and when I signed it wasn’t ever discussed that this would be part of the deal. We all had bills and mortgages to pay and there was a lot of uncertainty. I remember after one game being paid my wages in a combination of cash and coins from the gate receipts”
The players maintained a professional outlook “We still had to play and had a job to do, there was no other alternative, there was never any suggestion we would down tools. It made us form a strong bond and it kept everyone together”
As fate would have it on the 15th November 1997 Hereford would face Brighton in the FA Cup 1st round at Edgar Street. The previous season in a final day decider the Seagulls earnt a 1-1 draw to keep themselves up and relegate Hereford. Walker was the Hereford captain that autumn afternoon.
“Knowing the history of what happened we felt we could get a bit of revenge. I gave away a penalty but Andy deBont saved it, we won 2-1, it was a great game and we pulled a result out of the bag, it was a big win for the fans”
Hereford would then go on a bit of a run in the competition which would help the financial landscape. In the next round a 1-1 draw at another Division Three club, Colchester United meant a replay at Edgar Street on the 16th December 1997.
“That was a cold night, it was 1-1 after 90 minutes and as soon as it goes into extra time the thought of penalties starts creeping into your mind. I had never taken a competitive penalty before. The previous day we had practiced penalties. We all felt comfortable and confident”
The game went to penalties. “I placed mine. I knew the day before where it would go and that was to the goalkeeper’s right.”
Andy deBont was the hero that December evening saving the last Colchester penalty and it meant the Bulls would win 5-4 on spot kicks. “Penalties are a great way to win, its a bit like earning promotion in the play offs at Wembley”
Next up was Division One (Now Championship equivalent) Tranmere Rovers in the 3rd round. The original tie was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. The rearranged game would take place on January 13th 1998.
“It was just a step to far, we were confident but we conceded goals at crucial moments, we had a decent run”
After that cup run Hereford settled down and started to climb the table. “The team started to gel and we ended up finishing 6th in the league. It was a positive year football wise for me”
The next season things would be different. As well as managing the team Graham Turner had taken over as Chairman from Peter Hill. His first job was to cut the wage bill. Former players from the Football League era Tony Agana, Trevor Matthewson, Brian McGorry, Dave Norton, Jamie Pitman, Chris Hargreaves and John Brough would leave the club in the summer of 1998.
Walker switched to a part time agreement for the 1998/1999 season. “My car school was in Nottingham and all of the players I travelled down with had left. I came down to Hereford on Tuesdays and Thursdays but trained at home the other days. We had a young squad, but we were hungry and thought we could mount a challenge for promotion. Most of the younger professionals had been released from teams higher up the league , they had a point to prove and the squad had been refreshed”
Hereford had a reasonable start to the league and were near the top of the table around mid October 1998. A 3-0 win at Stevenage on the 10th October 1998 where Walker scored two goals had left the Bulls in a decent position in the table. Disaster struck though on the 17th October 1998 in a FA Cup qualifier against Newport Isle of Wight.
“That game was one I don’t want to remember” After leading 2-0 and being in control for most of the game Hereford capitulated in the last twenty minutes and lost 3-2 to a team two divisions below them. The Hereford United documentary below highlights the financial devastation this would mean to the club.
It turned out the Newport game would be Walker’s last in a Hereford shirt “Keith Downing took us for training on the Monday and when I got home Graham Turner called me. He said he accepted an offer from Cheltenham Town for me. It came totally out of the blue. Graham said I didnt have to go, but the choice was down to me. Cheltenham were top of the league and Steve Cotterill (Cheltenham Manager) really sold the club to me. It was a tough decision. Hereford had given me an opportunity, but it was the right move to make with the financial state of the club and the fact we would then win promotion”
I asked Walker about his memories of the 20th February 1999 when the Cheltenham side played Hereford at Edgar Street with the four former Hereford players. Himself, Neil Grayson, John Brough and Dave Norton
“It wasn’t pretty, normally you get a bit of good natured stick, but the grief that Norts got was over the top. He was so professional in everything he did and gave everything he could for Hereford United”
Walker would achieve two promotions with Cheltenham Town and was what is now a League One player in 2002, but then injury struck. “I had a couple of operations but when the surgeon said to me that it would now be about living pain free I knew my career was over. I needed a job and got a job in the motor trade selling cars in Nottingham. I’m still doing it now”
Walker finishes with a final comment about his time at Edgar Street “They were good times, the fans accepted me, everyone was good to me and the club gave me a platform to play regularly again after I left Notts County”