North Ferriby United were on top of the world. Or the top step at Wembley at least.
Parading the FA Trophy on the Wembley gantry in front of thousands of travelling supporters, the village side were living a reality many wouldn't ever have dreamed possible.
With aspirations of winning promotion to the National League – which would be a new peak – the Villagers were a club on the up; an underdog that was upsetting traditionally bigger and more well-supported teams on a regular basis.
But looking back at that snapshot of joy and untold promise in 2015, the Wembley delirium already looks like a moment from a long, lost scrapbook of happier times. The season after, the East Yorkshiremen did reach the fifth tier with a play-off victory against AFC Fylde, but that would be their zenith.
In the three years since, the club has gone in the opposite direction.
Instead of building on the FA Trophy success and their fifth-tier status, they've slipped into chronic decline. Now they're bracing themselves for a third successive relegation, which would see North Ferriby complete the journey from Wembley winners back to relative anonymity. However, a battle to protect the club’s identity might just trump any trauma of the team’s catapult down the leagues, with their owners locked in a battle with the football authorities to allow them to move the club 13 miles out of Ferriby and change its name.
To fully understand North Ferriby’s dramatic rise and fall, looking back at the club’s recent past provides an insight into how a tiny village team went from being a non-league also ran to mixing it with much bigger players, and then a startlingly quick descent.
A provincial club that plays in the shadow of the Humber Bridge, North Ferriby was a non-league outpost that not many visitors would have envisaged being the scene of a surge up the leagues. An affluent, yet sleepy, village with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants, the large houses, small cluster of shops and white telephone boxes, which are a nod to nearby Hull City Council’s independent governance of the phone lines until 2007, don’t give the impression of a football hotbed.
But after getting into the Northern Premier League for the first time in its history in 2005, they established themselves at that level and reached the National League North in 2013.
Nothing too remarkable there.
But when Eman Forster and her husband Steve – daughter and son-in-law of controversial Hull City owner Assem Allam – took over in the November following promotion, the gradual success that epitomised North Ferriby’s progress suddenly grew legs. Investment would mean that consolidation wasn’t the sole aim and the club started planning with more ambition.
The FA Trophy was won, but within two months the club was reportedly facing voluntary relegation back into the lower tiers, with several players claiming that the Forsters were pulling their funding and that they’d all been told they were free to find new clubs. The owners denied that, despite having put the club up for sale and promised to keep covering costs until a buyer was found.
So for the club to prosper on the pitch and earn promotion to the backdrop of a will-they-won’t-they saga was even more of a miracle. However, a statement in March – less than two months before the play-off guaranteeing a place in the National League – declared that the Forsters were seeking somebody to take over due to Steve Forster’s ill health.
To make matters worse, manager Billy Heath and the heart of the squad departed for Halifax in the close season. And with budgets remaining stationary despite making the jump up to a league packed with former Football League clubs with average attendances nearly the size of North Ferriby’s population, it was no surprise the Villagers finished bottom – 12 points from safety.
Relegation from a league where North Ferriby were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lincoln City and Tranmere Rovers needn’t have carried any shame. However, the slender attendances and income – and the failure to find a new owner for 18 months – caught up with Ferriby as they slipped back into National League North.
A wretched start to the new season followed by several rounds of budget cuts created the perfect ingredients for another relegation, with the Villagers only picking up four wins and conceding 101 goals on the way to a second consecutive demotion.
Even the arrival of a new owner in November spelled more doom and gloom, with Jamie Waltham branding the club unsustainable at its current level and announcing his intention to transfer their status to another club in the area. And while he only remained in the position for six months, his replacement, Carl Chadwick, had similar misgivings about the financial situation.
With a paltry budget now funded only by an average gate of 150, a hat-trick of relegations is inevitable, with North Ferriby only notching one win so far this season to sit adrift at the foot of the table once more. But while they’ve had to get used to losing battles on the field, the Villagers’ existence now relies on winning one off it.
At the end of 2018, a proposal was submitted to the FA requesting that North Ferriby would become East Hull and move 20 minutes away to the neighbouring village of Dunswell. The motion was rejected by the FA a month later, but Chadwick – who is working with previous owner Waltham to get the deal done – has appealed the decision.
As the web of uncertainty and speculation builds, those happy days at Wembley seem much more distant that four years ago.
Right now, North Ferriby United appear to be heading for rock bottom.
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