Conference is 'holy grail' for North Ferriby United's ambitious Les Hare
LES Hare has been chairman of North Ferriby United for 17 years. It is, he says, a "hobby gone wrong."
"Someone once said to me you get about as much pleasure out of running a non-league football club as you would tearing up fivers under a cold shower," he adds.
Yet all those hours stood under the drip, drip, drip could soon be worth it.
With eight games of their Evo-Stik Northern Premier League season remaining, the Villagers are nine points clear at the top of the table.
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A place in the Blue Square Bet Conference North is the handsome prize at stake for Billy Heath's side. Or as Hare puts it, the "Holy Grail."
"Promotion would mean the world to us," said North Ferriby's long-serving chairman ahead of tomorrow's home game with Ashton United.
"If you can realise your dreams, what is the value of that?
"Our dreams have always been to play at the highest possible level and now we're almost there."
For a club that plied its trade exclusively in the Northern Counties East League as recently as 1999-2000, a place in the sixth tier of English football would represent a giant leap into unchartered ground and also to the top of their tree. The financial demands placed upon Conference Premier clubs effectively makes further progress up football's ladder unfeasible.
Only the club's grand day out at Wembley for the FA Vase in May 1997 can come close to the achievements of the current campaign. Hare is praying the job can be completed during the season's final six weeks.
The 60-year-old ought to be too busy to worry. Juggling his full-time job as an insurance broker, Hare estimates commitments with the Villagers makes his an 80-hour working week.
"Most people would regard this as an impossible job," he explains.
"Nothing you can do, even with the best intentions in the world, will give you the returns you'd expect from all your hard work.
"But we're very proud of what we have. Some people might consider this place not very grand but there's not many grounds where you can sit in the main stand and look out at a green and church spire backdrop."
The Rapid Solicitors' Stadium – or Church Road to the traditionalists – is what fills Hare with inspiration.
On the eastern landscape are the two visible towers of the Humber Bridge, while a welcome from the west comes down a narrow drive lined by allotments. Only the occasional rumble of trains along Hull's main line interrupts the peace and quiet.
This has been a second home to Hare since 1996. After success on the Sunday League scene, most notably guiding B&A Scaffolding to the FA Sunday Cup final at Boothferry Park in 1995, he first accepted an invite to join the Villagers' board in the Northern Counties East League.
"It was pretty much dead in the water back then," he said. "The club had some great years in the late 80s and early 90s but it'd started to dip.
"We had an ageing committee, very few supporters and very little happening. The whole ethic had to change."
The transfer of North Ferriby's most famous graduate is credited with setting progress in motion. Dean Windass' move from Hull City to Aberdeen brought a £60,000 cash windfall in Hare's first year (a photocopy of the cheque is framed in the boardroom) and paid for the club's new youth development centre.
Twenty four junior teams catering for upwards of 300 children between the age of four and 18 have been spawned from that venture, while two promotions – in 2000 and 2005 – up to these unprecedented heights have brought tangible marks of progress.
In 2010, though, came a watershed moment in the club's history.
When a succession of sponsorship deals fell through to create a financial iceberg, the Villagers abandoned their history as a members club to become a limited company last year.
A four-man board, consisting of Hare, vice chairman Colin Wicks, secretary Steve Tather and financial director Richard Watts, now takes the strain alone.
"The figures required are growing all the time," said Hare. "This year will be a record figure for us, we'll top £300,000 to run the football club.
"That's enormous. In 1994 it was £18,000. It's a million miles away from that now but that's the reality."
At this point Hare salutes a "little army" that ensures the club's wellbeing. An unpaid management committee of 12 is supplemented by a further 78 volunteers.
There are also notable benefactors to be thanked. Assem Allam's reported investment of around £100,000 in October has been key to North Ferriby's current promotion push and the redevelopment of the club's all-weather facility.
Now comes the final step. Although promotion rivals Hednesford Town, conquered 3-2 last weekend, and AFC Fylde both have games in hand, North Ferriby's fate is theirs to shape in eight final league games.
Conference North would represent the glorious final stop on the line for the Villagers. The Conference Premier, home to the likes of Grimsby Town, would be a bridge too far for a club that currently attracts an average crowd of just 300.
Hare said: "To believe we could ever compete would be a tall order. You need passion and belief but you also need your feet on the ground.
"The ground itself is incapable of achieving standards. The Football League insist any side aspiring to be in the Conference National have to have a 6,000 capacity. Here, the most we could ever manage would be 4,000 and we're currently 3,000.
"The only way of achieving 6,000 would be upping sticks and moving."
A victory over 11th-placed Ashton tomorrow would bring another jump towards the club's finest hour and, with City on an international break, Hare is urging the unconverted to jump aboard the Ferriby bandwagon.
He added: "If we were to win promotion, hopefully we'll see people taking non-league more seriously.
"It's a different experience but the quality is excellent. It surprises people all the time."