RETURNING boss Neil Hards is urging Winchester City fans to get behind director of football Dave Malone instead of taking pot shots at him following the departure of manager Graham Kemp.

As someone who watched on with concern as Winchester teetered on the brink of extinction towards end of last season, Hards says supporters should thank Malone for keeping the club alive and kicking.

“Everyone knows Winchester came close to being extinct and I can’t understand people having a pop at Dave when he’s the one who’s kept it going,” said Hards.

“Dave’s a winner and he does things in the interests of the club.

“When I first managed here (in 2003) I took over from John Robson who hadn’t lost a game but, at the end of the day, Dave’s entitled to do what he likes.

“When he’s paying out money he’s entitled to get a return on it and change things if he feels they’re not quite right.

“If Dave hadn’t come back to Winchester, where would it be? On the scrap heap, that’s where, because no one else was going to pay the bills.”

While Kemp himself has confirmed his departure was by mutual agreement and that he wasn’t enjoying the job, Malone’s past record of hiring and firing continues to haunt him.

Some fans are convinced that Hards – manager of City’s 2004 FA Vase-winning side – had been lined up to replace him all along, but Portsmouth-based Hards stressed: “There’s no conspiracy theory.

“Dave phoned me last week to say a change may or may not be happening and asked how I’d be fixed to help out if it did.

“He phoned again after talking to Kempy last Thursday and asked if I’d be around for a chat at the weekend and could I get to the Verwood game.

“As I already had commitments I said I couldn’t get to Verwood but, in the end, I was available and I went incognito without telling anyone. I didn’t think it was right to go along and be seen. I spoke to Dave on Sunday and agreed to help out, but anything that went on prior to that is down to Dave and the club.”

Reflecting on his previous spell at Winchester, which produced 11 trophies, Hards said: “Dave and I did okay as a working relationship. We had our ups and downs and some big differences of opinion, but there was always an underlying current of doing what was best for the club.

“Dave let me do what I wanted with regards to managing the side. He would go out and look at players, which took the load off me, but if I didn’t want someone, they wouldn’t come in.

“All I concentrated on was football matters and making sure the players enjoyed it.

“At this level it’s mostly down to enjoyment and that’s why I left Winchester last time. It was hard work, I needed a break and I had other things to do.

“But I’m back now and I’m looking forward to it.

“Three months ago Winchester very nearly didn’t have a club, but Dave, (chairman) Paul Murray and (secretary) Martin Moody have gone in and given people a team to watch again. I might be here for one year or maybe ten. I just want to help the club progress and put it on a sound footing.”

Having dipped his toe back into the water on Tuesday as City lost a 5-4 League Cup thriller against Sholing, Hards takes his first league game back in charge tomorrow at home to Brockenhurst.

Brock – managed by Winchester’s former reserve team boss Pat McManus – won 1-0 at Verwood on Wednesday courtesy of a 26th-minute Lerone ‘Rudy’ Plummer goal.