WINCHESTER City have begun the hunt for a new manager to lead them back into the Southern League.

The Sydenhams Premier club have confirmed that Neil Hards will be leaving at the end of the season for personal and family reasons.

Hards, who famously led Winchester to FA Vase glory in 2004, made a surprise return to the Denplan City Ground in late October following the departure of Graham Kemp after just five months in the post.

Portsmouth-based Hards said at the time that he would help out for as long as needed. His efforts have been much appreciated by director of football Dave Malone and chairman Paul Murray who, exactly a year ago, rode in to save the club from almost certain extinction.

Since then some £30,000 had been pumped into ground improvements which, they hope, will pave the way to delivering Southern Premier Division football to the city in the foreseeable future.

The team budget has been cut to allow that work to be done, meaning fourth-placed City have had to forego their promotion dream this term.

But saluting Hards’s efforts, Malone said: “He has worked tirelessly with a much reduced budget and with several players elevated from the reserve team.

“Neil has, and always will be, a supporter and friend of WCFC and we will be eternally indebted to him for the contribution he has made to the re-emergence of our club.

“When Hardsy came here, he said he’d help out for as long as he needed to and he’s been as good as gold and remains so. But his life’s manic, what with work and family, and he’ll be finishing at the end of the season. It’s as amicable as amicable can be.”

The dilemma for Winchester is how to unearth a suitably ambitious replacement who can deliver Sydenhams Premier promotion but on a comparatively modest budget.

The key, Malone believes, is finding someone with a wealth of Wessex connections.

“The trouble we’ve got at the moment is that none of us has any contacts,” he admitted. “I’ve been out of the Wessex game for a long time and so have Hardsy and (assistant manager) Paul Masters.

“We started with absolutely nothing last summer, no youth team, no reserves, nothing, and it’s not easy putting a bunch of strangers together. “Then Kempy didn’t work out and his players came and went. “We need someone with load of contacts and knowledge of Wessex players.

“When I was at Winchester before, if we wanted a player we’d go out and get one. But we don’t have that budget any more.

“We’re the opposite of what we were before. In 2004 the team was brilliant and the ground was poxy. “Now the ground’s improved beyond all recognition and we’ve got a team that would finish top six and that’s it.

“We won’t be throwing the financial kitchen sink at it next year, we’ll go with what we can afford, keeping the nucleus of what we’ve got and using the new manager’s contacts.”

To mark the first anniversary of City’s ‘rebirth’, the club have invited along the Mayor of Winchester, Councillor Ernie Jeffs, to tomorrow’s home game against Totton & Eling.