Thursday 12 April 2018

Doing The Pools

By the time you read this things may have changed for Hartlepool United, hopefully for the better, but as I write the situation is far from great. The club has debts totalling £1.8m, and there are fears of administration if they don't find £200,000 by the end of January. The fans of Hartlepool however are not giving up hope and they've raised over £68,000 to date, vital funds that apparently mean the players will get paid next week.

So amongst a backdrop of finical woes and an uncertain future, welcome to Hartlepool. I disembark from my train once it pulls into the station, it's a numbing cold January day with a clear crisp sky and the sound of seagulls drifting through the air. This is the town where legend has it the locals once hanged a monkey believing it to be a French spy sent by Napoleon, and where a man dressed in a monkey costume was once elected mayor. I've arrived on what is a big day for Hartlepool United. A bumper crowd is expected for this afternoon's visit of Wrexham as the footballing world rallies behind this stricken club. As well as the large number of locals that should be out in force, fans from various clubs are supposed to be coming along to lend their support and bring in much needed cash into the coffers.

Today Hartlepool sit in the bottom half of the Vanarama National League having last season finally been relegated from the Football League for the first time in forever and a day, or in numerical terms 95 years. However having faced and overcame re election a record fourteen times it's surprising they didn't drop out sooner. But with proper relegation to non league football having been in place since the late 80's there was this time no escape. Despite a final day victory, other results went against them and their long reign within the top four divisions of English football finally came to an end. 

During their Football League years Hartlepool never managed to find their way into the top two divisions, but they did have their moments within the bottom two tiers. Their first promotion came in 1968 when Brian Clough was boss. The famous Brian Clough. Clough was considered one of the greatest English managers of all time and Hartlepool was where it all began for him, where he started his managerial career. He took over a failing team near the bottom of the league and within a couple of years had them promoted to old Division Three for the very first time in their history. Clough soon went on to bigger and better things and sadly within a season Pools were relegated back to Division Four. It was 23 years before they would be promoted again. Three years later saw relegation again, whilst there were another couple of promotions and relegations in the noughties, and a League One play-off final defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in 2005 when they were eight minutes and a dubious penalty decision away from reaching the Championship, probably the most successful season in the clubs history.

Nowadays the Pools are more famous for celebrity fan Jeff Stelling and his Saturday afternoon antics as presenter in the Sky Sports Soccer Saturday studio. Covering the Saturday afternoon football with latest scores and updates, being professional and unbiased always goes out the window when Hartlepool are concerned. His eccentric cheering, elation, and jubilation when his beloved Poolies score has for many years been amusing fans watching up and down the country.

Back to today's visit and with a bit of time to kill before the big match I head for the Royal Navy museum. Although Hartlepool isn't exactly known for having much of a naval tradition it was once a major force in ship building, and this museum, complete with a fully restored HMS Trincomalee,  is supposedly Hartlepool's number one attraction. Though perhaps not the main attraction for me, at least not today. It's seems there is only one particular event today that I am really bothered about and visiting a museum isn't really it. But head for the museum I do. When I arrive the woman behind the ticket desk seems very happy to see me and is very enthusiastic about what lies ahead for me within the museum. The main centrepiece of the museum is the aforementioned HMS Trincomalee navy ship which was originally built shortly after the Napoleonic wars. This is situated outside in the main courtyard in the middle of the museum but with access only available with a tour guide and with the next tour not till 14:30 I will have to give it a miss. Nonetheless I decide to have a quiet nose around inside the various rooms and buildings dotted around the place inside which many aspects of nineteenth century naval life are depicted. I don't hang around long though, the whole place is mostly deserted, no one is interested it seems, everyone is probably at the football. The turnstiles will already be getting busy, the crowds will already be gathering, and with myself not having a ticket I soon decide its best to head up to the ground and sort myself out.

So on to the ground it is and it's not hard to find. The giant floodlight pylons of Victoria Park entice me towards them like homing in beacons directing me to the promised land. I am not the only one heading towards the ground, but the numbers are rather small compared to what I see when I actually find myself in the vicinity of the stadium. There is a hive of activity in and around the ground with crowds of people swarming about all over the place.

Having walked around the outside of the ground I enter the home end turnstiles only to be told I can't pay there as they have sold out. I find the same problem further round and start to panic. I'd heard a bumper crowd was expected and what if god forbid the game is a sell out? Panic stricken I walk round to the ticket office I passed earlier. There is a small queue but everyone in front of me seems to collect envelopes containing tickets purchased in advance. I am worried, very worried, especially when I once again hear the words 'sold out'. Thankfully this it turns out is in reference to the matchday programmes, one of which I've already purchased, and thankfully again there is huge relief as when I reach the front of queue I am able to purchase a £20 ticket for a seat in the Niramax Stand, the one remaining area other than the away end that isn't completely sold out. Hallelujah, I have a ticket, I can enter the ground, I can watch the game.

There are large numbers of Middlesbrough fans here today, you can see their red scarves and bobble hats all over the place. Friendship works both ways and the Boro support vividly remember when the boot was on the other foot. In 1986 financial problems saw Middlesbrough locked out of their then Ayresome Park home and it was Hartlepool who stepped in, allowing the Boro to play their home games at Victoria Park. The Middlesbrough fans clearly haven't forgotten this act of kindness and have turned out in force today to help as much as they can. 

I enter through the turnstiles and find myself in an open plan area behind the stand. I walk up some stairs and above to my right is covered seating whilst below me is uncovered terracing. With no stewards around to check my ticket I decide forgo my seat and instead stand amongst the hordes whom have already gathered on the terraces some ten minutes before kick-off. I look around the ground and see covered stands on the other three sides of the pitch. In front of me across the field of play is an all seated stand, another all seated affair sits behind the goal to my left and is housing the travelling Wrexham support whilst the home end to the right is standing only.

I see a man in a monkey suit walking along the touchline and waving at the crowd. This is Hartlepool United's mascot Angus the monkey, and the same monkey suit that was worn by Stuart Drummond when he successfully campaigned to become mayor of the town in 2002. On the terraces the die hards are in full voice belting out a pre match rendition of fans favourite 'Two Little Boys'. Unfortunately probably most famous as a hit for the disgraced Rolf Harris, the song was actually originally written in 1902 almost 30 years before Harris was even born. I hadn't realised this song was sang at Hartlepool but the supporters standing around me passionately sing their hearts out. Forget 'You'll Never Walk Alone' this is what it's all about.

During the first half I get talking to the lad next to me who seems well chuffed that I have travelled down to support his club in their time of need and even offers to buy me a pint. Top bloke. As for the football, the first half is rather poor with both sides creating little in the way of chances and by half-time you can see why Pools have been struggling to find their feet in this division.

At half time I walk behind the stand from one end to the other end and discover there is a steward letting fans through a gate which leads to the terracing behind the goal. I take my chance and nip through so I can stand behind the posts for the second half. I don't know if it is down to the lack of a performance on the pitch from the home side in the second period but the atmosphere here is rather disappointing compared to the fervour where I had been stood for the first 45 minutes.

For the supporters of Hartlepool, the less said about the second half the better. Two fantastic goals by Scott Quigley, both of which see him run 40yds before finding the net win the game for the visitors and at the end of play Hartlepool have only one win in their last eleven league outings.

Full-time and I head back to the station for a train home, whilst as for Hartlepool United well who knows what the future holds. Things may not look good at the moment but the whole of the football world will I'm sure be praying for those historic Poolies and hoping they can find a solution to their problems so they can survive for many more years to come.

Hartlepool United - Never Say Die

A version if this was printed in issue 32 of Football Weekends magazine (April 2018)

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