A very wise man (I think it was Vin Diesel) once said “talk is the cheapest currency there is.” Certainly, as a lower division football fan I know what he’s getting at. In a performance-based industry, hyperbole and demented optimism is the default setting for your average fan, but as Vin’s philosophy hints at, talk in the corner of a pub will never get you three points away at the likes of Barrow FC, with a volley of sideways sleet coming at you in vicious waves.
Rewind to the beginning of the 2017/2018 season, however, and you’d have been forgiven for thinking that Hartlepool United were about to devastate the National League with the type of football that was rarely witnessed outside the confines of Premier League. With a new, highly regarded, manager in Craig Harrison and a slew of signings, the general consensus of message boards and the bait cabins in the town was that we were going to ‘piss this league’. How could we not? With crowds of over 3,500, a full-time coaching staff and a pack of oblique strategy cards left behind by Brian Eno in 1976, the theory amongst some was that we were too professional and too glamorous to mix it at the bottom end with the demented hoof-balls of the Vanarama.
History, of course, had never been kind to this cliche. The list of Football League clubs marooned in the conference was alarming to say the least. Like that TV show Lost, their collective league plane had crashed and they seemed destined to remain in football purgatory for season after season. Sides like Wrexham and Torquay United and even more alarmingly the sides that had fell further into obscurity. Once proud league teams like Stockport County and York City, whose fans no doubt had stood confidently in pubs pre-season and announced: “We’ll piss this league lads!”
I was more pragmatic. I’d seen many things in my time at Victoria Park. A seagull frozen to a crossbar. A linesman hit with a sand shoe. A woman taking a long piss in the Millhouse seats. What I’d never felt was that we had an inherent hierarchy over any team with a league status or otherwise. I was too long in the tooth for such shite. I remembered the dark days of the old Fourth Division. Players like Mick Fagan and Wayne Stokes. Men with moustaches of pure evil who played like they had divers boots on. It didn’t matter how many new owners or players came up the A19 to represent us. We were perennial strugglers. It was just in our DNA. Our eternal make-up.
But what we’d always been was a league club. That was the difference. Until a fateful, last day win against Doncaster wasn’t enough to keep us up. For small towns all over England, the pride of getting your league results read out on Sky Sports, good or bad, was your national identity. There was little else to cheer for. The various London film crews who turned up sporadically to film the drunk and grotesque for Channel 4 from time to time hardly helped. Hartlepool’s infamous monkey hanging incident where they believed it to be a French spy was a point of ridicule too. You could almost hear primates in zoos all over England saluting their ancestors and giggling to themselves that we were about to be forced into away trips to Bromley and Halifax town.
For the opening day of the season, however, optimism reigned. At least until the football started. Dover Athletic, it transpired, were big and organised and well-versed in the ethics of “conference” football. Over 90 minutes they did what good non-league sides do. They closed down, were brutally physical and when a rare opportunity arose they took it like a cat burglar. By the final whistle they had won 1-0. I left Victoria Park as flat as a witches tit, with our new manager looking bemused in the dug-out like he’d stumbled onto the sidelines by complete accident.
The arrival of Craig Harrison for our new season in the National League seemed perfect, the new manager, on paper at least, appearing to have all the attributes needed to be a success. He’d had a good career as a pro, with a lot of success in the Welsh League, and most importantly was overweight. It was a weird anomaly in successful non-league managers that they all had to be jowly. They were like the weird offspring of Sam Allardyce. Men who lived solely on a diet of Fray Bentos and took a shit at the same time every day. It was their destiny. There were no room for Karen Carpenters in the trenches of the semi-professional game. In the land of hoof-ball, the two-chinned man was King.
For the first month, however, our manager seemed a little energetic to say the least. His constantly revolving tactics and tendency to pick players out of position smelt of a man who was entrenched in the classroom of a UEFA coaching course rather than the brutalist confines of the Vanarama. We were winless after six games and the fans were already restless. It peaked at a particularly galling away defeat at Bromley, where senior players had to calm down supporters at the final whistle. The following match at Guiseley was already seen as do or die for the man in charge. In a ground that resembled a serial killers hunting ground – Pools dropped their illusions of grandeur and went with lunatic tactics which seemed to be to bore the Guiseley players to death. It worked, albeit with a philosophy of kick it anywhere and hope for the best. It was horrifically effective.
We had now truly arrived, spiritually, in the non-league game, with a display that said “if you can’t beat them, join them”. There were positives to this Vanarama malarkey, however. What had been noticeable at the Guiseley game was the opposing fans seemed to reserve a special atmosphere for us. There was a tradition in the conference that the relegated league club were always the wanted scalp for the other clubs to acquire the following season. It was great, and a little strange. Hartlepool United had never been the big boys of anything. We were the club that had once sold our star player Andy Toman and replaced him with a toilet block. A club that held the record number of re-elections. A club that once scrapped its own supporters player of the season because it had been too bad to give anyone it. Now we were the non-league Millwall. Everybody hated us, and we didn’t care.
This trench mentality coincided with a run too: one league defeat in 13. We moved towards mid-table like a chubby gigolo rolling back the years to serenade football again. Which, in true Pools tradition of course, is when the wheels fell off and the whispers started. Rumours abound of unpaid bills and shadowy figures in the background taking money from the club. It was like a Nordic thriller without the cheekbones. Our owners, SAGE developments, had always been a bone of contention with the conspiracy theory wielding supporters. Now they seemed to have proved it.
By Christmas the rot had well and truly set in. There were strong rumours that the players weren’t being paid and their performances on the pitch seemed to prove it. They moved with the urgency of a goth teenager on a 6am start at a plastics factory. Games came and went and suddenly we were flirting with a relegation zone that looked increasingly closer by the week. Then came the devastating news. Without a £200,000 injection of cash in 30 days, there was a good chance we were going to be wound up. One hundred and ten years of history down the plug hole for less than an elite Premier League player’s weekly wage.
This was the cue for the mythical ‘football family’ to take flight. What a strange phrase that was, no doubt fronted by well-meaning men walking around parks with transistor radios glued to their ears. Selfishly, I wasn’t sure I wanted these people involved. Unfortunately in our precarious situation it was also a necessity. Clubs had starting bidding for our better players for minuscule transfer fees. They were getting them too. It was like a horribly one-sided car boot sale on a muddy field. At least with the cash being raised, the wolves were being kept from the door. For now anyway.
At the home game against Wrexham that January the support network reached its critical peak. Fans from far and wide came together (well, from Middlesbrough and Sunderland anyway) to fill Victoria Park to capacity for the first time in over a decade. In the pubs before the game, rival supporters chatted about their love of football and tried to ignore those demented fuckers rattling charity buckets every two seconds. One in particular had caught my eye early. An aggressive rattlesnake of a woman who seemed to take her collection technique from the genocide methods of Pol Pot. I watched as she went from table to table, refusing to take no for an answer. By the time she got to ours, I’d already decided to stand my ground. As she shook her tin in front of me, I put my hands in my pocket and prepared for the Mexican stand-off. She didn’t seem overly impressed.
“Got some money to spare for the Pools fund?” She enquired. “No.” I replied. “What do you mean, no? Aren’t you a true supporter then?” She’d cued me up perfectly. “Want to know what being a true supporter is?” I snapped. “Being a true supporter is spending well over five figures supporting your team. Being a true supporter is nearly getting into a fist-fight with Norman Whiteside at an after dinner do because he slagged off Pools at the urinals. Being a true supporter is being thrown into frozen dog shit by Port Vale hooligans at a Tuesday night away game. Being a true supporter, to put it simply madam, is something you’re definitely not.”
It felt great to get some frustration out. As the woman scuttled away to someone more mentally stable, I felt a weight lifted, like Terry Waits when they finally unchained the radiator from him. I also felt something less pleasurable too, a feeling of weariness. We’d had a full decade of tip-toeing across the high wire, and not the exciting kind. Everyone seemed tired. The players. The manager. Even the girls in the kiosk selling the foot long hot dogs. There didn’t seem to be even any gallows humour left on the terraces anymore, only the gallows. Was the end coming? It certainly felt like it.
Over the coming weeks, as various potential investors loomed then disappeared like brown smoke, a great melancholy set in. It was like Hartlepool United were bed-ridden in a hospice. Supporters didn’t talk about the future, they talked about the past like we were a favourite terminal uncle. There was little else to hold on to. A dreadful run of results pushed us firmly into the relegation zone. By February even the sacking of Craig Harrison didn’t seem like a progressive move. Like everything else it seemed too little too late, a crucifix in a death hand for a support with little hope of a reprieve.
As usual with these thing, however, a chink of beatific light would come shining through and it would arrive from the most unlikely of sources. Who would have thought that a rainy night in Barrow would save our season, or that a defender whose injury record was so bad there was a rumour his legs were made from Pringles crisps would provide it. Step forward Carl Magnay, a footballer born in a bubble but who in front of the BT Sports cameras and with the scores level at 1-1 would conspire to score an absolute screamer from 35 yards. It was a worldie, albeit against a goalkeeper who seemed to move as if he was being operated with pulleys and bells. We didn’t care. It was a precious three points and a sign of positive things to come.
Caretaker manager Mathew Bates, the most unlikely frontman since Brian Johnson stepped up for AC/DC, seemed to inspire our weary XI. With the combination of simple tactics and well-placed hair gel, the equation worked. Results slowly saw us climb away from the bottom four, slowly mind, like we were pulling a caravan with blue nylon rope in fingerless Steptoe gloves, but inch-by-inch we managed it.
Off the pitch, we’d finally managed to get the star player we’d always wished for too. He wasn’t even a footballer. It was our Jeff. Lord Stelling of Sky. As a long time lover of Pools and anchor of the brilliant Gillette Soccer Saturday – his involvement in fronting a consortium seemed to be the best way forward. After a few false starts he found his men too. Local businessman man Rav Singh and ex-manager Craig Hignett stepped forward with the promise of cash and a new age of potential for Hartlepool United. We’d heard it all before of course but at least our previous owners disappeared like the curious shit houses in the night time they were. At least we could sleep safely as supporters knowing we had a club at all.
It would also finally bring to an end a season that had all the elements of the Die Hard box set rolled into one. Danger. Shock. Surprise. A season that for all intents and purposes had seemed like a easy step back into league football and ended up becoming our near Altamont. All of which of course should serve as a warning for fellow League Two supporters about to dip their toes into non-league waters. Whatever you do don’t say you’ll ‘piss this league’ lads. Those words have a curse around them. It’s like saying Macbeth to actors.