BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
In the Mill House pub they still talk about the debatable penalty that denied Hartlepool a place in the Championship in 2005. Over 17,000 fans travelled to a League One play-off final at Cardiff that day against more illustrious opponents in Sheffield Wednesday. After going behind to the former top division side, Hartlepool scared them half to death. Only a controversial sending off and spot kick swayed the tie in Wednesday's favour. The fact that Pools ended up gripping defeat from the jaws of victory due to a dodgy decision still rankles some over pre-match pints in the pubs and clubs around town.
'It was never a penalty,' says Bob, a steel fixer from the Clavering part of town as a group of youngsters argue over how much to pay for a spare season ticket at the jukebox. There are a lot of spare tickets these days for home matches. 'Part timers,' snaps Bob, as if such a lack of dedication is a crime against football itself. His two friends roll their eyes with the expression of men who have heard it too many times before. They're keener to point out more important matters anyway. Financially, Hartlepool United stand on the brink. A rally round of home supporters and from those around the country has already staved of the threat of imminent tax bills and even administration, but heavy debts remain. It's a financial landslide that has caught even the most hardened supporters by surprise. As a friend of Bob's points out, 'We shouldn't be in this position. We get crowds of three and a half thousand and we've sold half our squad. It's hard to see where the bloody money has gone.'
He has a point. Accrington Stanley, a club with half of Hartlepool's home attendance and pretty close to their budget, currently stand top of League Two. There have been a steady stream of players departing Hartlepool since their relegation from the Football League. Players like the exciting Nathan Thomas, the last player to get them standing on their seats in the Mill House stand have been allowed to leave for so called 'undisclosed' fees that has done nothing to endear the owners to supporters. Those owners are currently SAGE developments, whose owner John Blackledge has now informed supporters that he intends to put no more money into the club. This news has sent shockwaves around Hartlepool's fan base. A promising new manager in Craig Harrison and exciting noises from chairwoman Pam Duxbury at the start of their season had promised much. Results didn't pan out, however. Harrison is now gone and the hangover from relegation and previous chairman Gary Coxall still lingers over the terraces of Victoria Park like a witch's curse.
The whole Coxall reign is recounted like a lost episode of Minder amongst
Hartlepool fans. A time of high promises and undoubted warning signs. Coxall was keen to embrace fans on social media; maybe a little too keen. The previous owners IOR had operated an in house policy when it came to dealings with fans and the media. They had also tellingly run the club with a steady and disciplined hand. Their reign coincided with the clubs most successful period. Under manager Neale Cooper, crowds of over five thousand would flock to Victoria Park to watch the kind of free flowing football that easily had them coasting in the top echelons of League One. Like all fans however, the Hartlepool supporters demanded more. That play-off defeat against Sheffield Wednesday didn't unite them with their clandestine oil owners - it separated them at the hip. They demanded better players and more investment, and when it didn't come, a slow burn of resentment began to fizzle on the terraces. Managers came and went and relegation to League Two followed. The separation from owners IOR would follow a few years later but with such disparity from those on the terraces to those in the boardroom - such a divorce was inevitable.
In 2015, the aforementioned Coxall would breeze into Victoria Park like an energetic carpet salesman. He also crucially had momentum on his side. The wily Ronnie Moore, a good football man and alchemist of the lower leagues, had somehow managed to save Hartlepool from relegation to the Conference. It had been an incredible feat really, marooned to the bottom of the league without a prayer, he had somehow galvanised both the players and supporters for one almighty charge to safety. This led to jubilant scenes at Carlisle United on the last day of the season when over three and a half thousand away fans turned up. It seemed a new dawn for the club, a near brush with obscurity that everyone agreed could never be repeated.
Coxall and his recruitment company JPNG promised big and delivered fresh air. In the background Chinese whispers grew. Winding up orders loomed and were brushed off in the local press as mere blips in a grand plan. A grand plan that involved no transfer budget and no progression other than a steady stream of tweets like a teenage girl gushing about a boy band. As one fan joked on a Facebook post at the time: 'you could throw Gary Coxall into a pit of vipers and he'd write twenty tweets about it.' He wasn't beyond wielding the axe though. After a string of poor results Ronnie Moore was removed and the popular Craig Hignett, suffering under the same financial burdens, would eventually depart up the same A19 he had arrived from. It led Coxall to one last audacious throw of the dice in appointing ex-Wolves manager Dave Jones. The resulting press conference should have been an omen. A bored looking Jones fielding questions whilst eating a sausage sandwich. It was an unmitigated disaster that would lead to an infamous Jeff Stelling Sky Sports rant. Both Jones and eventually Coxall would even leave because of it. Despite a rip roaring last day effort against already promoted Doncaster - Hartlepool had ridden their luck for too long and were relegated to the Conference. The football Gods had finally turned against them.
Which brings us to March 2018 and a club hanging by their fingertips on the precipice. A proposed fan ownership, although eleven hundred strong seems optimistic if the message boards are anything to go by. A lack of direction and regular sniping smells more of internet narcissism than genuine solidarity. There's an unnerving feeling that the owners aren't being progressive about the sale of the club either. A proposed investor willing to put in £1.5million of his own money has already walked away from the deal and the owners have rarely entered into communication with those that really matter - the supporters - hiding behind a series of clinical PR statements that are about as endearing to those on the terraces as a forest fire.
There is always the football though. There are history and ghosts aplenty that shiver around the terraces of Victoria Park. The silk and guile of Boyd. The wing back genius of McKinnon. The imp of the wing Honour nipping around defenders feet like a beautiful nuisance. This is a proud club with proud supporters. From the first whistle of Saturday's home game against Boreham Wood it's hard not to feel it. A sense of a team ready to roar into battle - a spirit that will unfold over ninety minutes. A game that despite playing against a top six team and going down to ten men, you just know they have no chance of losing.
In the Mill House after the game even cynical Bob senses it. 'I enjoyed that,' he says trying to fight his way through the busy bar to get served amongst the masses. It's a feeling that most supporters agree with. A fleeting glimpse. A centre light popping. That Hartlepool United aren't quite finished as a football club just yet.
FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @midnightapes