It’s almost four years to the day since nearly 7,000 fans turned out to watch Hartlepool United take on Wrexham in a game dubbed ‘Save Pools Day’.
Now the club, known to many as Jeff Stelling’s sweetheart, are dreaming of Wembley glory having progressed to the semi-finals of the Papa John’s Trophy.
Football fans from around the globe joined the Pools faithful in the stands back in 2018 and eventually helped the club raise the £200,000 needed to stave off administration.
That mission was accomplished – although their 96-year stay in the Football League had ended the previous season.
With financial difficulties still ongoing, it took Pools four years to bounce back from non-league.
Their return to League Two was confirmed with a penalty shootout win over Torquay United in June in an unforgettable National League play-off final.
But as ever with Hartlepool, for every up there is a down soon afterwards.
Manager Dave Challinor left for Stockport County in November as Pools’ bright start to life back in the EFL began to tail off.
However, that led to the return of Graeme ‘Spike’ Lee to the club, a man who earned legendary status as a defender during his near-300 appearances for them back in his playing days.
Although league form has remained somewhat shaky, great runs in both the Papa John’s Trophy and the FA Cup, which has led to a trip to Premier League Crystal Palace this week, have provided plenty of joy.
And League One teams Morecambe, Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton Wanderers were all turned over by Pools on their march to the last eight of the Papa John’s Trophy before they met Charlton, another side from the league above, in the quarter-finals.
Ron Harnish, chair of Hartlepool United Supporters Trust, has been a fan since the 1950s after witnessing a 10-0 thrashing over Barrow.
“It’s your town and your club,” he told us in the trust-run Corner Flag bar. “When you first come, it’s just in your blood. That’s how any fan starts.
“I can remember doing door-to-door collections to help save the club as far back as when Brian Clough was manager.
“We’ve had a real bad time more recently but the fans stuck with the club.
“A trip to Wembley would be the be-all and end-all. That’s why competitions like this are great for smaller clubs.
“Charlton should beat us but when you get out there it’s just 11 vs 11.”
After over seven decades of experience, wise-man Ron refused to let himself think about what could be under the famous arch of the capital but it only took seven minutes for that to be blown out of the water.
Martin Smith’s throughball sent Joe Grey clear and the 18-year-old, who scored in the FA Cup win over Championship outfit Blackpool, showed the maturity of a veteran by lofting the ball over the onrushing Craig Macgillivray to give Hartlepool an unexpected lead.
But before anyone could Google North London hotels, the Monkey Hangers were brought back down to earth.
Ben Killip produced a stunning save to deny Mason Burstow but the Pools goalie had no chance as the Charlton man reacted quickest to head level.
It’s not the first time the North East side have suffered a crushing equaliser.
Who will ever forget – certainly no-one at the Suit Direct Stadium ever will – goalie Lucas Covolan’s 95th-minute equaliser for Torquay in that play-off final?
Superfan Paul McWeenie, a regular home and away for 27 years, recalled: “It was incredible. You’re sat thinking it’s not going to be our day.
“I’ll never forget it. I was never prepared for what I saw that day.”
Unlike that unforgettable afternoon in Bristol when Pools regrouped to win on penalties, this time they faced an even tougher task as Charlton took the lead when Alex Gilbey swivelled and blasted home from close-range after Ben Purrington’s knockdown.
Then, cometh the hour, cometh the man. Substitute Luke Molyneux’s rocket with just 17 minutes left was magical enough to make any youngster in attendance fall in love with the game.
Although it’s more likely that it would be his 20-yard curling finish rather than his backside that will get kids hooked – unlike the start of vice-chair of the Supporter’s Trust Julia Newton’s love affair with Pools.
Julia said: “My first game was in 1979 and I came along with a guy who is now my husband. I got hooked. You’re part of a family.
“I just remember being attracted to a certain player’s bottom, Mark Lawrence.”
As you can probably tell by now, following Hartlepool is not for the faint hearted.
And the 3,615 in attendance would have to go through it all again under the lights with the clash requiring penalties – of course – to decide it.
Charlton opted to go first and went on to score the opening three through Conor Washington, Alex Gilbey and Sean Clare.
Pools trio Mark Cullen, Tom Crawford and Mark Shelton matched their efforts leaving Addicks sub Elliot Lee walking forward for the fourth.
The home crowd held their breath and a hush swept over the ground like the icy breeze from the nearby North Sea.
Suddenly the roof was blown off as Killip guessed right to save.
Man of the moment Molyneux did nothing to ruin his cameo by converting with Chuks Aneke then making it 4-4 – leaving Jamie Sterry to walk forwards and fire home the winner.
Luke Molyneux: “I just got the ball out wide and cut in and hit it. I was already running off celebrating.
“For some reason I was a bit nervous about my penalty. I think it was because everyone had scored before me so I just thought I’d keep it safe and go down the middle.
“The Papa John’s is massive for the club. You can see what it meant to the fans today.
“Wembley is a once in a career moment for a lot of the lads and this is our best opportunity to get there.”
Delighted boss Lee, who scored the winner for Doncaster in this competition back in 2007, said: “It’s something I might mention now as we’re close.
“The penalty shootout was emotional. I didn’t know which way to look, but it was a great moment.
“I was in the middle of the pitch afterwards and I didn’t want to get off. I was soaking it up.
“To manage this club has always been in the back of my mind. But did I ever think I could manage them at Wembley – no!”
Julia added: “We’ve been close to Wembley but never actually got there. It’s everyone’s dream at our level. It would mean everything and would mark the end of a great run for us.”