Few clubs have had it as bad as Hartlepool United in recent years.
The story of the County Durham club’s demise is an all too familiar one in English football — historic club, loved by the locals, before being mismanaged into oblivion and now languishing in Non-League.
Somehow, however, it could have been a lot worse.
“We were days, if not hours, from going under” says Richard Ward, chairman of Hartlepool United Supporters Trust.
“People are disappointed, people are frustrated, and the last couple of years have been terrible.
“We’ve been relegated, fought relegation… but people in this town back this club and they want to support and see it return to the Football League.”
The last five years at Victoria Park have been a sorry affair.
They were relegated from League One in 2013, sold to new owners JPNG in June 2015, relegated on the last day of the season in 2017 (meaning dropping out of the Football League for the first time in 96 years), had boardroom wranglings throughout that summer and found themselves needing £200,000 to survive as a club in January 2018.
Oh, and the managerial role has changed over a dozen times in that time.
It’s been bleak, that’s for sure.
“Apathy rules I think,” says John Cooke, vice-chairman of Hartlepool United Supporters Trust.
“There’s no anticipation of it getting any better, that’s the problem.
“So when someone comes in, be it a new owner or manager, you think, ‘how bad are these going to be’, rather than ‘this is going to lift us.'”
Perhaps due to the number of times they’ve been burned before, you can hardly blame the fans for being so downbeat.
The Pools were eventually saved by local businessman Raj Singh, who partnered with Sky Sports veteran Jeff Stelling (who doesn’t exactly hide his Hartlepool loyalties on TV) to take over the North-East side in April last year.
However, even that comes with a bit of scepticism.
Singh has had a chequered history in the local area when it comes to football ownership.
As owner of Darlington between 2009 and 2012, the businessman oversaw the club’s fall out of the league and further into administration — a position that club have never recovered from.
Singh maintains he has unfinished footballing business in the area, and ploughed £1.2million into Hartlepool last year, staving off the threat of administration and potential liquidation.
“I think Mr Singh wanted to prove a point to the local supporters,” Cooke says.
“He’s had problems at Darlington, and he feels that he’s been unjustly moved on from there, and he’s trying to right that wrong from there.
“Hopefully he can see it through from here.”
‘Seeing it through’ from a Hartlepool perspective simply means getting back into the Football League and making the club financially stable.
There’s no huge plans, no-one coming in and saying they’re going to become the next big thing, it’s simply gaining promotion and staying afloat.
When you visit Hartlepool, you soon discover it’s a club with a huge heart – albeit, one that has been broken time after time.
The locals are friendly and welcoming.
From the Neale Cooper stand you can see the top of HMS Trincomalee, Britain’s oldest fighting warship, bobbing up and down.
On a brisk but bright Saturday against league leaders Leyton Orient, it’s clear there’s a lot going for the club.
On the flipside, there’s the tiredness of it all. Advertising billboards are peeling off around the stadium. External decor looks trapped in a bygone era.
The town itself needs a bit of TLC, though that is more symptomatic of wider societal issues facing the North-East.
Striker Jake Cassidy last week described the club as ‘negative’ and said the fans created a ‘poisonous’ atmosphere at games, shortly after moving to Maidstone on loan.
“He was a player who perhaps didn’t live up to expectation whilst he was here,” Ward says.
“The only way you can only really bring positivity is through results on the pitch, but I think there’s a lot of heart going on trying to restructure the club, trying to turn it around, and it’s a long game.”
The Pools currently sit 13th in the National League – safe from relegation, but not threatening the play-off spots either.
It’s a long road back for any club to return to the Football League, but for Hartlepool, the journey is set to be a slow one.
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