By Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
Hartlepool United are far from a big club. Their stadium, Victoria Park, holds less than 8,000, and they sit 18th in the National League. They have spent most of their 110-year existence in the third or fourth tier of English football. And yet, they are the heart of the community in this County Durham town.
But while Premier League clubs splash out on signings in the January transfer window, Hartlepool are in danger of going out of business. Needing to raise £200,000 by January 25th to avoid going into administration, a JustGiving page was set up which has raised over £70,000. Saturday’s game against Wrexham was dubbed Save Pools Day and sold out, with Middlesbrough fans turning out in force to lend their support to the club who helped them during a period of financial insecurity in 1986.
Without a buyer, however, it might not be enough. Potential investor Chris Musgrave pulled out of talks with the council on Tuesday, which means administration is still a very real threat. Now the club are back where they started, with another four weeks to find a solution.
Having attended his first Hartlepool game in the 1956-57 season, a “long, long time ago”, Ron Harnish has seen it all. Speaking to the lifelong Pools fan and Chairman of HUST (Hartlepool United Supporters Trust), it is clear the club will not go down without a fight.
You needed to raise £200,000 by the end of the month. Is that still the case?
Yeah, that’s to get them through by paying all the relevant people and paying the National Insurance and all the usual things to keep the wolf from the door. That’s all been done, I’m led to believe, and we’ve got Saturday’s match [against Wrexham] to come, along with the results of the [JustGiving] page on the internet.
Were you surprised by the initial reaction to the JustGiving page?
Not really, because the football community’s a fantastic thing. But I was really pleased from it, because it was a really fantastic achievement to do what they’ve done – I think it’s just over 60,000 and there’s still money coming in, so that’s absolutely fantastic.
How did it come to this?
It’s not been a sudden thing. We’ve been on a downward spiral, I would’ve thought, for the last 10 seasons, it’s not been fantastic. It’s like being hand-to-mouth, and you could see it slowly degenerating, playing-wise and the feeling around. There’s lots of things added up to it, and it’s just come to the crunch.
Once we got relegated last season out of the Football League, I don’t think that things have laid out the way they should have done, because they’ve ploughed a lot of money back into the club, hoping they could bounce straight back up. He’s got a big playing budget, 29 players, but we’ve had more injuries than ever I’ve known. But that still doesn’t detract from the fact we have more than enough players to do the job, and it’s not working at the minute.
How do you feel the players, the manager, the chairman have reacted to the situation?
It’s a case of not reacting. If they’d reacted to the situation, they’d start improving the results. As for the chairman [Pam Duxbury], I’m sure she’s tried everything she can but unfortunately, she did state when she came into the job that she’s not a football person. To be blunt, I think you can tell, that’s it. She hasn’t had good advice.
So it’s your understanding the £200,000 has been raised?
Yeah, it’s a sell-out on Saturday [against Wrexham]. Even though we’re a non-league club, we’re still getting 3,000 gates. Not many non-league teams can say that. Just the other week, with all the doom and gloom hanging over us, we still took almost two and a half thousand fans up to Gateshead.
In this league, it’s very much southern-based, and I don’t think that’s helped. I think it’s 12 or 13 teams [from the] London area and beyond, and then you’ve got Torquay on the other side of the country, so there’s a fair bit of travelling. I’m sure that’s been a contributing factor. You think [about] the cost of 20 people going down on the team coach and stopping overnight, it won’t be cheap will it?
What do you think the club has to do next?
This is a good little club that can do stuff, and I’m sure with the right leadership you could definitely break even. I really believe that. But, for that, you’d have to have a serious cull and look at it sensibly and think where have all the expenses gone. Without crippling the team on the pitch, because that’s the crux of the matter. If you can keep that team going and winning, that is a big plus, because then you’ve got all the associated things which happen. If the team’s doing well, everything’s fine.
Do you think Hartlepool’s problems are indicative of a wider trend in English football?
Without a doubt. It’s especially hard for teams in the north. When it used to be the Third Division North and South, your clubs didn’t travel more than two and a half hours, three hours tops. Now, it’s nothing to have a six-hour journey.
It’s a lot different now, but we can go deeper and deeper, and I think the Premiership’s caused an awful lot of trouble for English football. Yes, it’s the promised lands for the teams that are in it, and even if you drop out, you get something like £30million. Come on, where’s the sense in that? Poor Darlington were a league club, and they went to the wall, for less than half of a week’s wages for a Premiership footballer. It’s farcical.
Does that worry you?
Yeah. It comes to the point [where] you find your level, everybody finds their level. Hartlepool will never be a big team, but there’s times when you have that little spark, you have that bit of fun, you get your cup run, you do things like this. And that’s basically what fans in the lower leagues live for. But unless you’ve got a great chairman and manager who have the same view and have the same outlook on the game, to go for it…
How have other clubs helped out?
The Middlesbrough fans can’t be praised enough, the way they’ve backed the campaign, they’ve been absolutely brilliant. They’ve come in their droves, and I think it’s something like 1,000 are coming [to Saturday’s game against Wrexham]. Now that is unbelievable. And Danny Graham, the ex-Sunderland, Middlesbrough player, he put two and a half thousand pounds of his own money into the appeal.
Has Jeff Stelling helped as well?
Jeff doesn’t want to give the current regime cash because he feels like they’ve squandered enough money anyway. I’m assuming that’s why, but I’ve got to look at it sensibly. We as a trust don’t believe in giving the club cash. Our members’ funds are locked away, ring-fenced, to be used to buy shares to get a seat on the board with the new owners. And then, there’s the fans’ input within the club that gets listened to. Because there’s too many clubs, especially at our level, they don’t get aired and you usually get a one-man band leading them, and it doesn’t do the community any good.
Do you think fan involvement is the way forward then?
It has to be. People don’t realise but in the Bundesliga in Germany, every premiership club there in Germany has to be 51 percent owned by the fans. Then you go to Barcelona, Real Madrid – over 93 percent owned by fans. Yes, there’s a big sugar daddy at the top, but the fans have a serious input in the club. I’d like to think, at this level, it gets more community-based and the team and the town merge together far more, they gel far more, than they do now. Because that way local people feel involved and they feel more part of the club.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Yes, definitely. I can’t accept going into either receivership or administration, I can’t accept it, not while there’s hope. This fantastic appeal we’ve done… it has given us literally four weeks to work on it with the new owners. Hopefully, three or four weeks, people working, beavering away in the background will get it all sorted and we’ll have a new owner and a new horizon to aim at.
Do you still enjoy supporting Hartlepool?
It’s a labour of love, it’s like being married. (Laughs) It doesn’t mean you have to love your partner but you still stick with them. How’s that?
Photograph: Mark Fletcher (Shutter Press)