February 01, 2013

We're Doomed, A Tell Ye


CENTRAL PARK thinks he's Private Frazer


It is now beyond a joke. There is something rotten about the state of Hartlepool United, and I’m not talking about the meat pies.

Like the rest of the supporters I am casting around for someone - anyone - to blame for the present predicament and I am spoiled for choice. When there is no glaring reason for the state of things then that usually means that there are a number of circumstances, or misjudgements etc. that when taken together produce a catastrophe; and in footballing terms catastrophe is exactly what we now have.

I have been supporting this club for more than 60 (yes sixty) years, and thought that I had seen all the bad things that it could produce. I am not in any way questioning the personal fiscal honesty of the current playing staff, but bloody hell, even the team that contained players who were taking bribes to lose back in the early 1960s* managed to get more points than this shower are going to get.

At the time of writing (just after the home game against Bournemouth) we have played 27 league games and we have 2 (that’s two) wins and 7 draws producing 13 points. Our previous worst seasons were 1923-24 and 1962-63 when we won 7 and drew 11 giving a points total of 32 (under the current 3 points for a win system). I checked the information above on the excellent ‘POOLstats’ web site, a must for any Hartlepool fan who can dredge up the will to go and have a look.

"What is it about us that we sign players who, to put it kindly, are not ‘naturally fit’?"How did it come to this? This is beyond the normal ups and downs of footballing life. The relegation we suffered in 2006 was a bitter pill to swallow, especially following the play-off final in the previous season, but we were within reach of salvation right up to the end of the season, and we all had a readymade scapegoat.

This time round we had not reached Christmas and we knew that we were going down and all we had left to play for was pride. I don’t know how I managed to type the last word of the last sentence without being struck by a bolt of lightning.

I’ve been looking back over the last couple of seasons to try to see what went wrong. Mick Wadsworth was a reluctant manager but with a huge reputation as a coach and took over when Chris Turner left. I couldn’t find fault with the way Mick was running things, and he seemed to have the knack of producing better results than might have been expected given some of the teams we were playing against. He signed Paul Murray, much to the trepidation of some of us on the terraces but it is fair to say that Paul was a major success (I’d pay a lot to hear his candid opinions as to what has been going on over the last eighteen months).

Of course not every signing was the immediate success that Paul Murray was, and you have to question the judgement of a man who signed a player who has still not achieved his optimum playing weight after something like 18 months on the books.

At the beginning of the 2011-12 season we went 9 league games without defeat and it seems to me that the first league defeat of that season was the start of the decline from which there appears to be no sign of recovery. The nationally televised debacle at Notts County was a clear sign to the rest of the division that if you push only slightly against this team then it will fall down.

Mick Wadsworth was eventually sacked to be replaced by Neale Cooper, who immediately identified the main problem as being a serious lack of pace throughout the team, and I can’t remember anyone I spoke to who disagreed with him.

I do remember however being puzzled as to how such a coach as Mick Wadsworth let this state of affairs develop, and with no great expression of disquiet from the terraces. I suppose that the answer lies in the fact that he was ‘only’ a coach who was used to doing his best to improve players that other people had picked, and was a bit lacking in the quality spotting department.

Neale struggled on to the end of the season and released 6 players without there being riots in the streets and deputations to the board. I think we all expected to get at least 5 players in who would be better than those who had left, and at last make some progress. As it was we only brought in three, and they haven’t exactly taken the division by storm. What is it about us that we sign players who, to put it kindly, are not ‘naturally fit’?

I had the distinct impression (no proof mind, we never seem to get the definitive version of anything these days) that Neale Cooper thought that his re-building work was only half completed, and then found out that higher authority decreed that in fact it was finished.

I’ve always been an admirer of Neale Cooper ever since he first came to Hartlepool in 2003. I’ve never met him, but he always projected the image of being a hard man who would never take a step back in a confrontation. But this lot managed to break him in about a dozen matches. I hope this doesn’t attract the attention of ‘m’learned friends’ but it put me in mind of the way Leeds United played under Brian Clough. I’m pleased for his sake that he left when he did, no doubt realising that there was nothing he could do to stop the rot.

So here we are with a team who seem to be beaten before a ball is kicked and a dwindling crowd with no high expectations of anything good happening. It’s as though I have embarked on the Tardis and gone back 50 odd years. And I don’t bloody like it.

What of the owners in all this? I have been a great supporter of IOR and their approach ever since they took over the club. They didn’t make silly promises such as ‘we will be in the Premiership within four seasons’ and ‘we will all ride to away games on our own personal heskeylators’ and the like. They kept a low profile, (in fact they could teach Lord Lucan a thing or two about that) though not as low as at the present time and conducted themselves in a very discreet and dignified manner.

All the bills were paid on time and bailiffs were a thing of the past. The players were looked after, in addition to wages being paid on time, with things like travel and overnight accommodation being arranged to give them the best chance to produce their best on the field. The idea of sending a ‘bouncing cheque’ to the widow of one of our greatest heroes would not have been countenanced.

Since they have been here IOR have contributed (I don’t like the word ‘invest’ in this context – they are not going to make a profit out of it) something like £14,000,000 towards the running of the club. Their contribution has not been just in respect of the playing side of things, as they have also provided some educational facilities and have been involved in the community.

An independent report (part funded by IOR and the council tax payers) has expressed the opinion that Hartlepool United is worth about £5,000,000 a year to the town’s economy. This is a model I was pleased to recommend to all other clubs, both far and near - especially near. However that was when things were going well (even the relegation in 2005 was attributed by me to IOR having an excess of loyalty to one particular employee).

Things are different now. I know that everybody has their own pet theory as to what is going on, including one friend who has assured me that IOR have no money and are using Pools to keep their business going. I don’t agree with him but this is the sort rumour that is generated when discretion morphs into secrecy.

So, not being privy to IOR’s innermost thinking, those of us who are very concerned about Hartlepool United are left to speculate on motivations and finances.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of our present woes stem from the fact that IOR have not been able to get ownership of Victoria Park. It seems that after saying that if they had ownership of the ground then that would enable them to ‘make further investment’ so that they could ‘take the club further’ they have reacted to the Hartlepool council’s inevitable refusal to sell or give them the ground by withholding money that would otherwise have gone into team strengthening.

If that is the case then it is a complete waste of time on IOR’s behalf, because it is based on a false premise: That is that Hartlepool council gives a damn about Hartlepool United and whatever happens to it.

That is of course the privilege of the council, as they must use their best collective judgement as to what is in the town’s best interests. But you know, I know and most importantly the town council knows that whatever happens to Hartlepool United the same party will be in charge of the council after the next election, the one after that and the one after that. If the town was to be devastated by a Tsunami the most important thing on the collective minds of the council is, would they still be in charge of the rubble.

I can understand IOR’s frustration after all they have spent on the football club and all they contribute to the town, as detailed above, but the council’s response is ‘now all of that is all very well, but what have you done for us lately?’

If ownership of the ground is the sticking point for IOR and their continued efforts to improve the club then they should reconcile themselves to the fact that they will not get it, and decide whether they wish to continue to preside over what will be a slow and painful death of Hartlepool United, or to cut their losses and leave.

If they do decide to leave then I hope that they will give a full and frank account of why they have chosen to go. If they do in fact go then I believe that will be the end of Hartlepool United as I don’t see us having the good fortune of Manchester City or Crawley. I don’t expect many people to agree with me but my preference would be for a quick end to the whole thing, with the club being liquidated, rather than see the kind of undignified scratching around praying for miracles that is going on elsewhere.

IOR have made much of the ‘salary cap’ that applies in the lower two divisions, and which, incidentally, is going to be introduced for clubs wishing to take part in European competitions. As I understand it, no club is allowed to spend more than 65% of its income on players’ wages. There are obviously ways to stay within the rules while at the same time abusing them. If these rules are being followed in letter and spirit at Crawley (with gates around the 2,500 mark), then you have to wonder why Bayern Munich went after Pep Guardiola instead of the genius who brought Crawley into League One so quickly on such meagre income.

My point in mentioning Crawley is not to attack them, but to point out that the salary cap is there for those who want to follow it. IOR keep saying that they must follow the salary cap, but it seems to me that they are hiding behind it in order not to spend money on strengthening the team.

There is no rule that says that IOR must spend their hard earned money on subsidising my hobby of supporting Hartlepool United, but I would much rather them say that they will not spend the money rather than say they are prevented from spending it. I know that IOR have made much of their integrity since taking over and it is something I have admired them for.

However in the real world it is no good being holy if all about are being bloody rogues. If they are not very careful they could end up riding their high horse all the way to the Northern Premier League. Relying on the football authorities to do the decent thing and enforce their own rules in an even handed manner is about as sensible as relying on the town council to sell them Victoria Park, at any price.

Next season in the lower division our income will be reduced, but the salary cap will still be there. High earning players will have been released but that does not automatically mean that better players will replace them as the wages on offer will be lower. This is a downward spiral that I can’t see us getting away from. It seems as if the system has been designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poorer.

As things stand I can see no prospect of things ever improving and we seem destined to follow you know who to you know where.

* Look up the back copies of the ‘The People’ newspaper circa October – December 1963 for the details.