CENTRAL PARK is feeling a bit miserable

Written before the game against Colchester

At the beginning of the season I reported a meeting of the town end recidivists at which one of those present, the mindless optimist (I think it was me), had airily expressed the opinion that the team would finish in 8th place this season.

I’m usually an optimist about the team and am always surprised on the occasions when things don’t work out as expected (or should that be hoped?) and it can take quite a while for the penny to drop that ‘perhaps this might not be our season’.

Of course sometimes I catch on a bit quicker. I remember that I had realised by twenty past three on the first day of the 2001/02 season that the much anticipated smooth ride to promotion was not going to materialise when we struggled to a 1-1 draw with Mansfield.

There was even a season when I was in a fit of depression before a ball had been kicked. That was the 89/90 season when the then chairman, John Smart had been making pessimistic noises about finances over the summer and the manager, Bob Moncur, went sailing as the season was about to start. I think Bob must have had a similar idea to John Darwin but either lost his nerve or his bearings and ended up in Greatham Creek without a paddle instead of Panama.

That was the season when, without the intervention of Garry Gibson (yes he did do some good) and the inspired appointment of Cyril Knowles, we could have ended up on the long slide to the Northern League Division One. Of course some teams manage that transition in one bound (no need for names to be mentioned).

Still, all of that is in the past, so what about now? It is no exaggeration to say that I was genuinely shocked by the result in the first round of the Capital One Cup. A score of 0-5 in the first competitive match of the season against a team in our own division was way down the list of possible outcomes as far as I was concerned.

We had fielded what was considered by the manager to be our strongest eleven yet a newly promoted team just swept us aside. I know that in a cup competition the outcome of a 0-1 defeat is the same as a 0-9 defeat i.e. you are simply out of the competition, but, unless we were playing a team of much greater ability, as we did in the pre-season friendly against Newcastle, then 0-5 was an indication that we could be in deep trouble. Still, along with most of my friends, I went along with the thinking of ‘it’s just a touch of complacency’, or ‘it’s just a one off’ or ‘Crewe must be a better side than we thought’ and ‘it’s just as well to get the bad performance over before the season starts and points are at stake’. You get the idea; all the self delusion we used to use in the bad old days.

Then came the first match of the league season. It turned out that Swindon were also a better team than we had anticipated, and we were saved from defeat only by a penalty miss. I began to feel distinctly uneasy and then along came the performance at Notts County. The manager’s reaction, when taken with his response to the Crewe performance, confirmed to me that we have a real problem on our hands. You could tell that he was desperate to make changes, but you could also tell that his room for manoeuvre was strictly limited.

"...I went along with the thinking of ‘it’s just a touch of complacency’, or ‘it’s just a one off’ or ‘Crewe must be a better side than we thought’..."I have already gone on record as being absolutely delighted with the reappointment of Neale Cooper as manager, and I remain convinced that he is doing as good a job as anyone could with the resources at his disposal.

I remember that in his first spell as manager his record of signing players was pretty good. He certainly signed some who turned out to be not good enough but his transfer dealings were certainly to the overall benefit of the club. However I seem to remember that in his first spell he was allowed to recruit a great many more players than this time round. In the last close season he released six players but has only brought three new players to the club on permanent transfers.

I don’t think that there were very many people who took serious issue with the decision to release the players concerned, and I didn’t hear very many complaints about those coming in. The trouble is, from a squad strengthening point of view, there were just not enough new high quality players coming in.

Very few managers turn down additions to their squad so the approach of the owners comes into focus. For the record I am one of those who believe that IOR taking over Hartlepool United was probably the best thing that has happened to the club. They have provided the financial support to give us the kind of dignity we could only dream about in the past. Bills paid on time, provision of playing/training kit, a well kept stadium and immaculate playing surface, all taken for granted now, but not so in the past. Additionally they have also stated their willingness to make further investment (in reality make further donations) into the club if they become the owners of the ground.

I have seen nothing in the news media to suggest that IOR are in any kind of financial trouble, so their present approach should be attributed to choice rather than circumstance. So, why are IOR currently providing a level of expenditure on the playing resources that, in my opinion, run the real risk of the club being relegated?

The chairman has frequently made much of IOR’s support for the idea of a ‘salary cap,’ which I believe is mandatory in the 2nd division but as yet voluntary in the1st division, and has made it clear that Hartlepool United will abide by it voluntarily.

I’m not a great believer in the efficacy of a salary cap for reasons I won’t go into here, only to say that there are too many ways for people with lots of money to get round it. However, it is IOR’s money so it is their choice, but no matter how much they like the idea of the salary cap, to stick with it to the point of risking relegation if they can afford to spend more money to avoid it, seems like unnecessary martyrdom to me. I can’t see any other club being inspired to follow their example.

There is also the issue of the ownership of the ground alluded to above. IOR might well have taken a decision that no extra money will be spent on the team while they do not own the ground. I can understand this reaction, but if they think it will have any effect on the council then they haven’t been taking notice of what they have been dealing with all these years.

One of the main characteristics of IOR’s stewardship over the period they have been in charge has been their unwillingness to become embroiled in public controversy or slanging matches, for example over managerial changes or possible signings of players. I have always approved of this attitude, but the down side of it is that the lack of reliable information always leads to the production of rumours.

As football fans what we don’t know we make up, or should I say hear from a reliable source. We all know full well who owns the club but we still like to feel that in some way it is ‘ours’. Almost every week we hear rumours from ‘reliable sources’ that this player or that player is going to be joining us (I have one mate who still thinks Terry Bell is going to make a comeback) and our hopes are raised only to wither away due to lack of reliable information.

I fear we are now in for a hard frustrating season with the avoidance of the drop being our only ambition. I would hate to see the crowd turn against the owners, the team and especially the manager. If there really is no more money available to be spent on team strengthening then the very least IOR could do would be to say so publicly and let us know where we are.

If they have taken a policy decision to cut expenditure because of the non-acquisition of Victoria Park then let them say so and we can settle in for the inevitable drift into obscurity. Such a statement might be interpreted by some as an attempt to pressure the council into transferring Victoria Park to IOR. They shouldn’t worry about that. So long as the council members can retain their positions then what happens to Pools will be a matter of monumental indifference to them, as it always has been.

I have read the above and I don’t think that I have ever written anything so miserable since I started contributing to the fanzine. I must say that I am quite brought down by the whole season so far. Still a couple of wins in quick succession will soon have me predicting a place in the play offs at the very least.

See, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Two or three wins will save the NHS a fortune in happy pills.