The Day After Christmas

BILLY'S CONTRACT on Boxing Days, then and now

When I looked at the fixture list it at the start of the season it came as no surprise that once again we had yet another away game on Boxing Day (Saint Stephen's day for our Irish readers.) I cannot remember the last time that we had a Boxing Day game at home but I recall a certain Kevin Betsy was playing for our opponents.

Back in the day it was pretty much mandatory that Pools were allocated a home match on Boxing Day. Barring the Darlow games the Boxing day fixture was the one game that I looked forward to more than any other.

The day for me began with a late lie in; needless to say recovering after the the 'Christmas stuffing' the day before ...not to mention the Christmas 'Quaffing' the night before!

After breakfast which consisted of - would you believe - a turkey sandwich, I would tune into Ceefax/Teletex to catch the first football result of the day which was always strangely West Ham's. They always kicked off at 12 noon. Like Pools they were always at home on Boxing Day and not unlike Pools they never seemed to lose a Boxing Day fixture no matter how lowly or dire their league position was.

Before kick off a few pints would be 'seen off' on the Headland before grabbing a cab over to West (sadly the blue Hartlepool Corporation buses had long since been scrapped),  and straight into the Rink End. The festive crowd was always good humoured, win, lose or draw. Most of whom would be breaking in their new Christmas jumpers or sampling the contents of their new new hip flasks, whilst the air was permeated with the smell of Hamlet cigars.

The crowd was generally the biggest of the season, with many lads making their one and only trip of the year to the Vic, to get out from under the feet of her indoors. Others attended the Boxing Day match just to take the air and clear their heads after all the alcohol abuse on Christmas Day.

Needless to say that when I saw the fixture list I was disappointed to find that we were once again away from home on the 26th. However I thought, weather permitting, I would definitely make the journey down to Chesterfield, if for nothing else but to witness Ritchie playing for someone other than Hartlepool United.
"The festive crowd was always good humoured, win, lose or draw. Most of whom would be breaking in their new Christmas jumpers or sampling the contents of their new hip flasks"
The plan was that four of us would make the trip to Derbyshire. However for one reason or another all three of my fellow passengers had to cry off. On Christmas Day I tried texting a mate offering him a lift but I did not get a reply.

On the day of the match I woke up at around 9am wondering if I should even bother going down to Chesterfield by myself and I then remembered another of my mates, who was spending Christmas in South Yorkshire, had said that if I was going to the match he would meet me at the ground. Prior to revving up the trusty old Skoda I left him a voice message on his phone to say that I was on my way, but as I would be driving I would not be able to answer any return call that he made until I got to Chesterfield, as I do not have a hands free facility for my mobile in the car.

Two hours later I parked Czechoslovakia's finest just off the unusually named Occupation Road, What a name for a road! Was I in the French Quarter of Chesterfield? I then picked up a missed text message from my pal informing me that he was unable to get to the match. Was it something I said to all my mates!

After a lone pint of excellent quality Guinness in The Tap, I made my way to the 'Prozac' Stadium. I have to say that many of the newer stadiums that have being constructed in recent years are very bland and are basically tribute to breeze blocks, I am thinking along the lines of the likes of Scunny, Chester and Northampton. This is not the case at Chesterfield, as, although breeze blocks figure prominently in its construction, this stadium does stand out. If Pools ever decided to relocate or redevelop the Vic, I for one would be happy if they replicated Chesterfield's ground ...obviously with the words "Hartlepool United" displayed externally on the building rather than "Chesterfield F.C."

The match itself was a cracker. Just short of 600 Poolies made the trip and the noise they made was incredible. The rest of the ground was like a library in comparison. I won't go into the details of the match as I am sure it will be recorded elsewhere but I have to say it was the best away performance I have seen in a long time. In fact after Monkey got his marching orders we got even better and at times it looked as if we had 12 players on the pitch to match Chesterfield's 12 players (I have included the ref in their starting eleven.) I keep saying that all we want is a a Richie Barker style forward up front for us to hold things up and  take some of the heat off James and Poole, as well as a nippy midfielder, and I still believe that we could nick promotion or certainly make the play-offs.

I was delighted with the reception that the Poolie faithful gave Sir Ritchie. It was very similar to when he scored the winning goal in the penalty shoot out at Tranmere. The Poolies chanted his name numerous times during the game, so much it must have been off-putting at times as well as embarrassing for Humps. As for the round of applause he got when taking his first corner, the Chesterfield fans must have been scratching their heads, such was the esteem he was held in by the travelling hordes from the North. Indeed all the Chesterfield fans with whom I spoke to could not believe that we let Ritchie go. I am guessing even at this early stage he is already in pole position to be their player of the century!

Goodness knows what the reaction would have been had Ritchie scored. I remember when Westy made his first return to the Vic after moving to Walsall the Pools fans were chanting his name throughout the match and gave a massive roar of approval when scored from a corner. I also recall how Danny Wilson was not altogether too pleased about the adulation Westy was afforded on the day by the Hartlepool Supporters. If nothing else it just shows how much us 'Poolies respect 'Ones that are ours': Westy, Ritchie, Joel, Tinks Dimi, Jackie Honour, Joe Allon and Neale Cooper to name a but few. Contrast these icons to the likes of Micky Nelson, Andy Toman, Chris Llewellyn. Lee Bullock, Chris Shuker, Nobby Solano, Robbie Elliot and a cast of a thousands.

I was told that on some of the Hartlepool message boards some of the keyboard warriors, many who where not even at the game, vented their disgust at the reception Ritchie received. However many of these fans are the same people who were wanting the likes of Richie Jones and even Nathan Luscombe to be in the Pools side ahead of Sir Ritchie. Nuf said.

As for Ritchie's performance against his former employers. Basically he was directing operations and all set plays came through him. We were all anticipating that Franks would give him a roasting but that did not happen due to Ritchie's positional skills. On the one occasion Franks did get past him Ritchie still managed to get a foot to the ball preventing the cross from going in to their box.

On the down side for Ritchie, but on the up side for Pools well as for Poole, was that he was involved in Pools being awarded their penalty. A long ball dropped between him and another defender and they allowed Poole to nip in between them. Poole, instead of shooting hesitated, and thus his scoring chance had gone, but the Chesterfield defender, instead of shadowing him and forcing Poole wide, clipped him and down he went. Penalty Hartlepool. And as they say the rest is history.

Some may blame Ritchie for his part in the penalty but if you saw the mess that Neil Austin made for the Chesterfield goal ...people in glass houses!

As I revved up the Trusty Old Skoda, having to make the solitary journey home by myself, I reflected on a thoroughly enjoyable day. Who was the best player on the pitch on the day? Only one call in my opinion. None other than ...Matty Dolan. His best game ever for the club, and that is coming from someone who has criticized him in the past. I also reflected on the generous reception Ritchie got from the 600 appreciative away fans on the day.

Goodness knows what his homecoming will be like when he returns to the Vic next April with Chesterfield.