Having suffered a heartbreaking demotion in the final minutes of last season, things have slowly gone from bad to worse for Hartlepool United. The club was put up for sale three days before Christmas amidst revelations of financial issues, and the very real prospect of administration has hung over the club for the past six weeks. With time against them and still nothing concrete to grasp onto the club is currently surviving off the fundraising efforts of their supporters, but still the question remains – where next for Hartlepool?
Fans of Soccer Saturday will be no strangers to the plight of Hartlepool United, having endured the ecstacy and agony of the show’s irrepressible host, dedicated Pools supporter and sometime President of his beloved club, Jeff Stelling. On the final day of the 2016/17 League Two season, the elation he and his fellow panelists, caught up in a moment of partisan fervour, displayed as Hartlepool scored the goal that looked like saving them from relegation quickly turned to agony. Devante Rodney’s winner was consigned to a consolation, as Newport County netted a late goal in their fixture to leapfrog the North-East club and condemn them to the National League. Wholesale changes were made at the club during the summer, with eighteen first team players shipped out – some for considerable fees, including young winger Nathan Thomas being snapped up by Sheffield United for £300,000, while striker Padraig Amond made the switch to the side responsible for Hartlepool’s relegation, signing for Newport. Fourteen players arrived, all loans and free-agents, including two former Newcastle United academy players in Ryan Donaldson and Conor Newton, and Pools prepared themselves for a slog of a season outside the football league for the first time in almost a century. Changes occurred off the pitch too, as John Blackledge of Sage Investments, and Pam Duxbury, an investor in Sage, took control of the club from owner Gary Coxall, who had resigned as Chairman before the last game of last season. Duxbury was hopeful that the club, who were known to be experiencing financial issues, would be able to restructure their debt by Christmas 2017 with the aim of ensuring financial stability ahead of a promotion push to return to the Football League. By the time that deadline had come around, however, things had changed. On the 22nd December, Blackledge issued a statement declaring that, after six months, he had taken the club as far as he could, and that it was once again up for sale. The financial problems the club had found themselves in stretched further than the new owners had first thought, and it soon became clear that without serious investment – the kind of investment Blackledge and Sage weren’t prepared to front up – the club would quickly run into severe trouble. The message from Duxbury was positive; from an administrative standpoint at least, the club was in far better shape than it had been before the summer takeover, and despite losing their league status – a large factor in the issues the club faced – there is plenty to tempt a serious investor willing to build a project at Victoria Park.
Christmas and New Year came and went with little news of investment at Hartlepool. In the second week of January, the club released a statement reasserting the need for a new owner of the club, and urging any potential investors to come forward with interest as soon as possible – for the first time the dreaded ‘A’ word was mentioned – the club is facing administration. In the past month, media coverage around the club has been ramped up, and Hartlepool’s plight has become a story of national interest. But the longer it takes for an investor to stump up the money to complete a takeover, the worse their situation becomes – the club are losing roughly £130,000 a month, and Blackledge is already owed nearly £2million, though most pressing of all is the £200,000 tax bill that was due at the beginning of the month. Pools are clearly in dire straits, but it could have been so different.
Sunday 29th May, 2005. The Millenium Stadium, Cardiff. Hartlepool United, having squeezed into the playoffs with a final day draw at Bournemouth and then knocked Tranmere Rovers out on penalties in the semi-final, face Sheffield Wednesday for a place in the Championship. Wednesday had been relegated from the Championship the previous season but still boasted the promising talents of Alex Bruce, Glenn Whelan and Chris Brunt in their line-up came up against a Hartlepool side that, having gained promotion to League One in 2003, had fallen at the first hurdle in the play-offs the previous season, losing out to beaten finalists Bristol City. Pools manager Neale Cooper had left his post before the final game of the season, but the goals of Adam Boyd had fired the north-easterners to within touching distance of their first ever appearance in England’s second tier. Jon-Paul McGovern’s goal on the stroke of half-time saw Wednesday ahead at the break, but Eifion Williams’ goal two minutes after half-time dragged Hartlepool level and had their supporters dreaming of an incredible promotion once again. Things got better when, with less than twenty minutes to go, Jon Daly headed Pools in front. Heading into the final ten minutes, Hartlepool were hanging on, but the game changed when Drew Talbot tumbled under the lightest of touches from Chris Westwood, the Pools defender was dismissed, and Steven Maclean equalised from the spot. From then on, the momentum was with Wednesday, and goals from Whelan and Talbot in extra time secured promotion for the Owls. The following season, Hartlepool were relegated from League One, and despite returning for a six year spell after immediate promotion, they were never in the promotion picture in the third tier again, and suffered their first of two relegations in 2013.
It’s now those same fans – heartbroken in the Welsh sunshine in 2005 – that have taken the initiative to help save their beloved football club. Since the news of impending administration, Hartlepool supporters have rallied to raise funds for the club in the hope of avoiding future financial sanctions, with Victoria Park seeing bumper crowds attend recent fixtures. These crowds have, in no small part, been aided by the support of Middlesbrough fans who remember all too well the helping hand offered to them by Pools when money was tights on Teeside. In the 1985/86 season, Boro faced liquidation and were unable to fulfill fixtures at their Ayresome Park ground. Hartlepool agreed to a groundshare with Middlesbrough, allowing them to complete the season and receive much-needed gate receipts to keep the club afloat. Despite being over thirty years ago, Boro’s fanbase haven’t forgotten their neighbour’s generosity. A Just Giving page has also been set up and, at the time of writing, has raised over £80,000 and while this falls short of the £200,000 needed to cover their unpaid tax bill, at the moment every little counts if Pools are to stave off the administrators.
This week Jeff Stelling strode once more unto the breach, as he lined up meetings with potential investors in his capacity as club president. The charismatic anchor may need to be at his silver-tongued best if he’s to secure the kind of investment needed by Pools to stay afloat, but if you need a secret weapon for a charm offensive, you could do much worse than the face of Sky Sports. Stelling has already confirmed that, should an investor emerge, he will also be contributing financially to the club’s cause, and stories emerged at the beginning of the week that more potential investors are looking over the books in preparation of a possible takeover, though with four investors having already expressed an interest only to later pull out of a deal, false dawns are nothing new for Pools supporters. Further updates on Thursday reported that the club had invited a police investigation into financial irregularities, while a tax bill for £48,000 was paid off using the funds raised by the Just Giving campaign. Reports of the club receiving a winding up order from HMRC have been rubbished by club officials.
Pam Duxbury continues to extol the virtues of Hartlepool United as a business proposition, and undoubtedly her involvement of the club has at the very least increased the transparency of their finances. They are, in her words, a “football league club” in all but name. With the side currently marooned in the lower reaches of mid-table in the Conference, however, it’s going to take some serious work to restore their league status. Either way, in a maritime town in need of a burst of colour, the clouds gathering over the Hartlepool United offer a bleak horizon. Hartlepool’s is a community that thrives around its football club. Time is running out.
To donate to the #SaveHartlepoolUnited cause follow the link here.