March 25 2003
Hartlepool United have announced that Paul Stephenson is hanging up his boots at the end of the season. Stepho, 35, will not be leaving though - he's going to help Martin Scott and Ian Kerr with the Youth Team and Centre of Excellence. Time for a Career Review then....
Stepho started off at Newcastle, and played alongside Paul Gascoigne and Pools legend Joe Allon in their Youth Team. His talent was recognised at international level too, with Stepho called upon to represent England at youth level.
He made more than 60 starts for the Mags, but in 1988/9 he found himself on the move: Millwall forked out 300K to take him to The Den, and he was to spend almost five seasons in London. Playing mainly as a winger, he made just over 100 starts for the Lions, but found himself out of favour towards the end of his stay there and spent some time on loan to Gillingham in 1992/3.
Towards the end of that season he moved on, with Brentford paying 30K for his services. He was to stay there until the end of the 1994/5 season, clocking up more than 70 appearances before heading back north and signing for York.
Another 100 or so appearances later, he joined Pools towards the end of the 1997/8 season. Although he was known to be a skillful player, one or two eyebrows were raised: Mick Tait had enquired about him earlier in the season, and been told that York didn't intend to let him go before the end of the campaign; however he picked up a niggling injury, York phoned Tait to tell him Pools could have him, and so he arrived in March 1998. He finally appeared in the last three games of the season, making his debut in a 2-2 draw at Mansfield.
Although Tait didn't know it, Stepho would turn out to be part of one of the best Pools midfields for years; however it was only after his departure that he would come to prominence at Pools. The following season, still mainly playing on the right wing, Stepho was too often out of the action and the source of some frustration from Pools fans: against Torquay in October, he had a superb game to inspire Pools to a 4-1 victory over a side that included Chris Waddle. Stepho had proved a point to the more illustrious former Mags midfielder: but it looked like a one off.
Tait got the chop, Chris Turner arrived, and Stepho's future at the club was uncertain. He played few of the games that helped Pools clinch survival, and no-one would have been surprised to see him leave: but a good performance and goal coming off the bench at Southend in the last game of the season did his case no end of good.
CT's master stroke was to move Stepho from the wide position he had spent most of his career in to the centre of the action in midfield. The following two seasons saw Stepho become the heartbeat of a midfield that provided any number of goals for Tommy Miller, and launched Pools into the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
In the middle, Stepho found he saw a lot more of the ball and was able to dictate the play more: and his ability to pass the ball and make the play for Pools saw him as one of the most eye-catching midfielders in the division. Miller may have picked up many of the plaudits, but it was Stephenson that was topping the Opta Indexes for Div3, and had he been a few years younger a whole host of teams would no doubt have been knocking on his door.
When Tinks arrived in 2000/1, we finally had a midfield that was without doubt one of the best in the division - and quite possibly in Pools' history too. With Tinkler to win the ball, Stepho to pull the strings, and Tommy to put the goals away, it had everything. With his Free Kicks and Corners, Stepho was a hugely important part of what at the time was Pools' best year since the Promotion Season of 1990/1.
Last season though turned out very different. The new midfield trio of Tinks, Stepho, and Tommy Widdrington didn't gel at all, and with the move to 4-4-2 - and some highly effective play from Widds - Stepho found his first team opportunites more limited. With Tinks, Widds, Stepho, Clarke and Humphreys all preferring to be in the centre, something had to give: and the 34 year old Stepho was finding himself overtaken by other, younger players. He did play in both legs against Cheltenham, coming on as a late sub in the first leg before starting at Whaddon Road: and missed his penalty in the shootout.
He has failed to appear at all in the first team this season, and it's no surprise that he has taken the decision to hang up his boots. But it's great news for the future of Pools that he will be assisting with the Youth Team Coaching: he's been helping out at Newcastle for some time, and as one of the most skillful players and best passers to play at Pools in recent years, the young players can only benefit from his experience.
Career Stats: League Apps 448 (+35), League Goals 28
All Competition Apps 527 (+44), Goals 36
For Pools: Apps 158 (+12), Goals 11