November 11 2003
Part 5 of Pools Online's history of Hartlepool United covers the years from 1989 until 1996 - with ups and downs on and off the field.
In the winter of 1989/90, Hartlepool United were in a critical condition on the pitch. Firmly anchored to the bottom of Division 4, they looked dead and buried - nailed on certainties to take the drop they had cheated so many times before. Bobby Moncur tendered his resignation, refused to change his mind despite pleading from Chairman Garry Gibson - and in his place arrived a former Spurs full back with a handy track record at Darlington and Torquay, and a song in his honour. Cyril Knowles took charge, saw what he had to do - he described Pools as being "like a holiday camp" when he arrived - and with a couple of additions to the squad set about turning things around.
It wasn't often very pretty, but it was effective; and in the half season after he arrived, Pools showed the sort of form that teams at the top end of the table would have given anything for. Teams from the promotion spots would arrive at Pools and more often than not retreat with their tails between their legs; Stockport were dismissed courtesy of four goals from Paul Baker, including a spectacular bicycle kick. From being dead and buried, Pools finished 12 points clear of relegated Colchester in 19th place.
The following season saw things really take off. With Joe Allon in tremendous form up front, Paul Baker partnering him, and the likes of Dalton and Honour to provide ammunition from the wings, Pools looked good prospects for a playoff place. The good results kept coming, and all looked well until a bombshell was dropped in early 1991: Cyril Knowles was taken into hospital with a serious - later to prove fatal - medical problem. He was operated on for a blood clot in his brain, and looked to be set to be away for some time; echoes of Fred Westgarth? Meanwhile, the club's Commercial Manager - former Middlesbrough player Alan Murray - was placed in temporary charge. With the addition of goalkeeper Kevin Poole on loan, and a final polish, a determined Pools proceeded to carry all before them and when the final day arrived, we were even in with a shout of winning the title. A 3-1 victory over Northampton proved enough to clinch third place and our second promotion; and as the fans celebrated on the pitch, "Nice One Cyril" boomed out over the tannoy.
1991/2 started with Alan Murray still in charge; Cyril's illness, it turned out, was more serious than first thought, and Murray soon had the job permanently. It was still however a big shock - and a sad loss to the whole of football - to hear of his death at the end of August 1991, on the day of a match against Bradford. The name of Cyril Knowles is still revered amongst Hartlepool United fans, and lives on following the building of the Cyril Knowles Stand in the mid 1990s.
Murray proved to be an astute replacement though, and guided Pools to a highly respectable 11th place finish in Division 3. Joe Allon may have departed, but he was allowed to bring in the likes of Andy Saville and Lenny Johnrose for big money, while others like Dean Emerson made themselves invaluable to the side.
Although 1992/3 started off full of promise for Pools in the newly-renamed Division 2, we were to make headlines for both the right and wrong reasons. A terrific start to the season saw Pools at one point joint top of the table, and then came one of the best results in our history - when Premier League Crystal Palace came to town and in front of the Match of the Day cameras deservedly lost to an impressive Pools side. The penalty award may have been questionable, but when Andy Saville's penalty hit the back of the net Palace were beaten - and could have few complaints after Pools had dominated proceedings. It was a great time to be a Poolie - but unknown to us, a storm was brewing.
Chairman Gibson, it turned out, was strapped for cash - and almost out of nowhere, the club was facing a serious financial crisis. Players were allowed to leave, and injuries to two key players (Emerson and Honour) in the game following the Cup Victory badly affected the team. Game after game went by without a goal, and before long it was the butt of jokes all over the place as more than 1200 minutes of football passed between the goal against Palace and finally breaking our duck again at Blackpool. It was a new record, and in the space of a couple of months Pools had gone from heroes to zeroes. Murray was sacked, Viv Busby came in, and Pools ended the season in 16th place - a poor end to a season that had promised so much.
Worse was to follow. With no money, the carefully built-up squad was allowed to dissolve. With a ban on transfers into the club, Busby was forced to play the youngsters - and when he was sacked after just nine months in charge, so was his successor, veteran player John MacPhail. With little experience to speak of, and possibly even less quality, Pools were doomed from the very beginning and finished 23rd in Division 2. Harold Hornsey finally managed to buy the club and started trying to put them on an even keel - but MacPhail didn't last much longer, and the revolving door saw Dave McCreery back at the club as Player/Manager.
Pools didn't fare too well under McCreery, and he departed towards the end of 1994/5 to be replaced as Player/Boss by Keith Houchen. 18th out of 22 was not a record to be proud of, but neither was Houchen's - his full season in charge saw us finish 20th out of 24, and with his personal discipline on the pitch poor as well it was little surprise when he made way for his assistant Mick Tait early the following season at the newly-renamed Victoria Park.