November 11 2003
Part 6 of Pools Online's history of Hartlepool United covers the seasons from 1996 until 2003 - years in which the club went from surviving to thriving.
With Hornsey in charge, the club was at least on a sound financial footing, but manager Mick Tait proved unable to take much advantage of it. Taking over early in the 1996/7 season, Tait saw his Pools side underperform and it was only a deadline day rash of signings that spurred the team on to pull away from the bottom. Only with a couple of games left was safety assured, with Hereford and Brighton left to fight it out while Pools finished in a 20th place that was a lot less comfortable than it sounds.
Helped by an appalling Doncaster side propping up the rest, Hartlepool were never in serious danger of relegation in 1997/8, but although some of Tait's signings were astute - particularly Jon Cullen, who later departed to Sheffield United - he seemed unable to sign the striker we so desperately needed. Oil Company IOR bought the club late in 1997 (I'm not sure anyone knows why!), and used their Norwegian contacts to bring in a genuine International in Jan Ove Pederson - who proved to be a cut above anyone else in the division during his loan spell - as well as a string of other Scandanavian triallists - but Pools were drawing too many games, setting a joint record of 23 with Cardiff on the way to 17th place.
The following season saw things get even worse for the Tait-managed Pools side. More struggle at the foot of the table saw attendances falling, and even the signing of Newcastle legend Peter Beardsley failed to ignite the side. Tait departed, and after a few weeks Chris Turner was appointed to what almost everyone agreed was the hardest job in football.
Turner quickly started turning Pools round. Signings were swift: forwards Gary Jones and Chris Freestone, and defender Gary Strodder played a major part as Hartlepool battled against the drop. Relegation was avoided before the last day of the season, and it was Scarborough that went down as Carlisle earned a win thanks to goalkeeper Jimmy Glass.
After the hair-raising experiences of recent seasons, most fans would have been happy to settle for some mid-table mediocrity; Turner however revamped the squad, brought the best out of players like Tommy Miller and Paul Stephenson, and thanks to a marvellous 3-0 win over Hull on the final day of the season clinched an unlikely playoff spot. Defeat by Darlington was hard to take, but reaching the playoffs themselves had been a big bonus. Better was to come the following year.
With Turner still working on the squad, Pools continued to improve and before long were fixtures in the playoff places. Brighton, Chesterfield and Cardiff were well out in front; but then came the revelations that Chesterfield had been playing fast and loose financially. A number of allegations were proven, and rumours of a big penalty - even expulsion from the league - were rife. Pools were in fourth place, and looked set to benefit. The punishment handed down though was a nine point deduction - enough to stop the Spireites winning the title, but not enough to push them out of the automatic places. Despite the general cries of "foul" from supporters throughout the country, the punishment remained - and Pools found themselves in the playoffs once more. This time it was Blackpool who beat Pools home and away, but surely the team was set for automatic promotion the following year.
This made the start to 2001/2 all the more hard to take. After a big clearout - and some big names brought in - Pools failed to get off to a good enough start, and in fact were bottom in November. A major revival started, boosted by the signings of Gordon Watson and Paul Smith, and Pools once again made the playoffs on the final day - having recorded some spectacular wins along the way, including a 5-1 mauling of playoff finalists Rushden. In the Playoff Semi against Cheltenham, Pools came closer than ever to the final - drawing both legs 1-1 before losing on penalties.
This seemed to put the club into a determined mood for 2002/3 though, and Pools lead the division for most of the season. Chris Turner left for Sheffield Wednesday, Mike Newell took over, and at one point Pools stretched their lead to 14 points. With real hope of our first ever trophy though, Pools suffered a disasterous loss of form for the last two months of the season, being overhauled by Rushden to finish as runners-up.
So where now for Hartlepool United? Well allow me to quote from Ed Law's marvellous (and sadly out of print) history of the club. This paragraph was written in 1989, but in some ways seems even more appropriate now:
"Will Hartlepool ever progress beyond the fourth round of the FA Cup? Will the Victoria Ground ever become a super stadium? Will the club ever attain promotion beyond the Third Division? Is a Wembley appearance in one of the Cup competitions merely a dream? The answer is that if the optimism, determination and drive that currently exists in the Victoria Ground boardroom can be extended to the playing squad, then nothing is impossible. In the words of Rameses II: '...so let it be written, so shall it be done.'"