THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

A reasonable start to the season for the home side comes to an end with a thrashing as the once illustrious visitors suggest that they may not hang around for too long at the third level. Harry Pearson reports

In the second half at Victoria Park there’s an odd moment when it seems we might be witnessing the birth of a new musical phenomenon. In the past people have successfully fused techno with jazz, hip hop with heavy metal and Indian bhangra with Celtic reels, but so far as I know nobody has until now thought of combining sub-Saharan African drumming with good old-fashioned north-east exasperated football moaning.

The African Children’s Choir, 20 or so small boys in khaki pants and black T-shirts, have performed spiritedly in the centre-circle at half-time and got a good round of applause for their efforts from a crowd that still tends to stand around staring at the pitch during the interval, rather than rushing down to the concourse to throw their money away on fried food and spread bets as they might in the Premier League.

For the second period the choir takes up a position at one end of the Mill House Paddock. Every time Hartlepool attack they start drumming excitedly, and every time the attack founders (as they all do) on the granite form of 33-year-old Darren Purse in the Sheffield Wednesday defence, the drummers stop and the blokes behind me yell derisively at the players. It goes something like this: “Bata-bata bum-ta-bum bata-bata-bum What sort of a bloody ball is that Bum-tah, bum-tah, batabatabata Jesus Christ almighty chantaka chantaka chantaka Pools this is shite.” There’s not a lot of variety or nuance admittedly, but I can’t help feeling that the late Malcolm McLaren would have squeezed an album out of it somehow.

The African Children’s Choir is one bright spot in an otherwise dismal afternoon for Hartlepool fans. Not only does their team get a right caning from visitors who look better organised, quicker and generally all round bigger, but they make the regional newspaper headlines when some local numbskulls attack a group of Owls fans outside the station, hospitalising two of them. Six men from the town are arrested.

It’s a poor end to a day that had begun with some promise. On Friday it had seemed too much like high summer for football – a feeling persisting among veterans that you can’t really focus on a game at a time of year when wasps are still committing suicide in your beer glass. Saturday morning dawns suitably grey and grim, however, and rain smears the windows of the southbound train as it passes through Easington and Blackhall – soon surely to be redesignated as “Billy Elliot Country” by some local government genius.

 Victoria Park is barely half full despite the overcast sky and the home side having made a decent start that sees them lying eighth in the table. Perhaps it’s a carry over from last season’s campaign, which was fitful at best and almost ended in relegation thanks to a points deduction for fielding the suspended Gary Liddle in a game against Brighton. Since then coach Colin West has been replaced by Mick Wadsworth, a veteran of lower-league northern football whose CV includes spells in charge at Gretna, Chester, Carlisle and Scarborough and also, more exotically and mysteriously, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If Hartlepool’s previous campaign was undistinguished, Wednesday’s was even worse – relegated on the final day and pursued by HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid tax contributions. Perhaps though their fans have become immune to that sort of thing over the past troubled decade – they have certainly turned out in force today, filling the away end and spilling out, discreetly, into the home paddock where they are easily distinguished by their determinedly muted reaction to their team’s goals.

Hartlepool, like Rochdale, are just about everyone’s idea of lower-division scufflers. The Owls’ exact role in the scheme of things is altogether harder to pin down. A big club by virtue – largely – of their historic stadium, they’ve spent sufficient time in the lower reaches of the league to rob their appearances at places like Victoria Park of any Leeds-like frisson of novelty. Indeed, the last time they were in town I watched Pools hammer them 3-0, and I don’t recall anyone thinking it was much of a shock.

Something similar seems to be on the cards in the first few minutes of this afternoon’s encounter when Hartlepool’s maverick centre-forward Adam Boyd – one of those northerners who actually gets paler in the summer – gathers the ball on the edge of the box, executes a characteristic shimmy and then curls a delicate shot a yard wide of Nicky Weaver’s left post. It proves to be a false promise, however.

A minute or so later Neil Mellor, the former Liverpool tyro who nowadays is so broad-in-the-beam he looks like former England cricketer Darren Gough before he took up ballroom dancing, bursts down the left, brushes Joe Gamble aside as if he is a feeble excuse and squares the ball across the goalmouth. Paul Murray of Hartlepool is the player that meets it. He steers it so expertly wide of Scott Flinders and inside the post it’s hard not to conclude that grabbing the opener was exactly what he had in mind. “First goal for Sheffield Wednesday in the eighth minute, goalscorer: an own goal,” says the announcer tactfully as Murray squats down with his head in his hands.

If that looked unfortunate, within 90 seconds it’s proved to be no mere fluke. Once again it’s the burly Mellor who is the creator, surging forward through the centre of the Pools defence before setting up Giles Coke who volleys home almost as neatly as Murray had done. By now Mellor is rampant and grabs a third in the 23rd minute after being fed by Darren Potter. The Scouser – on loan from Owls boss Alan Irvine’s former club Preston – seems to have grown in stature since kick-off, a Gulliver amongst Lilliputians. Marcus Tudgay, quick and incisive, drifting out wide when occasion demands, is an excellent foil to his burly muscularity.

Hartlepool try to respond, but the players’ insistence on banging the ball hopefully towards the edge of the penalty area looks increasingly forlorn. In the past Pools had been noted for keeping the ball of the deck, often to the frustration of the home fans, but they seem to have abandoned this altogether despite the fact that in an aerial battle Boyd seems as likely to get the better of the veteran Owls defender Purse as he does of out-sprinting Usain Bolt. For corners, free-kicks and the long throw-ins of Sam Collins, Pool are so static they might be playing musical statues. In the away goal Weaver, another experienced and large veteran from a team that seems stocked with large and experienced men, is more or less totally untroubled. The teams troop off at half-time to be replaced with the singing Africans. The last half-time entertainment I saw here involved the management and staff of a local theme restaurant singing YMCA, so this is a distinct improvement.

At the start of the second half Wadsworth attempts to freshen up his attack by throwing on diminutive Uruguyan Fabián Yantorno. The South American is nippy and at first looks like he might work a transformation, but after a lively few minutes that includes a cheeky, if unavailing attempt to chip Weaver from wide on the right, he gradually fades – his contributions limited to a series of free-kicks and corners that demonstrate conclusively that he is not the new Diego Forlán.

Wednesday, meanwhile, have shifted down a few gears. They are well organised and deal with the home side’s attacks in a manner that suggests a dad placing his hand on his small son’s head and holding him at arm’s length while the kid flails away with his fists without hope of landing. “We are top of the league,” the visiting fans chant as news of the scores in other fixtures filters through.

In the 72nd minute, with Hartlepool looking increasingly frustrated, Wednesday break once again through Mellor who stumbles in the box under a challenge from Flinders. It doesn’t look like a penalty, but the referee Mr Swarbrick points to the spot, books the keeper and Tudgay makes it 4-0 to the visitors. Shortly afterwards Mellor departs the field, pausing to applaud the away fans and prompting the bloke a few rows down to yell “Piss off, Mellor, you fat get”, which in its way is a compliment to his effectiveness. Or maybe not.

Soon after he has gone Hartlepool’s local hero Tommy Miller comes on for Wednesday and gets a standing ovation. “We could do with you now, lad,” the man behind me yells, though I suspect that when Miller was here he was in all likelihood bellowing: “Stop fannying about you big fairy and get it in the box.” By the 80th minute the Owls fans are entertaining themselves by singing: “You might as well go home.” Plenty of Poolies need no second invitation and the ground starts to empty. By now the African boy drummers have given up, though the moaning continues until Clinton Morrison adds a fifth in injury time.

From WSC 284 November 2010

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