That sinking feeling

Ian Cusack explains why Darlington and Hartlepool United are synonymous with the term 'perennial strugglers'

Imagine the scenario: a resurgent North Eastern club, managed by an ex-international captain, playing the best football in their history and seemingly certain to be rewarded with a major prize, inexplicably falter in the closing weeks of the season and chuck it away on the final day. The next season begins with an air of gloom despite a major signing and rumours of a relocation to a brand new stadium. Eventually the board accept one of the frustrated manager’s numerous offers to resign and replace him with a former manager and former player.

Sounds familiar? Well, if Feethams is your home ground, then this tragicomedy is old news, for this is the story of Darlington: the removal of the immensely popular Jim Platt, in favour of ex-manager David Hodgson and retired nomadic front man Gary Bannister. The Darlington board is a Guernsey-based operation called the St Philip’s Trust, headed by one Reg Brealey, a former Sheffield United chairman who managed to make himself more unpopular in some areas of South Yorkshire than Michael Heseltine at pit closure time.

In the space of eight months, Darlington have gone from near certainties for promotion to the only team in the country praying for the continued good health of Bill Archer and David Bellotti. Hodgson’s appointment has had no discernible benefit and his explanations become more esoteric by the week. After a 6-0 drubbing at Fulham he offered the opinion that if the season started in April and ended in November, this would not have happened. As the game took place on 11th January, this was a patently obvious if unhelpful observation.

As for neighbours Hartlepool, last season’s dismal 20th place was followed by a brief renaissance, in the sense that they won both opening games, before plummeting to second bottom, causing manager Keith Houchen to lose his job. Now under the charge of 40-year-old player-manager Mick Tait, at least until the end of the season, Hartlepool are about 16th in the table. Around Victoria Park, they call that progress. In fact, following the nightmare legacy of proto Thatcherite Guy Gibson’s chairmanship, it is a small miracle that Hartlepool United still exist. Their litany of shame included bouncing a cheque of the proceeds of a benefit game for the family of former manager Cyril Knowles, three times. This was compounded by failure to pay the players for two consecutive months, despite threats from the PFA. More time has been spent in the High Court, facing winding up petitions from sources as varied as the Inland Revenue and the company who erected the dugouts, than was spent on the training ground attempting to remedy the 1,100-minute scoring drought of early 1993.

When managers or pundits refer to the ‘nightmare scenario’ of relegation from the Premiership, they sum up the reality of such straitened circumstances by referring to ‘a wet Tuesday night in Barnsley’. Notwithstanding the fact that Oakwell is a fully redeveloped 20,000 capacity all-seater stadium, the Barnsley example is used for its resonances: coal mines, Kes and Colin Welland are still a fairly noxious brew. Similarly, a drop into the Third Division doesn’t excite fans and players alike with the thought of a few days on the English Riviera punctuated with a 0-0 draw at Plainmoor and the chance to get Gary Nelson’s autograph, it makes them think of Hartlepool or Darlington away, on a bonce-chillingly freezing foggy Saturday in December.

However, even Orwell’s Ministry of Truth would find it hard to mythologize two clubs that have spent eleven seasons outside of the bottom division between them, one of which was Darlington’s sojourn in the Conference in 1989-90, since their simultaneous elevation to League status with the formation of the Third Division (North) in 1921. Between them they have employed 55 managers since the War, with Darlington having made five appeals for re-election while Hartlepool achieved a record eleven.

Unfortunately, the reality of football in the region today is that both clubs, regardless of what happens on the pitch, are in for a difficult future. Despite the departure of Keegan, Boro’s League form and Sunderland’s inability to sell out the 22,000-capacity Roker Park, North Eastern football at the top level is healthier than at any time since 1976-77, the last occasion in which the North East’s Big Three appeared in the top division together. Last season Hartlepool and Darlington saw their average crowds rise to 2,072 and 2,408 respectively: only Scarborough pulled in less. As you can imagine, all-ticket games are a rarity.

Hartlepool is exactly halfway between Boro and Sunderland, served by a pitiful train service and passed by a very fast road, the A19, that links the two Premiership towns. Darlington is more of a North Yorkshire market town than a South Durham pit village, despite what the cartographers may tell us: the Yorkshire link might explain the thriving base of Leeds Utd supporters. Newcastle is 25 miles away by train: there are an awful lot of Toon shirts on display, both in shops and on people. There seems to be an epidemic of apathy amongst the majority of the populace.

Years of underachievement (Darlo’s successive Conference and Division Four titles in 1990 and 1991, and ’Pool’s three-year visit to Division Two and the victory over Palace in the FA Cup of 1993 not withstanding) have blunted the enthusiasm of the waverers in each town, while the existence of Sky enables the infrequent visitor to get their fix of live football on screen.

Despite this, the regular fans hate each other, and Middlesbrough, with a passionate fervour. Each team has a superb fanzine, Money Business for Hartlepool, and Mission Impossible for Darlo. The latter had a good relationship with the club for many years, raising money, sponsoring kit and games, until an abrupt falling out led to it being banned from Feethams and the curious spectacle of a so-called fanzine, Tin Shed, being edited by board sympathisers in the crowd.

Now MI has joined forces with another supporters’ group, DRASTIC (Darlington Require A Striker To Increase Crowds), whose initial aim is to raise £50,000 for a new centre forward, with the hope of finding a benevolent millionaire to take over from the despised St Philip’s Trust. They have already had a measure of success in the resignation of distrusted general manager Steve Morgon.

At Hartlepool, there is a degree of harmony between lifelong-fan-turned-board-member Harold Hornsey and those on the terraces. This accord was not extended to the incompetent Houchen, who, post-Keegan, has blamed stress for his incomprehensible team selections and tactics. However, any notion of stability at Hartlepool is illusory. A fortnight after he had been given the job on a permanent basis, Mick Tait decided to throw in the towel in a Keeganesque fit of pique after hearing that chairman Hornsey planned to scrap the youth team as a cost-cutting exercise. Before the Sunday lunch dishes had been cleared away, however, Mick was back in charge and the youth team had been preserved. Still, intrigue like this is par for the course when the local MP is Peter Mandelson, famous more in these parts for his assumption in a ’Pool chippy that the mushy peas were in fact guacamole than for his Parliamentary machinations. Mandelson has remained strangely silent about the goings-on at Victoria Park.

It would be nice to end on a positive message about the future of the two clubs: sadly this is not possible. Sky TV money may have transformed the finances of football, but it hasn’t had a direct, positive influence on these two. Their aim, modest by definition and reality, remains week to week survival, the infrequent discovery of a teenage wonderboy for Premiership consumption and the hope of a glamorous cup draw every couple of seasons. It’s a tough old game.

From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month