LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Hartlepool United

Penalty drama sweeps Pools back to Football League

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Back in the Football League after almost disappearing entirely, perennial strugglers Hartlepool United are based at traditional Victoria Park, battered by the bitter winds of the North Sea. Hardy fans travel long distances to follow Pools, whose local north-east rivals Darlington haven’t been in the League since 2010.

The same entrepreneur who stepped in to rescue Darlington, Raj Singh, but failed to save them from going into administration, took over Hartlepool in 2018 after fans had first raised funds following relegation from League Two the year before.

Their eventual reward was victory in the National League play-off final in 2021, a game of absurd drama in which the width of a crossbar separated Hartlepool from Torquay in the penalty shoot-out. Now the furthest opponents Pools face in the regular season in League Two are Exeter – still half-a-day’s train journey for those loyal supporters.

Victoria Park/Tony Dawber

The club founded as Hartlepools United in 1908 had a ready-made home to move into. The Victoria Ground, as it was known, had hosted West Hartlepool rugby club since 1886. Representing the newly created industrial and transport hub set back from the Hartlepool headland, West Hartlepool were complemented by a soccer team of the same name who rose to prominence by winning the FA Amateur Cup in 1905.

With the round-ball game dominant, West Hartlepool RFC folded, their stadium became vacant and ambitious locals seized the chance to form a professional football club.

To appeal to the workers of West Hartlepool and the longer-settled residents of the original nearby community on The Headland, this club was called Hartlepools United, in the plural. Fans nicknamed them ‘Pools’ – others, with reference to a bizarre local incident a century before, the Monkey Hangers.

The early days were marked by the bombardment of the Victoria Ground by a German Zeppelin during World War I. On the pitch, United moved from the North-Eastern League to the new Third Division North in 1921.

Hartlepool United club shop/Tony Dawber

Soon setting a pattern of re-election applications, Hartlepools saved their best moments for the cup. In 1956-57, a record 17,264 crammed into the Victoria Ground to see the Monkey Hangers take on the Busby Babes. Trailing Manchester United 3-0 on the half-hour, Pools stormed back to peg the score at 3-3. A late Billy Whelan winner saved Busby’s blushes.

The game proved too much for Fred Westgarth, Pools’ long-term manager, who collapsed and died shortly afterwards. Seven gaffers later, a 30-year-old Brian Clough started his managerial career here, sparking a partnership with Peter Taylor from 1965 onwards. In their team was a teenage John McGovern, later to win league trophies and European Cups under the famous coaching duo.

Signed up by Derby County in 1967, Clough and Taylor left behind a side that would win Hartlepool a first promotion a year later. Now referred to in the singular to reflect the town’s new combined status, the club only stayed in Division Three for one season.

Victoria Park/Tony Dawber

Hartlepool’s next major manager would be their most revered: Cyril Knowles. Only in charge of Pools for a little over a year, the former Spurs left-back soon created a side that again would win promotion – though Knowles would die from a brain tumour just as the 1991-92 campaign in the Third Division was starting. A stand was named after him at Victoria Park, the former Victoria Ground. Its modernisation came with the club rebranding under local entrepreneur and major investor Harold Hornsey.

Goals from Keith Houchen failed to keep Hartlepool in the third tier. For the Coventry FA Cup hero of 1987, the sad return to his first club was compounded when, as player-manager, he was hounded out of Victoria Park by terrace discontent.

With new owners Ken Hodcroft and his oil firm, Hartlepool made the play-offs three seasons running, the first an agonising defeat to bitter rivals Darlington. In 2002, after a 1-1 first leg in front of 7,000 at Victoria Park, Hartlepool succumbed to Cheltenham on penalties, the fatal miss by a tearful Ritchie Humphreys twice hitting the woodwork.

An ever-present the following season, the winger set up several goals for top scorer Eifion Williams as Pools at last claimed automatic promotion in 2003. With Williams still hitting the net, in 2004, United equalled their highest-ever league finish but fell to two late goals in a brutal play-off second leg at Bristol City. A year later, having matched their 2004 placing, Hartlepool took Tranmere to the wire in a knife-edge play-off semi-final. The aggregate 2-2, the 12th and decisive spot-kick was taken by Ritchie Humphreys – and converted.

Victoria Park/Tony Dawber

There was more drama in Cardiff, in front of 60,000 people. Humphreys having set up a dream play-off final with his old club Sheffield Wednesday, Hartlepool gave as good as they got. After Eifion Williams levelled the score at 1-1, Pools substitute Jon Daly scored with his very first touch. Eight minutes from a first-ever Championship spot, Hartlepool’s Chris Westwood brought down Wednesday’s Drew Talbot in the fatal rectangle. Red card, penalty, 2-2. The Owls soon went ahead in extra-time against ten-man Hartlepool then added the coup de grâce on 120 minutes.

At Victoria Park until 2013, Humphreys would make a record number of appearances for Pools, despite a brief rocky ride under manager Danny Wilson. The club’s form was equally erratic as increasingly unpopular owner Hodcroft changed coaching staff at will.

By December 2014, Pools were adrift again at the bottom of The 92, staring automatic relegation in the face. The same day that Hodcroft was reported as selling Hartlepool, they hired salvage expert Ronnie Moore, a manager well versed in relegation battles. Keeping faith with tradition with League status in the balance, fans in fancy dress for the last away game of the season in 2014-15 trekked to Carlisle to see Pools pull back a 0-3 deficit to claim a 3-3 draw.

Victoria Park/Tony Dawber

Under the ownership of Dubai-based JPNG, Moore’s replacement, former Middlesbrough star Craig Hignett, kept Pools afloat in 2016. Echoing 2015, a recovery in the last game of the 2016-17 season to beat Doncaster 2-1 at home seemed to have saved Pools again, but an 89th-minute winner elsewhere for Newport ended United’s 96-year stay in the Football League.

Almost sinking back down to the sixth tier in the first two campaigns in the National League, the club was perilously close to disappearing entirely when fans rallied round to raise funds, former Darlington chairman Raj Singh stepping in to take over as owner in 2018.

A slow recovery culminated in a play-off place in 2021. Three goals in eight minutes by the successful strike partnership of Rhys Oates and Luke Armstrong first saw off Bromley at Victoria Park before a long shot from Oates settled the play-off semi-final at Stockport. 

For the final against Torquay at Ashton Gate, an Armstrong opener looked to have sent Pools into the Football League before goalkeeper Lucas Covolan chased the length of the pitch in the dying seconds to head in a Torquay equaliser. The former Brazilian U-20 international then saved Hartlepool’s first two penalties in the shoot-out before young Durham-born newcomer Brad James parried Torquay’s substitute Matt Buse’s spot kick onto the crossbar to earn a memorable win for the Monkey Hangers.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Modernised with two new stands under the ownership of Harold Hornsey in the 1990s, Victoria Park still has as traditional look about it, its near 8,000 capacity almost equally divided between seats and standing areas.

One of these newer stands is the covered Brunel Group (aka Town End) Stand for home supporters – the other is the all-seated Longbranch Homes Cyril Knowles Stand along one sideline, the club offices behind. Away fans are also seated, in the Rink End, aka Simpson Millar Stand. 

On the other sideline, the Teesside Airport Neale Cooper Stand dates back to 1968, mainly roofed seating with a narrow paddock of open terracing in front. Before sponsorship, it was first named after the most popular manager at Pools in recent times, who played alongside Gordon Strachan when Aberdeen won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

The ground is an easy walk from Hartlepool station. Head straight up the approach road from the station building, turn right into Church Street, follow it and keep on the right-hand side of the church as it forks. Veer right into Clarence Road and you’ll see the floodlights ahead. Allow 10mins.

The sat nav code for Victoria Park is TS24 8BZ. A limited number of spaces (£5) is available at the stadium car park – book on 01429 272 584, option 9. Alternatively, across the car park on Rium Terrace, the Millhouse Sleep Inn (TS24 8AP) offers more match-day parking, at £3, again on a first come, first served basis. Close by, the Mill House centre on Raby Road (TS24 8AR) has pay-and-display parking (£2/3hrs, free after 6pm & Sun). 

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Tickets are sold within the Pools Retail Store on Clarence Road during the week, (Tue, Thur & Fri 10am-4pm). On match days (10am-kick-off), the main ticket office behind the Cyril Knowles Stand sells to home fans by cash or card, and away supporters by card.

A cash-only match-day ticket office, open 2hrs before kick-off, operates on the Millhouse/car park side of the ground.

There are also online sales. For enquiries, contact tickets@hartlepoolunited.co.uk.

There’s simple pricing system of £20, £14 for over-65s and under-19s, £5 for under-16s, with a £1 levy added on match days.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The Pools Retail Store on Clarence Road (Tue, Thur & Fri 10am-4pm, match days 10am-kick-off) also doubles up as a ticket office during the week. First-team shirts of blue-and-white stripes, second choice red-and-black stripes and a range of smart leisurewear are stocked. 

Look out for Vintage Pools T-shirts showing various club badges down the decades, plus any number of tops carrying the apt message, ‘Never Say Die’. Harts, male deer, are the preferred choice of logo on beer glasses and other accessories, rather than unfortunate monkeys.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

If you’re arriving by train, real-ale haunt the Rat Race in the Hartlepool station building offers half-a-dozen well chosen ales, usually rotated, complemented by a few Belgian beers by the bottle. It opens until 9pm on Saturdays but closes Sundays and Mondays. No draught lager, though.

Near the station, tucked in off the roundabout on Church Street, The Ward Jackson is a convenient Wetherspoon named after the force behind the development of West Hartlepool, whose statue stands outside.

At the ground, the Mill House has long been a Pools favourite, with cask ales and live sport, directly across the stadium car park on Rium Terrace. It’s also a lodging, with short- and long-stay options, plus offers match-day parking (£3).

Home and visiting supporters are welcome at the Corner Flag by the far end of the away section, run by the Hartlepool Supporters’ Club. Framed archive photos of Victoria Park in action decorate a basic but adequate bar, TV football a plus. At the opposite corner of the same end, the Centenary Bar also serves both sets of fans.

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