To the Ends of the Earth
An away game at Hartlepool certainly sorts the wheat from the chaff. A 500 mile + round trip which, if you stick to the speed limits, will see at least ten hours spent on the road. It`s as unglamourous as it gets complete with a bitter North Sea breeze, a whopping £25 ticket price and a Wanderers victory about as likely as a story about the locals hanging a monkey.
Dammit, I mentioned it. Everyone mentions it when talking about Hartlepool. Like those bygone days back at school this article would come back with "could do better" scrawled at the bottom. Now I`ve mentioned it I`d better just get it out of the way. During the Napoleonic Wars the great denizens of the town were said to have executed a monkey, having mistaken it for a Frenchman. I bet the guy who started that story is still chuckling away in his grave now.
The name Hartlepool is named after the Old English name for a stag or deer ('Hart`) and by the sea ('Le Pool`). It was settled by Anglians before a village was founded around Hartlepool Abbey which was destroyed when the Vikings attacked in the late 8th century. It had grown into a small market town by the Middle Ages and its` main trade was unsurprisingly fishing, with one of the major UK ports on the North Sea.
The Scots sacked the town in 1315 during the times of Edward I and Robert the Bruce. In the late 15th century a pier was built as were defences to guard against possible French Invasion in the last 18th century and during the Crimean War in the 1850`s. Around the same time a railway was opened which connected West Hartlepool with Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool which gave the whole area a huge boost.
It became heavily industrialised with ironworks and shipyards and became a target for the Germans during the Great War. One of the first offensives against Britain was a raid on the town in December 1914. It suffered severely from the Great Depression in the thirties but recovered during the Second World War. The Hartlepool steelworks closed in 1977 and unemployment rose to more than 30% under Thatcher in the eighties.
The modern town has seen 'Old Hartlepool' join together with West Hartlepool and a new marina, regeneration of the Historic Quay and the construction of new housing has revitalised the town. Boxer Jack London was born in West Hartlepool, Wayne Sleep began dancing lessons in Hartlepool and cartoon character Andy Capp is also from the town. John Darwin became famous for paddling out to sea on a canoe in a failed insurance scam which involved faking his own death!
Hartlepools United were formed in 1908 as a professional club when the opportunity came to purchase the Victoria Ground after West Hartlepool Rugby Club had gone bust. The town was still basking in the glory of amateur club West Hartlepool F.C. winning the F.A. Amateur Cup in 1905. The new club started in the North Eastern League and soon attracted players from their amateur forebears. West Hartlepool were unable to compete and were disbanded in 1910.
After failed election attempts to join the Football League they became founder members of the Third Division North in 1921. Since then they have spent the whole time in the bottom two divisions with their best finish matching our own. They finished in sixth place in the third tier in 2005 and reached the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium but were beaten 4-2 by Sheffield Wednesday after extra time.
They finally got shot of the unnecessary "s" from their name in 1968 but also dropped the "United" at the same time. It was restored eleven years later. The club have introduced an overwhelmingly successful season ticket scheme this season which has resulted in over 5,000 being sold at £150 a pop. Whilst we doff our caps at this excellent idea, lumping up the prices for those who rock up the day is a poor show.
Given the distance between the two clubs it`s hardly surprising that just five players have played for both. Those illustrious men are Frank Talia, Chris Westwood, Mark Cooper, Kevin Betsy and Jermaine Easter. Famous fans include Iron Maiden guitarist Yanick Gers, the Prince of Darkness himself Peter Mandelson and Countdown presenter Jeff Stelling.
We have played at Victoria Park on just three previous occasions and are yet to win. We have drawn twice and lost once. The first visit came in October 2003 following the sacking of Lawrie Sanchez. John Gorman was in caretaker charge and the 183 loyalists / loners / lunatics (delete as appropriate) who made the trip were rewarded with an encouraging performance from the team.
The travelling fans certainly deserved better than the patronising comments from Chairman Ivor Beeks who claimed they should all be given medals. The players also deserved better than the single point they earned with a 1-1 draw. Playmaker / midfielder / showpony (delete as appropriate) Darren Currie fired a low shot into the bottom corner to give 'the reds' the lead after just three minutes.
The Wanderers were then guilty of some real profligacy. Defender Guy Branston was denied by Pools goalkeeper Jim Provett and reacted quickly to keep out Gavin Holligan`s effort from the rebound. At the other end Frank Talia tipped John Brackstone`s 25-yard strike over the bar. Jermaine McSporran could have had a hat-trick but his first attempt was a tame effort straight at Provett.
Michael Barron levelled for the hosts six minutes before the break with his shot finding the net via the upright. Dannie Bulman then had a shot blocked inside the six-yard box just before the half-time whistle blew. The home side started the second half strongly and Steve Brown had to clear Chris Westwood`s header off his own goal-line.
McSporran then wasted a one-on-one with Provett and the keeper again did well to save Holligan`s volley from the rebound. The visitors continued to search for a winner with Currie firing inches wide and then having an effort blocked on the line before McSporran was again denied by Provett in a one-on-one situation. Afterwards Gorman said: "Och, we were so unlucky!"
The last visit came just over two years ago in September 2009. In the dog days of Peter Taylor`s reign, the Wanderers recorded their first point on the road as they struggled to adjust to life in League One. Despite a defence that included TJ Moncur, Luke Oliver and Michael Duberry the visitors looked on course for victory after striker Stuart Beavon had thumped a 25-yard daisy-cutter into the net via the foot of the post just after the break.
Sadly for the 111 Chairboys at Victoria Park the hosts rescued a point with 13 minutes remaining. Some lackadaisical defending from Neil Austin`s free-kick allowed the ball to reach substitute Adam Boyd and he fired past goalkeeper Scott Shearer and the sides had to settle for a share of the spoils.
The meeting in-between was played back in November 2006 and in my previous life I was amongst the 155 Chairboys fans who travelled to Hartlepool to watch the game. It was an eventful day and so I wrote a match report for Stack My Beech Up. Here it is reprinted in all its` …ahem…glory for your reading pleasure. Never let it be said that I am not happy to labour the argument that football supporters are mad.
In a Mad World, Only the Mad are Sane
"Benny" goes to Hartlepool
Having been woken up at 6am, I would be lying if I said I hadn't questioned my sanity, even though the impending visit to Hartlepool was 'just' a detour on my way home. An hour later as I climbed aboard the OWWSA 'fun-bus' a fellow 'nutter' suggested that we were all mad. He must have foreseen the forthcoming 'performance' the team was to put in at Victoria Park. Wycombe Wanderers do seem to attract rather unique individuals as supporters and they really do encompass the full gamut of mankind.
I met a rather unique fellow who failed to conform to the erstwhile 'drone' stereotype. It wouldn't be too unkind to suggest that he wasn't overloaded with brain cells but he was talkative and friendly. I wasn't paying particularly close attention but I think I (over)heard that he was a 'tree-hugger' and he spent the last hour or so of the journey reading a copy of gay times.
I may accuse OWWSA of being a 'glorified travel club' but they are a very good travel club and we arrived in Hartlepool in plenty of time and soon the surreal factor of the day was pushed up several notches. A somewhat bizarrely dressed woman in a Wycombe shirt walked towards the away end. As 'she' got closer it becomes apparent that 'she' was in fact a 'he.' The number of bemused looks, second, third and fourth takes rose considerably as more people arrived at the ground. I had never seen him before at a Wycombe game, and frankly, once you have seen him, you're unlikely to ever forget him.
A quick trawl through google provides some enlightenment, as a couple of Brentford fans explain...
"Expect to see a middle-aged man called Lawrence prancing up and down the away end in woman`s clothes."
"The locals are normally very friendly, and are capped by Lawrence, Hartlepool's very own transvestite. Apparently he has made himself a figure of ridicule in the town, he is banned from most of the shops and has vowed revenge by supporting whoever Hartlepool are playing on the day."
I know that those of you who weren't there or who didn't see / hear him will still be somewhat skeptical but a quick google search will enlighten you.
The Wycombe Wanderers team coach arrived and Lawrence headed straight for the door and proceeded to offer to shake the hands of everyone who came off. Paul Lambert, clearly bemused, refused but to the credit of the rest of the players, they all shook his hand, with subsequent facial expressions ranging from incredulity to amusement. They probably thought they'd seen it all where Wycombe fans were concerned.
Kevin Betsy may have had prior knowledge of our 'special' fan for the day, as his face wore a knowing smile. Lawrence had even gone to the trouble of embellishing his Wycombe shirt with Betsy's name and number (even the insane can see that Kevin Betsy is an absolute genius.)
The turnstiles were finally opened at 2pm and I needed some sustenance and ordered a hot dog. I was handed something that looked suspiciously like a horses willy. It seemed inconceivable that they manufactured sausages this long. I sunk my teeth into it with trepidation, but it tasted rather splendid and proceeded to munch the rest down without any further concern.
I ventured into the away end and chose my seat which happened to be in fairly close proximity to Lawrence, who spent much of his time singing and dancing. As well as shouting 'Come on you Swans' he also indulged in a rather unique repertoire of ditties which started with 'The Beer Barrel Polka' by Brown-Tim-Vejvoda ('Roll out the barrel, we`ll have a barrel of fun. Roll out the barrel, we've got the blues on the run.') - Oh the irony of that last line. This was followed by Doris Day's Que Sera Sera sang right from the beginning ('When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, what will I be, will I be pretty, will I be rich, here's what she said to me...')
Next came 'Crazy' by Willie Nelson ('I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue.') - Another frighteningly accurate assessment for the afternoon / whole day. Lastly he regaled us with 'Swanee' by Al Jolson ('Swan-ee, how I love ya, how I love ya, My dear old Swanee. I'd give the world...to...be...')
Speaking to a few Hartlepool fans / stewards resulted in conflicting stories / urban myths about Lawrence but one suggested that Lawrence's current mental state was a result of the loss of his mother. If true the lyrics of the last song (above) are more than a little ironic, incredibly sad and not a little tragic.
Nevertheless I have never sat through a more bizarre afternoon's football in my life. And we were rather grateful for the entertainment provided by Lawrence because the performance from Wycombe Wanderers was lamentable. Not one player even managed to scale the heights of 'average.' Given the performances of this season to date, the disappointment factor was quite significant, especially when taking the commitments taken just to be there.
The summation from this opposing supporter is rather accurate. "Well that was outstanding. We never gave them a second of space and the players busted their guts today. Nice to see some crunching tackles going in too. For once we didn't look like 'nice' Hartlepool." Sadly we were very much the polar opposite. Yes, there was a rather unpleasant swirling wind but t'was the same for both sides.
Further comments from other Hartlepool supporters have varying degrees of accuracy (from my viewpoint of course) which goes to show that it's all about opinions...
"Wycombe were another 2nd division side trying to kick their way out this league - aided and abetted by the poor standard of referring we're having to put up with. Their no. 5 didn't win one ball fairly but got away with it all match - Easter pushed his way onto a ball."
"Wycombe 5/10 : horrible cynical coonts. Their dead balls were exemplary, but other than that a bunch of whining prima donnas who were well beaten by the end."
"I thought wycombe passed the ball about better than we did."
I left with about five minutes remaining to catch the first of my three trains home, where upon I bumped into a Wycombe supporter and his son who had also got up at 6am in the morning to fly up to Newcastle and was making his way back. Perhaps Lawrence is the sane one and we're all bonkers?
Upon arriving at Hartlepool we were informed that there had been a fatality on the line and that we wouldn't be going anywhere fast. I pondered that perhaps it was a Wycombe fan who had found our performance too much to bear (who says I take football too seriously?). After being squashed onto a coach, which I persevered with for all of five minutes, I ventured back into the station and onto the stationery train, which was to travel in the opposite direction (South).
Extraordinarily the inspector (who if he hadn't been so tall would have been a dead ringer for Celtic's Thomas Gravesen) was extremely helpful and arranged for a personal journey on what became a private train back to Newcastle and a taxi at my connecting station which then dropped me off on my doorstep. During the four hour plus journey no-one asked me for my ticket, which was rather fortunate as in all the kerfuffle I had forgotten to purchase one.
My taxi driver was a Newcastle fan and during the journey we discussed football. He suggested that perhaps our players are pre-occupied with the League Cup Quarter-Final. If so, Paul Lambert wants to make sure he nips such an attitude in the bud now before automatic promotion becomes unlikely. When I arrived home I unlocked my front door to discover that I had run out of credit on my electricity meter and my home was in darkness.
I'm off to buy a dress.
"All that`s left are memories"