FootballOpinion

Legacy Issues – How Hartlepool United Made it to the Brink

News emerging over recent weeks have revealed that Hartlepool United have some major financial issues to overcome in the next few weeks. Ian King of TwoHundredPercent.net has a good summary of Hartlepool United’s situation. As a fan I’ve a few more things to add.

First of all, a bit of recent history. Going back years Pools were owned by IOR, an Aberdeen-based oil company who subsidised the club’s finances. The spending was never anywhere near as much as al Fayed at Fulham or Whelan at Wigan, who were in the lower leagues around the same time, but enough to help compete with Cardiff, Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol City etc.

IOR’s motives seemed to use Pools as corporate entertainment (showcasing their business skill in the process) and as a tax write-off (Pools made losses of around £1m a season under their leadership despite going up and down divisions, which seems too steady to be coincedental.) The impression grew over time that IOR had gotten bored of Pools, and were happy for us to tread water. There was disaffection with them long before they sold the club.

A deal was initially struck for the club to be sold to Stephen Murrall and Peter Harris (known as The Monkey Hangers 2014 – a business set up for the purpose of buying the club). Gate money was transferred into their accounts during the transitional period before the formal takeover, which led to the deal collapsing. In financial terms this is classed as ‘self-dealing’, and was one of the reasons that they were later jailed.

Victoria Park by Peter Robinson, Geograph
Victoria Park, home of Hartlepool United / Peter Robinson, Geograph

This was a rough few months for Pools – Colin Cooper was sacked early in the season by IOR, his replacement Paul Murray was sacked after a few games, culminating in a cup defeat to Blyth. Rumours at the time stated that Murrall and Harris had a hand in the choice of Ronnie Moore as manager.

 

This was the year of the ‘great escape’ when Pools came back from 10 points adrift to survive in the Football League. All in all there was a feelgood atmosphere at the club, typified by the iconic image (to Poolies) of Ronnie Moore in a reggae wig.

When JPNG and Gary Coxall took over that year, there was a sense of optimism for the future. It was a rare case of all three parties – old owners, new owners, fans – all being friendly to each other as the club changed hands.

Coxall always seemed ambitious. For example, in December 2015 Pools announced a ‘partnership’ with FC Lahti, who finished 5th in the Finnish top flight that season. The implication seemed to be that Pools would be able to loan players during the winter break…but nothing more came of the link.

During the 16-17 season the HMRC issued winding up orders for unpaid tax bills on three separate occasions. Obviously not good. Then manager Craig Hignett left Pools by ‘mutual consent’ in January 2017, and has implied since that the players at least came close to not being paid on a couple of occasions.

Hignett made some good signings but the feeling was that Pools were treading water, in lower mid-table with a squad capable of pushing towards the playoffs. I was excited by Dave Jones’ appointment.

You may well have seen Jeff Stelling’s ‘rant’ against Dave Jones. Obviously the problems are bigger than Jones, but his record in charge was 3-4-10. Hignett’s was 6-9-11, and there was a sense of frustration at the inconsistency of Hignett’s Pools, whose points per game ratio was significantly better than Jones’.

Jones’ reign was never smooth. He started with six games without a win (after Sam Collins had won his sole game as caretaker), and seems to have been harsh on the players, to the extent of damaging team morale. For example, after a 4-0 win over Crewe (his first win in the 7th game), Jones said that he’d be just as happy with a 1-0 win. I can remember thinking at the time that this size of win would be a relief an that Jones was wrong to downplay the importance. But I had faith in Jones’ ability, that he knew better than me.

The Crewe win was the first of three wins in four. But this was followed by a run of 2 points from Jones’ last 7 games in charge, one of them to Leyton Orient, the team running away at the bottom of the league. Jones was probably on his way out before Stelling’s ‘rant’.

After he went, stories emerged of Jones’ unnecessarily antagonistic behaviour behind the scenes. The players seemed to hate him, with one player saying in (now deleted) tweets that “he was so arrogant/ignorant! looked down his nose at everyone at the club, including office staff!” Obviously the problems are bigger and broader than Dave Jones, but I’m certain that if Hignett had been kept on then Pools would still be in the Football League.

Coxall’s reputation has suffered among fans, but I always got the impression he was a decent, personable guy who meant well, just with ambitions beyond his ability. That’s not a total defence, but different to Harris and Murrall, who actively worked to defraud the club. Low standards maybe, but by the standards of dodgy football club owners…well, Coxall was bad, but in a lower class of bad to the likes of Garry Gibson and George Reynolds.

During his time in charge Coxall was active on Twitter, spoke more often to the local media than the usually silent Ken Hodcroft had been during IOR’s time in charge. He always struck me as down-to-earth and well-intentioned, the kind of bloke you’d want to spend time with…just not up to the job. In 2016 Gabriel Sutton of Football Lab interviewed Coxall, and I think that the interview gives a good impression of his qualities, positive and negative.

Hartlepool Pre Game Huddle by Yafa Phillips, Flickr, 2007-09-15.jpg
Team spirit’s needed. / Yaffa Philips, Flickr

Pam Duxbury took over as chairman when Coxall stepped down a week after sacking Jones, and has been ‘restructuring’ the club since then, but there’s been little detail of what this means. It wasn’t until December that fans were informed of the crisis scenario Pools find ourselves in. Maybe I’m being naive, but I also think Duxbury means well. (Sam Lee, former Pools reporter on the Mail and a Pools fan is their PR advisor, which is probably a good sign for their intentions.)

I do wonder how the club has manage to lose £2m in a year, and who’s responsible for it. And there’s been little communication from the club to the fans this week, which raises the possibility that things are worse than the fans are being told.

There seems to have been investment in the playing squad – one fan calculated that Pools have 27 full-time pros, an excessive amount for this level. During the peak of the IOR years Neale Cooper’s Hartlepool reached the League One playoffs (two divisions higher) with Matty Robson, Stephen Istead and David Foley as important squad members, I think while they were on youth contracts. Of the current youth-teamers/young pros Jack Blackford has been linked with Man City but hasn’t appeared for the first team this year, and Connor Simpson, who’s been linked with Preston and Wolves, has only made half a dozen appearances.

I’ve got complicated feelings about Craig Harrison. He came in with a strong reputation from Welsh football and I like some of what he’s had to say, but results haven’t been good, and his squad management hasn’t been good.
That’s a whole different story though.

I’m convinced this squad is good enough to reach the playoffs, so provided the majority is together at the end of January we’ll be capable of surviving relegation. But poor morale can have a major negative effect on results, which seems to be the case in recent weeks. (2 points from 7 games in the League, and a FA Trophy exit to Workington.)

The current situation is quite shambolic – in last week’s defeat to Dagenham, Hartlepool played in the away kit because the laundrette the club have an agreement with are holding the home kits hostage. Rumours suggest that they haven’t been paid for their services in two and a half years.

Over the past few months Duxbury has euphemistically referred to ‘legacy issues’ several times, which basically seems to mean Coxall not having the organisational skill to keep on top of the bills. Pools were disorganised enough to provoke the HMRC into issuing winding up orders three times in a year, and the two and a half years’ worth of laundry bills date back roughly to Coxall’s takeover. Hopefully there aren’t too many more of these ‘issues’, but we can’t be certain of that.

I don’t think the situation at Pools is the typical one at a crisis club – of selfish parasite owners leeching all they can. I think Duxbury and co are trying to stabilise a club that in financial terms are a toxic asset, and hand us off to new owners.

In this morning’s Northern Echo Scott Harrison, in and out of the team at centre back, is being linked with a move up a division to Carlisle. Star striker Jonathan Franks is being linked with a move down a division to York, which gives a rough idea of the chaos Pools are currently in.

I’m confident that Hartlepool will survive. But on-field and off-field problems impact on each other, and there’s a real possibility that a loss of players and points deduction could see us fall into the relegation zone.
It’s time to fight – never say die.

Hartlepool United fans are raising money to potentially put towards paying the club’s debts. If you want to spare a few quid, you can do so at the crowdfunding page here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/savehartlepoolunitedfootballclub

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