Shildon and Arsenal are my first and second teams. The third team, though on no account to be confused with the Stiffs, is Hartlepool United.
It goes back to school magazine days when, having been turned down by several biggish North-East names for a piece on the life of a professional football, I turned to Pools’ Welsh-under 23 goalkeeper Ken Simpkins – who also played several times as centre forward – and who agreed at once.
Ken’s still in the the town and will be 75 later this month. I was a Poolie.
Tonight they’re at home in the Durham Challenge Cup to Ryton and Crawcrook Albion from the Ebac Northern League second division, interest barely helped by the fact that neither Hartlepool’s daily or weekly paper includes the fixture and it’s not even on the club website until teatime.
The Corner Flag, the supporters’ association bar outside the ground, hasn’t a single customer. At the home fans turnstile – the vistors’ gate inexplicably being closed – I follow in a Fulham scout who’s arranged a freebie. Cheapskate, he’s probably there to watch someone from Ryton.
These days the Victoria Park ground answers to the Super 6 Stadium, though that seems a bit optimistic. Two or three would be a marked improvement.
The executive boxes are shut, the Drunken Monkey bar and the Cheeky Money kids’ counter are shut, the Maidens Suite unoccupied – though it would be improper, of course, to speculate upon the reasons for last of those.
Pools again have their problems, not least that a game lasts 90 minutes. “If it was only 80 we’d be about fifth in the league and still in the Cup,” someone says.
They’re also looking for a new manager, the locals quite fancying a nostalgic return by Neil Warnock, who played for Hartlepool in the early 1970s and was 70 last Saturday. “The only problem,” they concedee, “is that he hasn’t yet been sacked by Cardiff.”
The crowd’s put at 55, though even fewer may have paid. Some of the travellers had been among the 8,000 at Sunderland’s Checkatrade tie last night, miffed that there was neither programme nor team sheet.
Hartlepool give out team sheets at the gate. In both divisions of the Ebac Northern League, FA rules decree fines for clubs who fail to produce a programme.
Ryton give a good account of themselves, defend well, equalise amid considerable excitement but finally lose 3-1 – Pool’s goals scored by trialists from Burton Albion, Stoke City and the Boro.
It’s a shame: old loyalties notwithstanding, I always want the Northern League team to win.