Of ships and struggles

From the terraces at Victoria Park there’s a view of HMS Trincomalee, a Napoleonic-era frigate reputed to be the oldest British warship still afloat. Built in Bombay, she was commissioned too late to have had anything to do with the legendary monkey washed ashore in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars and hanged as a French spy. Instead, she had a naval career quelling riots in Haiti and thwarting a potential invasion of Cuba. Compared with the struggles of Hartlepool United, that may have been something of a Caribbean cruise.

victoria park 2
Victoria Park, Hartlepool Utd.

Founder members of Division 3 (N), Pools spent most of their life in the basement of the Football League. A record-breaking 14 applications for re-election over 60 years tell their own story. A team that has latterly revelled in the misfortunes of the military monkey enjoyed several stays of execution before the trapdoor into non-league football finally opened in 2016-17. A century earlier, 1916 brought a bombshell of its own, courtesy of a German Zeppelin. Seeking to bomb the docks, it narrowly missed and destroyed the main stand. After the war, the football club sought reparations from the Germans (finding common cause with the French, a century after that bit of monkey business). The Treaty of Versailles, oddly, overlooked Pools’ claims; a ‘temporary’ wooden stand remained in place until the Valley Parade fire, then the Cyril Knowles Stand supplied something more concrete in 1995.

knowles stand
The Cyril Knowles Stand at Victoria Park, Hartlepool Utd.

The talk was of Pools as a club on the up. A first season in non-league football had been fraught. On the pitch, the team flirted with a second relegation before the arrival of Matthew Bates as manager brought an upturn in fortunes. In the boardroom, the familiar spectre of administration again haunted the club until Raj Singh, previously owner of Darlington, stepped in to keep the club afloat. Given Singh was previously at a bitter rival at the time of Darlo’s eventual collapse and re-establishment four leagues lower, that too may seem like a mixed blessing of a salvation.

Fan banners at Victoria Park, Hartlepool Utd.

So far, though, Singh’s Hartlepool has maintained an even keel. The visit of Aldershot Town – another former Football League outfit with a chequered history – saw Pools in a play-off place. Crowds were good, regularly clearing the 3,000 mark and comparable with several teams in League 2. The claim that Hartlepool were a big club in the National League felt sustainable; the hope that league status would soon return was alive.

Inevitably, then, the game was a stinker. Aldershot had lost all their away games so far and began cautiously. Hartlepool looked docile in response. Midway through the first half, the mutterings from the Mill House terrace were not complimentary. Winning a few solid 50-50s early on won approval from the home crowd, but there was little else to excite anyone. By the time ‘midway’ became ‘late in the first half’, 10 minutes had crawled by like half-an-hour. Then, out of keeping, came a moment of quality as Niko Muir lobbed the Aldershot keeper from the edge of the box.

It didn’t really raise the game. Aldershot, realising there wasn’t much to fear, improved in the second half and got a well-worked equalizer from Matt McClure. A double substitution from the hosts baffled many: the removal of popular, albeit today somewhat anonymous, midfielder Michael Woods for Paddy McLoughlin was likened to ‘taking off Jesus and bringing on Moses’ in an odd bit of hyperbole.

The closing stages saw the sprinklers randomly switch on with 10 minutes left. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!’ chorused the away fans as play continued at the other end. Nobody really deserved a winner, although the Shots came closest when Jake Gallagher’s overhead kick that bounced down off the crossbar, Geoff Hurst style, but was lacking a Tofiq Bakhramov to rule it a goal. The Shots still celebrated – an away point, a monkey off the back. The home support, phlegmatic to the last, drifted away for pints and post mortems.

Game details

Victoria Park, Hartlepool, England

Sep. 29, 2018. National League

Hartlepool United 1 (Muir) Aldershot Town 1 (McClure)

Att: 3,251


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