Hartlepool United: Hanging By A Thread
Hartlepool United is a football club that is used to being the butt of other people’s jokes. From the unwanted record of the most appearances in the Football League’s re-election places without ever being voted out – fourteen, to be precise – to likely apocryphal stories about hanging monkeys, for many years this club became known as possibly the quintessential struggling Football League club, living a hand to mouth existence and fighting for the mere right to exist. At the end of last season, however, the wheels finally came off the wagon. Even a win on the last day of the season against Doncaster Rovers wasn’t enough to save the club from falling through the trapdoor. A late winning goal for Newport County was enough to send Hartlepool tumbling into the National League, a non-league club again after ninety-six years in the Football League.
Towards the end of last season, viewers of Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday were treated to the sight of Jeff Stelling, the club’s best known supporter by some considerable distance, launching into a rant against manager Dave Jones. Jones was Pools’ third manager of the season, following the departure of Craig Hignett from the club in January 2017 and a short spell in charge for caretaker Sam Collins, so whether it was appropriate to pin the blame for the club’s condition entirely on someone who was in charge of the club for three months was arguably questionable, but that didn’t stop from Stelling from trying. “Dave Jones, for the good of the club, just go now”, he implored, and two days later the former Southampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Cardiff City and Sheffield Wednesday manager was gone, not that it did the club much good. Hartlepool lost their next match by a goal to nil at Cheltenham Town, a result which left them dependent on the benevolence of others on the last day of the season. And we all now know how that played out.
Dave Jones, however, wasn’t the only casualty of Pools’ relegation from the Football League. Three days before the last game of the season, chairman Gary Coxall “resigned “for the good of the club.” Coxall had arrived at Victoria Park two years earlier as the de facto public face of JPNG, the curiously anonymous recruitment company that had just bought the club. They’d purchased Hartlepool United from Increased Oil Recovery (IOR), its previous owners, a change of ownership that might have felt like a welcome breath of fresh air at the time. Not only had IOR been largely silent for the for most of their eighteen years running the club, but a year earlier another attempted buyout ended in chaos. TMH (The Monkey Hangers) 2014 was headed by Peter Harris, with former Swindon Town general manager Stephen Murrall as a director, and agreement was reached shortly before Christmas 2014 for them to by the club. However, the new would-be owners required proof of funds to satisfy the Football League that they were fit and proper persons to buy the club, and that they had access to a further £200,000. When these were not forthcoming the deal fell through, and in September Harris and Murrall found themselves in court facing charges of fraud relating to the attempted takeover, with prosecutor Miranda Moore describing the pair thus:
Murrall is a gambler in the true sense, spending tens of thousands of pounds, if not hundreds of thousands, betting online and losing online.’ “He’s organised several fraudulent schemes in an attempt to obtain money. Sometimes he succeeded, and sometimes he didn’t. Mr Harris is a friend of Mr Murrall, and is a builder by trade, with no real experience of finance or running a company of any note. He’s the clean name on company documents, put forward as the figurehead of the companies by Mr Murrall.
At the end of January 2015, upon apparent takeover of the company, the club’s finance officer was instructed to pay all monies from gate receipts into a TMH bank account. However, when the Football League blocked the takeover that money had to be repaid, so Harris and Murrall persuaded ESRG Group, a financial services company, that they had agreed a contract for a large-scale clean energy contract in Malta and would be good for a £500,000 loan to, amongst other things, repay the club the money diverted to their bank account. When Murrall was declared bankrupt in 2015, however, it came to light that this money – which was paid in stages – had been lent on the basis of forged documents, including bank statements and even a letter from the accountancy company Ernst & Young. They were convicted in October.
We can only speculate as to what might have happened to Hartlepool United had Harris and Murrall actually got their hands on the club. Things may have been even worse than they turned out to be under Coxall and JPNG. However, supporters still looked on unhappily as promises continued to be broken. There was no budget for new signings. A new kit deal failed to materialise. Three winding up orders had to be batted away in just six months. And relegation from the Football League, something that generations of people had spent decades fighting to avoid, occurred after just two seasons of the new ownership. The significance of this shouldn’t be understated. For clubs living at the sharp end of the game, such longevity is a source of considerable pride. The waters may have been muddied over the last three decades of automatic promotion and relegation from the Football League and the growth in stature of the National League over that time, but maintaining a Football League place had become something of a point of principle for Hartlepool United. To lose it was significant, both in practical and sentimental terms.
The new owners, HUFC Holdings Ltd, were fronted by Pam Duxbury, who is acting as the club’s chairperson with John Blackledge of Sage Investments as the club’s owner, but Hartlepool supporters have found, as supporters of other clubs relegated into the National League have in recent years, that this division is considerably more difficult to get out of in upwardly direction than it is to tumble into in the first place. On the pitch, the team sits uncomfortably close to the National League relegation places and is without a win since beating Halifax Town on the twenty-first of November. Off the pitch, meanwhile, things might actually be even worse. Debts have been suggested to be pushing towards £2m, and a recent trip to Dagenham & Redbridge saw the team have to take a train to and from London to get to the match and back as well as having to borrow training kit and equipment for some of their players after a launderette held onto the club’s kits after it failed to pay its outstanding bill to them.
Last month, Hartlepool United were put up for sale again. With Blackledge unwilling to put any more money into a club that seems to be haemorrhaging it from every orifice at the moment, Hartlepool United needs between £125,000 and £150,000 to cover wages and running costs to the end of January. The last wage bill was paid on time, but there are no guarantees of whether the next one will be and staff have already been briefed about the impact of the financial situation ahead of the end of this month. But who will invest in Hartlepool United? The club’s financial position is precarious enough for the likelihood to be that financial investment will have to be spent on clearing debts and keeping it afloat, and there are absolutely no guarantees that the club won’t tumble further, into the National League North, at the time of writing. It has been confirmed that six potential investors and consortia signed non-disclosure agreements with the club last week, but these agreements can, with due diligence and FA Owners & Directors Tests, take weeks or months to complete and the club is next due to pay its wages on the twenty-fifth of January. Time is not on anybody’s side in this particular case.
If there is any cause for optimism at Victoria Park at the moment, this most likely comes from the supporters themselves. The Hartlepool United Supporters Trust was only formed in 2015, but it already has more than 800 members and, even though Coxall’s comments at the time of his departure that the future of the club being “a fan-ownership model” have failed to come to fruition, and it is steadily growing in influence and may well come to have a significant say in the future direction that the club takes. But the limitations of the Trust demonstrate the limitations of the position in which the club finds itself overall. Hartlepool United needs cold, hard cash in order to keep the players and staff paid, to keep HMRC happy, and to keep the club ticking over as a business. On top of this, is pretty much agreed that the current batch of players that the club needs an overhaul, and new players don’t come cheap. The club will have to pedal furiously just to remain still, but with the alternative being to join the likes of Stockport County and York City in dropping still further it might well be argued that the most valuable skill that anybody coming into the club could have – apart from a fat wallet – would be accomplishment as a plate-spinner.
In the event that the club was to collapse into administration, there is a possibility that the Trust could enter the frame in a more meaningful sense, but a points deduction might well seal relegation from the National League. The Trust is aware of the restrictions facing his organisation, with chair Ron Harnish having recently explained to BBC Tees that “In all honesty, when we were a debt-free league club – we couldn’t get investors then. Now we’re a non-league club with a debt, do you honestly think people are going to rush in?” And the question of how the club has found itself leaking this sort of money is one that doesn’t exclude those currently running the club either. As one supporter on the supporters’ Poolie Bunker forum asked earlier this week:
Anyone can “claim” to be losing a million pounds a year if they don’t have to produce forensic accounts. Funny how these fans run clubs like Newport, Exeter, Wimbledon, Wycombe, etc that DO have to disclose their accounts always manage to break even on the same gates as us but have ten times better teams. How does that work out then ?
Pools have sold Laurent, Thomas, Walker, Toto, Allessandra, Amond, Carson in the last 12 months, had a parachute payment, plus 2600 season ticket holders, and a big money end of season televised game, but have gone bust ? When the woman running the show boasts she is an expert at restructuring businesses ? Yeah of course they have. If you believe this lot have lost £2 million in a year you will believe anything.
So distrust is in the air in Hartlepool, and it’s likely that only a complete break with the past, completely new ownership and a thorough restructuring will make that go away. Sage may well be seeking a return on their investment – or at least for the money that they have put into the club to be returned – but the truth of the matter is that, with no appreciable assets of note (the council owns Victoria Park) and money already having run out, the realistic prospect of any of that happening would appear to be very slim indeed. Perhaps there will be a benevolent soul out there who has been watching Jeff Stelling every weekend and who believes that he or she can rescue the club from its current plight. Perhaps there will be a group of local businessmen who decide that it is their civic duty to restore Hartlepool United to full health. The biggest fear of the club’s supporters, however, is that perhaps neither of these scenarios are plausible and that the only calibre of interest that the club could realistically hope to attract is that which it has seen rather too much of over the last couple of years. After fighting to stay in the Football League for ninety-six years, it’s currently looking likely that Hartlepool United’s next fight will be just to remain in existence.