Confident Keith Houchen predicted go-ahead Hartlepool United would be “battling to be the fast lane” as the 1996/7 season loomed.
Indeed, the player-boss declared his intention to chase for honours with “stylish football” and claimed a top seven place awaited.
“The lads are flying at the moment,” he said. “I have a very good vibes about the season and I think it is going to be very exciting.
“Last season we had to play percentage football, and we did not pass the ball as much as we have wanted.
“But we have better quality in the squad this year and, with the same commitment, there is nothing to stop us giving it a go.”
Pools kicked off their pre-season friendlies with a battling performance at Northern League Hebburn on July 23, 1996.
But, despite a strong squad featuring Mick Tait, Brian Honour, Ian Gallagher and Chris Homer, the team managed just a 1-1 draw.
Triallists Chris McDonald (ex-Stoke City) and Gary Pearson (ex-Sheffield Wednesday) both played in the game – and impressed the boss.
“I felt they did well,” said Houchen. “It is still very early pre-season, and Hebburn provided some good opposition.”
A second friendly that week, on July 24, brought Pools a 2-0 victory over North Shields Athletic - much to the approval of coach Brian Honour.
“They did well, because we had about five lads in the team who are only 16. It was good experience for them.”
A pre-season Scottish tour followed the Shields game, when all five summer signings were fielded in the first match – against Stenhousemuir.
Stephen Pears, David Clegg, Glen Davies, Mark Cooper and Chris Beech were all in a Pools shirt for the first time as the sides drew 1-1.
“We scored a good goal, and we conceded a bad goal, so there are things to learn from,” Houchen told the Mail afterwards.
“It was the first time we had played together as a team and we have done a lot of hard work. Stenhousemuir were good opposition – just what we were after.”
Sadly, the 1996/7 season did not go the way Houchen had hoped – despite starting the campaign with wins over Colchester United and Fulham.
Indeed, Houchen’s playing career came to an end after the fifth game of the season, against Wigan Athletic, when he retired due to a persistent knee injury.
A run of poor results saw him leave the club by mutual consent on November 4.
His assistant, Mick Tait, eventually led the team to a 20th place finish.