HARTLEPOOL United’s most famous - and passionate supporter - Jeff Stelling admits what was turning into the worst season of his life, looks like becoming the BEST.
Pools were dead and buried a month ago, staring relegation out of the Football League square in the face.
But an incredible run of results has boosted hopes of survival after all.
In an exclusive interview with SportMail’s Richard Mennear, Stelling hails the impact of ‘manager of the season’ Ronnie Moore and says York City away this weekend is a match Pools cannot afford to lose.
JEFF Stelling is used to working under pressure.
Every week the Sky Sports presenter fronts six-hours of wall-to-wall coverage from up and down the country on his Soccer Saturday programme.
But the Hartlepool-born TV star admits the pressure of following his beloved Hartlepool United’s roller coaster season has been “unbearable” at times.
Pools are third bottom in Sky Bet League Two, scrapping for their Football League lives.
But it is a far more positive position than Pools found themselves in less than a month ago – before the Morecambe away match Ronnie Moore’s side were nine points from safety.
A miraculous run of four straight wins followed to propel Pools out of the danger zone for the first time in five months.
Ronnie Moore must be nailed on for manager of the month – absolutely nailed on!Jeff Stelling
And Stelling, who watched the Good Friday draw against Newport County, is in no doubt as to who is responsible for the revival – manager of the month nominee Moore.
Stelling told SportMail: “Scott Harrison has been brilliant, alongside David Mirfin and Dan Jones, and he is a strong contender for player of the month.
“But Ronnie Moore must be nailed on for manager of the month – absolutely nailed on!
“March was a brilliant month and he should be manager of the season if he keeps us up, no doubt about it.
“What was the worst season of my life could, in the end, actually turn out to the best because the ‘Great Escape’ is well within reach and it would be miraculous if we do indeed pull it off.
“We were nine points adrift a few weeks back and I think everybody had given up apart from Ronnie Moore, Russ Green and a few others at the club.
“We all feared the worst but I was at Newport on Good Friday and Pools were very good for large parts of the game.
“And I’m told against Southend United [a narrow 1-0 defeat] they were even better, they just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net,” added Stelling, who has been buoyed by the return to training of top league goalscorer Scott Fenwick.
There are a number of factors behind the recent upturn, the switch to 3-5-2 has reaped dividends while Nicky Featherstone, Jonathan Franks and Brad Walker have all impressed in recent weeks.
But Stelling says “it is all down to Ronnie Moore”.
“You have to give him all the credit and you can see why he has never been relegated in his managerial career,” added Stelling, who is fronting Carlsberg Fan Squad’s hunt for ‘The People’s Pundit’.
“The way in which he left Tranmere Rovers was disgraceful and he does have something to prove.
“I have a lot of time for him and would have done whatever had happened at Pools because his record speaks for itself and he treats the players like men.
“He manages with great humour and compassion but you wouldn’t mess with him either and the recent run is all down to him.
“He brought some key players in. Both David Mirfin and Aaron Tshibola have been great additions and Tshibola could have gone elsewhere in January but wanted to stick it out and battle it out with us – that speaks volumes.
“One or two others have also stood up to be counted, including Featherstone and Franks,” added the former Hartlepool Mail reporter, who moved into radio and television.
Four straight wins pushed Pools to third bottom, with five league matches to go and Stelling is hoping it doesn’t go down to the final game of the season - away to relegation rivals Carlisle United.
He added: “I hope it doesn’t go down to the wire.
“Mind, if you’d asked me four weeks ago then we would all have said – we all did – that we would take three points needed on the final day of the season.
“But at this moment in time, we have a chance of getting out of trouble before then.
“It is going to be very tough, of course, but we have a good chance.”
Next up for Pools is York City away on Saturday, not that Stelling will be at Bootham Crescent of course.
Instead, the dad-of-three will be ‘enjoying’ his usual Saturday, fronting Soccer Saturday alongside the likes of Paul Merson, Matthew Le Tissier and Charlie Nicholas.
“I will be working Saturday and it will be unbearable,” added Stelling.
“York City away is a big game, isn’t it? It is a must not lose game – put it that way.
“The supporters are right behind the club and that is down to what Ronnie Moore has done but also Russ Green and IOR too, with the reduction of the ticket prices, which has worked really well.
“I’m hoping York City will feel like a home game, with 2,000 Pools supporters going – what fantastic support.
“The fans all live and breathe it and we all go through the mill following Pools.
“I am nothing special – I just have to do it publicly!
“We can’t wait to hopefully get a couple of decent results in the next few games so we can enjoy the end of the season.”
Stelling is supporting North East finalist Dan Pickering (pictured), 41, in The People’s Pundit competition and came to visit him in his local pub to give him some top tips on punditry.
Dan is originally from Durham but now lives in Leeds and he is vying to win the chance to work as a co-commentator for talkSPORT, helping cover a Premier League game on the last day of the season.
The Newcastle fan told SportMail: “It was fantastic to spend some time with Jeff and to pick his brains, he gave me some great tips.”
Stelling added: “This is a fantastic opportunity for the winner, who knows what doors it could open for them.”
* Jeff Stelling visited finalist Dan Pickering, at The Tetley, in Leeds, to help him prepare for Boot Camp in the People’s Pundit, championed by Carlsberg, the official beer of the Premier League.
To find out how Dan gets on in the race to secure their big break on talkSPORT Click here
To support Dan, follow him @PickeringDan #PeoplesPundit