'A phenomenal season' - Exclusive Jeff Stelling verdict on Dave Challinor, Raj Singh and Hartlepool United's promotion hopes ahead of Torquay play-off final
After four seasons in the National League and bouncing back from the brink, Hartlepool United are now just 90 minutes from a potential return to the Football League.
Four years of hopes, dreams and emotion tied into one game, with Torquay United standing in their way at Bristol City's Ashton Gate stadium on Sunday afternoon (KO 2pm).
Dave Challinor's side will be roared on by 3,100 supporters heading down any which way they can, chartered planes, trains and automobiles.
Among the Pools contingent will be club president and Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling the club's most prominent supporter who has helped keep the club in the national profile for years during his role leading Soccer Saturday every Saturday afternoon.
How he'd love to be able to highlight the club as a League Two side next season.
Stelling, in an exclusive interview with the Mail, reflects on the incredible job done by Dave Challinor, the key role owner Raj Singh has played with plenty of praise too for the players that have got the club to this point.
It has been a memorable season for so many different reasons and Stelling hopes the 'phenomenal' progress shown under Challinor will end in one final flourish.
Ahead of Sunday's game, Stelling said: "It is a sign of the progress we have made, it has been phenomenal, it has become a bit of a cliche but that is down to DC, the players, they all have the ultimate respect for him and he is a top manager.
“But it is also down to the fact that the players a) have got ability but b) this unbelievable togetherness - they just cannot contemplate losing games. Stockport away showed that.
“We are there, 2,700 Stockport fans, against a side who have been on a phenomenal run of form and spent money, everything was stacked against us yet we refused to be flustered. We defended brilliantly, restricted them, came out and showed great resilience.
“A lot of it is down to ability but also the size of their hearts and that incredible togetherness. It has been a phenomenal season whatever happens on Sunday, the improvement this year has been remarkable, some of the transfer dealings brilliant.
“It has been a memorable season and I hope it has a super memorable end - though Torquay are no mugs.
“Challinor loves to play on the front foot, but also change and adapt if needs be.
"He sees the big picture, so that has been brilliant, the players just have total respect for him, that is really important and they want to play for him.
“Dave can be Mr Cool on the sidelines but inside his heart will be racing.”
Pools have had to reach the final the hard way, with Bromley beaten at The Vic before the semi-final victory over Stockport last weekend.
Stelling will be there watching on alongside the club's owner Raj Singh, who has helped stabilise Pools off the pitch with the club's financial problems - before Singh took charge - well publicised.
Stelling added: “You have to give credit to the chairman as well, the day he found out Challinor had been sacked by AFC Fylde he rang me and said he was going to get him.
“He said ‘absolutely I want to get him’ and he went out and got him and he has backed him since in the loan market and the transfer market, he has backed Dave Challinor.
“They are both getting their rewards and let's hope they get an even bigger reward come Sunday.”
Stelling knows all too well what victory and promotion on Sunday would mean for the town.
“The football club and the town, even if you’re not a football fan, it gives people a sense of pride.
“You can see the interest in it. It has been tough during lockdown and people losing their jobs and being furloughed, this is something to lift the spirits of the whole community.
“I thought, those first few seasons we went down, we’re not going to get back into the Football League in my lifetime and that is still a possibility but we have given ourselves a phenomenal chance - we are 90 minutes away.
“If we don’t do it this year then I have every confidence and belief we will do it next year.”
Ahead of the final, Stelling has been inundated with messages from well-wishers, friends and some well-known faces he has worked with over the years.
“There is a lot of goodwill out there in the football world," added Stelling.
“I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this but just before kick-off on Sunday, I got a text from Nigel Clough saying ‘good luck to your team today, I would love to see them back in the football league’.
“I got a message afterwards from him as well and all my old mates, Paul Merson, Phil Thompson, Charlie Nicholas, there is huge goodwill.
“Mind, it counts for nothing on Sunday!
“I am very hopeful, put it that way. I felt going to Stockport was as hard as it could possibly get, they were 18 games unbeaten and had a real belief they were going to turn us over.
“Having gone there and done that, then it is possible. I would be very hopeful.”
And a final word on the Pools support - with fans queuing overnight to get the last of the general sale tickets.
Stelling said: "The hardcore of fans absolutely stood by the club throughout - the support has always been terrific.
"On Sunday, those 3,100 fans will make a hell of a row, they will be fantastic for us.
“I desperately hope we give them something to shout about, I am sure we will.”
* Jeff Stelling is gearing up for his latest Prostate Cancer UK walking charity challenge – and it will start at St James’s Park.
Sky Sports star Stelling will be marching across the country for Prostate Cancer UK for a fourth time later this summer, inspired by the loss of a close friend and a football hero to the disease – and he wants 400 football fans to join him.
The long-serving Sky Sports presenter has raised more than £1m for the leading men’s health charity walking across the UK in 2016, 2017 and 2019 – and returns in August and September to support Prostate Cancer UK in their quest to help stop prostate cancer being a killer.
Full details and how to register can be found here. Stelling will reflect on his next walking challenge in a piece in the Mail next week.
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