Dave Challinor reveals how close Hartlepool United came to signing Luke Armstrong in the summer as striker gets set to make his Victoria Park return with Harrogate Town
Hartlepool United host Harrogate Town in League Two this afternoon but all eyes will be on one man at Victoria Park.
Luke Armstrong only spent six months at Pools but invariably became a club legend for the role he played in firing Dave Challinor’s side back to the Football League.
Armstrong arrived on-loan from Salford City in December last year as Challinor’s side looked for the spark that would ignite their National League campaign and he hit the ground running and them some.
Armstrong notched six goals in his first six appearances as Pools would launch themselves into the promotion picture in the second half of the campaign.
Alongside Rhys Oates, the pair formed a formidable partnership scoring over 30 goals between them as Challinor’s side reached the National League promotion final against Torquay United.
And it is there where Armstrong wrote his name into Pools history by grabbing the opening goal at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate, his 15th in total, as they would go on to clinch promotion back to the Football League with a penalty shootout victory.
It led to many supporters, and Challinor himself, hoping the North East native would return to Victoria Park for their tilt back in League Two this season, but Armstrong, like strike partner Oates, moved elsewhere in the summer.
And speaking to The Mail ahead of this afternoon’s meeting with Harrogate, Challinor has opened up about the prospects the club had of retaining Armstrong’s services this season as the 25-year-old prepares for his first return to Victoria Park.
“We probably weren’t that close to keeping him in all honesty,” admitted Challinor.
“I don’t know in too much detail how far along the deal was to go to Harrogate. I’d be lying if I said I knew for certain that it was done before the season was finished but there’s a good chance that lots of dialogue had taken place between Harrogate and Salford because ultimately Harrogate had to pay a significant fee for him.
“Whether we could have got that deal done is debatable, but we didn't really get the opportunity to get the deal done because things were already in place. But that happens, I totally get it from both sides.”
Challinor added: “We were in a situation where the reality of the promotion final game meant one day dictated whether we were going to be a National League team or whether we were going to be a League Two team and it significantly affected what our budget would be.
“We potentially were looking at having the budget we've got now and being in League Two or having a significantly bottom half budget in the National League, and I wouldn't expect any player, or an agent looking after a player, to throw all their eggs into one basket on the basis of us winning one game, and that was the case.”
Unsurprisingly, Armstrong’s decision to join today’s opponents just one week after clinching promotion with Pools left Challinor frustrated during what was an unprecedented summer as his side had to deal with just a seven week turnaround before the start of the season.
Armstrong’s exit was followed by Oates’ a fortnight later to leave Challinor without his two prized assets heading into the new campaign.
And while Pools have made an excellent start to the season in the absence of both Armstrong and Oates, goals have been of concern for Challinor with just 14 scored in their opening 13 games of the season - the second fewest in the top half of League Two.
And to rub salt into the wounds, supporters have had to watch on from afar as Armstrong has made a similarly blistering start to his life at Wetherby Road as he did at Victoria Park with eight goals in his first 13 appearances for the Sulphurites.
But Challinor admits there is no animosity between the two and believes Armstrong will get a good reception from a packed Victoria Park this afternoon.
“Luke was great [for us]. I’m sure he’ll get a brilliant ovation,” said Challinor.
“People will be a little bit disappointed that he's not still with us, but that will be more because we knew he could score the goals he's already scored for Harrogate this year for us.
“If he’d have been in our squad he’d have at least had the goals he's got now. The challenge for us now is to make sure that we can stop that.
“Sometimes in football you become a bit cynical and look at things a bit too much,” he added.
“The reality of it is, we brought Luke in at a time last year where, similarly to where we are now, we needed a goalscorer. We knew that if we could get him going it would benefit everybody and it did just that.
“It benefited him, it benefited us, it benefited Oatesy - because it reinvigorated him and them as a partnership were brilliant. They scored over 30 goals between the two of them which ultimately got us promoted. They helped us achieve where we are now.
“From our perspective to be in with a chance to get Luke back we knew we had to be in the Football League, but it hasn’t worked out.
“He wanted to be back at home. He is a home bird and wants to be around his family. Even just down the road at Salford he really struggled.
“So he is back at home, he’s enjoying his football, he's playing and ultimately scoring and I’m sure that’s something he’ll continue to do, but hopefully not this weekend.”