Dominic Scurr reflects on Hartlepool United's dramatic promotion to the Football League
Every so often you experience a day that just reminds you why you fell in love with football in the first place – June 20, 2021 was one of those unforgettable days.
After England’s goalless draw against Scotland on Friday had us all questioning why we put ourselves through it, Hartlepool United with the help of National League promotion final opponents Torquay, provided a brutally welcome reminder that there is simply nothing better than the beautiful game.
The climax to the longest and most turbulent of seasons took place at Ashton Gate exactly one year on from Pools’ first day of pre-season.
The 2020-21 season has been on like no other, and the promotion final would prove to be a fitting conclusion.
It was a frantic, energetic and end to end affair from the off – everything you want a final to be.
Football matches are often tritely described as ‘roller coasters’ but this one truly epitomised the joy and heartbreak of being a football fan over 120 thrilling minutes of football.
By this point, you probably know the rest. But it's a story worth telling.
Luke Armstrong gave Pools the lead after controlling Rhys Oates’ deflected effort, turning brilliantly and hammering the ball in off the underside of the crossbar to send to 3,100 travelling Poolies wild.
Dave Challinor’s side simply don’t lose after scoring the first goal, and that wasn’t about to change.
The Torquay fans had plenty to cheer themselves. Two controversially disallowed goals from Kyle Cameron and a penalty shout which looked to have been awarded only for referee Simon Mather to give a Pools goal kick.
Hartlepool chairman Raj Singh said prior to the game that they would need luck on their side in order to clinch promotion and they were certainly getting it down in Bristol. Although it didn’t seem that way come the end of normal time.
Pools were a minute away from promotion when Torquay, the National League’s late goal specialists, found a 95th minute equaliser from the least likely source.
When goalkeeper Lucas Covolan headed The Gulls level, the sheer dejection from the Hartlepool contingency was there for all to see as the longest season ever got that bit longer.
In hindsight, it was a goal that would make the victory seem all the sweeter.
And at this point it became a test of Pools’ character. Were they going to feel sorry for themselves or were they going to make themselves counted?
We were witnessing one of the best promotion finals in recent memory which was simultaneously agonising to watch for non-neutrals.
But a bad injury to Torquay’s Jake Andrews in the first half of extra-time scuppered any late momentum The Gulls had built up as the final went to penalties.
At this point, you need a hero to step forward. Fortunately, Pools had several.
After four remarkably missed penalties between the two sides, Mark Shelton finally broke the duck, followed by Jamie Sterry, Danny Elliott, Luke Molyneux and Ryan Donaldson for Pools.
But 21-year-old Middlesbrough loan goalkeeper Brad James, who had played just five matches prior to the final, was the young man to write himself into Poolie folklore with a fingertip penalty save onto the crossbar to make Hartlepool United the 2021-22 Football League’s final entrant.
And by the time James had the chance to celebrate with his teammates, some Poolies were already on the pitch getting in on the action. It was an outpouring of emotion after years of heartache, disappointment and turmoil.
Even days later, it still feels like a dream. It was the sweetest of promotions under the most dramatic of circumstances and every player played a part.
For the neutrals, it was one of those games where you want to turn to your non football loving friends and family and point at the BT Sport coverage and question ‘how can you not like this!?’
A truly great advert for non-league football, ironically something Pools hope to never be involved in again.
Commiserations to Torquay who helped put on the show, a worthy adversary defeated in the most cruel fashion.
For Pools players, staff and fans, it was a moment they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
On a modest budget, Challinor had assembled a talented squad of youngsters, loanees and trialists sprinkled with just the right amount of experience to keep things in check.
There is a misfit quality to this side, an excitement and charm that had previously been lacking since the side dropped out of the Football League in 2017. They didn’t do things the easy way, but we wouldn’t change them for the world.
Still, it was a penalty shoot out away from being so very different with the majority of Pools’ squad likely to leave had the club failed to secure an EFL return.
Fortunately, this was Hartlepool’s day in the sun and they had well and truly made the most of it.
Relatively speaking, Torquay was just down the road from Bristol compared to Hartlepool. But that didn’t stop Poolies painting Millennium Square blue throughout a memorable weekend.
Millennium Square, two words forever synonymous with Pools’ escape from the National League.
The Hartlepool players also got in on the action themselves on Sunday night with earworm of the decade ‘We’ve got an Irish midfielder’ orchestrated by Gavan Holohan himself, still ringing in Poolie heads. The connection between players and supporters as strong as it has ever been despite being apart for well over a year.
These celebrations will last through the week but it’s back to business very quickly for Challinor and his players. It’s just over six weeks until the League Two season gets under way on August 7 with many clubs already starting their pre-season preparations.
And it all becomes very real very quickly with the fixture list out this Thursday while Pools still have so much to sort out behind the scenes.
It will be hectic but it will be the Pools we all know and love, back in the Football League.