From scapegoat to the GOAT – Nicky Featherstone at 300 for Hartlepool United
Nicky Featherstone has just become the 18th member of Hartlepool United’s 300 club.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to name the other 17, even if that’s where your mind is going! (Humphreys, Moore, Sweeney…).
In a modern game heavily influenced by money, such loyalty is rare. Particularly at a level where a player’s salary is somewhat comparable to the average season ticket holder’s.
Featherstone’s start for Pools at Tranmere Rovers makes him only the second player in League Two to have made 300 appearances over one spell at his current club – joining Colchester United’s Tom Eastman.
In fact, only 11 players across the Football League have displayed such dedication to their current clubs over the years (try naming them!).
For Featherstone, it hasn’t been an easy ride. In fact he admits ‘there have been more downs than ups,’ but the past 18 months in particular have helped the 32-year-old etch his name into Poolie folklore.
When Featherstone initially joined Pools on a short term deal on Halloween 2014, no one could have envisaged the legacy he’d create at Victoria Park.
Still, he came incredibly close to not making his 300th appearance for Hartlepool.
After securing promotion back to the Football League via the play-offs back in June, he had an offer to remain in the National League – one he was going to take.
“I was pretty convinced I was gone,” Featherstone told The Mail.
"Not because I wanted to, it was just the perfect time to go on a high after the year we’d had and I’d promised myself I wouldn’t leave until the club was back in the EFL.
“It was massive for me to play a part in getting the club back to where it belongs.
“But I spoke to the gaffer over the phone and he convinced me to stay – it wasn’t a long conversation.”
And manager Dave Challinor revealed the details of that crucial phone call.
"Feaths' thoughts were, when you’ve been somewhere as long as he has, when you’ve had the disappointment of relegation, when you then get the club back to the Football League combined with the year and how everything went and all those things, does it get any better than it got at Bristol?” Challinor said.
"Speaking to Feath, it was more around we’ve earned the opportunity and sometimes you have to move on but I told him he’d be underselling himself by staying in the National League.
"He’d earned an opportunity to play in the EFL again. We really wanted him to go and do that here and also recognise what he’s done.
"He’s been through the lowest lows and been a scapegoat and through his performances and character he’s been able to overcome that and become something I imagine every Hartlepool supporter and even Nicky himself never thought would happen so it was just to give that an opportunity to continue.”
Behind the midfielder’s reserved exterior is a man who cares deeply for the club, one he just can’t seem to quit.
Now his bond to Hartlepool and his teammates is permanently inked on his left thigh in the form of a wolf’s head tattoo – matching his ‘wolf pack’ midfield partners Mark Shelton and Gavan Holohan.
He has been a divisive figure at Victoria Park over the years. Some saw him as an underappreciated genius while others struggled to dissociate him with one of the bleakest periods in the club’s history.
But he has since won almost all of the Poolie fanbase over.
Challinor has helped bring out the best in him, but seven other managers and three caretakers also saw what he could offer – “I must have done something right,” Featherstone smiled.
He plays a different game to everyone else as Pools' cerebral dictator in the middle. For 90-minutes it’s Nicky Featherstone’s world, we just live in it.
Of course it isn’t always that romanticised, there are off days now and again, but the general level of consistency Featherstone has displayed in recent seasons has seen him fittingly hailed as the ‘League Two Xavi’.
And after keeping the captain’s armband warm for the majority of last season in Ryan Donaldson’s absence, Featherstone now has it for real.
“It’s big shoes to fill after Ry but I don’t think too much about it, my main focus is getting results,” he added.
“I have some extra responsibilities. I’ve been trying to get people to pay their fines and Josh MacDonald is refusing, saying he’s a Whitby player at the minute so doesn’t have to pay his Hartlepool fines!”
Donaldson, Featherstone’s predecessor as Pools skipper, insisted on lifting the promotion final trophy with him back in June. Almost as a passing of the torch.
"I told him I wasn’t doing it on my own,” Donaldson said.
"It’s obvious why because he wore the armband a lot last season – he’s the longest serving player and I know how much it meant to him.
"He’s got standards that he holds people to, that's how he leads.
"He’s quite emotional but he doesn’t really talk about it. I’ve got to know him quite well and I know how much he cares.
"For us to be in that image together lifting the trophy, that will be the image people will remember and I was delighted he did it with me.”
While Featherstone may not be the most vocal captain off the pitch, he can often be heard shouting at his teammates on it.
“I’m the same moaning player on the pitch whether I have the armband on or not,” he shrugged.
“But 300 appearances is a proud achievement for me, especially in this day and age.”
Neither promotion or the captaincy has changed Featherstone, who still modestly plays down his Pools legend status.
But if 300 appearances and playing an instrumental role in arguably Pools’ most crucial promotion doesn’t make you a legend, what does?