Gary Liddle appreciation column: A salute to Hartlepool United's Rolls Royce
It’s 5:53pm on Sunday, 20 June 2021 – an hour has passed since Hartlepool United secured the most dramatic of promotions back to the Football League and Gary Liddle is the last player standing on the Ashton Gate pitch.
The Pools legend, all 326 appearances of him, is on his haunches taking an emotional moment to himself after securing his second promotion with the club – 14 agonising years after the first.
"It was just the whole emotional situation of the game,” he reflects.
After Luke Armstrong’s goal, Hartlepool were seconds away from a place in the Football League when Torquay United goalkeeper Lucas Covolan headed in a 95th minute equaliser to send the game into extra-time and ultimately penalties.
“I don’t mind saying it now but mentally, I was half gone,” Liddle adds. “It’s a difficult situation, having defended for the last half hour, to then try and attack in extra-time and try and win the game.
"[I’m] 35, I didn’t need that extra-time if I’m honest!”
The penalty shoot-out provided more drama as after 14 penalties, Pools emerged as 5-4 shoot-out winners thanks to Brad James’ sudden death save to deny Matt Buse.
And Liddle was in line to take the next one.
"I didn’t really fancy it,” he admits. "It’s been a long time coming for my second promotion and to do it here is unbelievable.”
There is often an air of scepticism when players return to their former clubs in the twilight of their career. But Liddle wasn’t looking for ‘one last pay check’, he was looking for promotion.
The now 35-year-old admitted he signed for Pools permanently last summer knowing that this would likely be his last chance of promotion as a player.
But the season couldn’t have got off to a worse start for the centre-back.
In only Pools’ second game of the campaign at Chesterfield, Liddle suffered a groin injury that would ultimately keep him out of league action until February.
Those four months on the sidelines proved to be the lowest point in Liddle’s 15-year, virtually injury free professional career. Yet on the pitch, Pools were just starting to shine as they rose into serious promotion contention just in time for his return to the starting line-up against Yeovil Town.
That game proved to be a crucial moment in Pools’ season as they climbed to third in the table following Gavan Holohan’s last-minute winner at Victoria Park.
From that point, there was no turning back for Liddle or Pools as they went on a lengthy 16 game unbeaten run to secure a play-off place.
In the midst of this run, something clicks and you realise Hartlepool haven’t lost a single game Liddle has featured in all season.
The cracks and vulnerabilities of Pools’ young defensive line had well and truly been sealed by the club’s most experienced head. Making the likes of Ryan Johnson, Timi Odusina and Lewis Cass far more effective with him in the side.
"I’ve learnt so much from him,” Johnson, Liddle’s defensive left-hand man admitted. “I message him most days after the game and say ‘thanks for that’ and ‘it’s been a pleasure to play with you’.
"It’s amazing to be fair and he’s helped me so much.”
Liddle hadn’t missed a game or a day of training since returning from injury until his untimely sending off at Bromley – one of only two 3G defeats he suffered with the side all season.
“The boots I wore at Bromley and Sutton, they’re long gone now,” Liddle smiles, safe in the knowledge that he won’t have to deal with artificial surfaces back in the Football League.
In a team full of promotion stars the veteran shone, figuratively smoking a cigar as the de facto leader of Pools’ resolute defence.
Hartlepool’s very own Benjamin Button – the organiser, the clam head, the Rolls Royce.
Having arrived at the club as a fresh faced 20-year old from Middlesbrough in 2006, Liddle tasted many of the highs and lows that this unique club on the north-east coast had to offer during his initial six-year stint.
Little did he know the biggest high was yet to come.
“It’s been a tough seven or so years for the club,” he adds. “From relegations to almost going bust. Fans keeping the club alive, Raj [Singh] coming in and steadying the ship and Dave [Challinor] coming in with the Football League experience he’s got, he’s put things back in place for us to do that.
"I’m buzzing for the lads, buzzing for the staff, the fans and League Two, here we come!”
With Liddle out of contract at Victoria Park this summer, the Hartlepool boss has a decision to make regarding the defender’s future.
All good things must come to an end, but Liddle isn’t planning on hanging up his boots any time soon.
“I’m definitely ready for another season,” he responds, almost as if it were a daft question.
“I’ll play for as long as I can as long as I keep getting offered contracts, I’ll be playing. I’m feeling fit, feeling well and training well.
"I worked hard to get back and I’m thankful to the manager for putting me back in when I was fit and available. Hopefully I’ve helped make a difference this season.”
Liddle has not just made a difference this season, he’s been a crucial cog in a promotion machine that has seen him immortalised as a true Pools legend.
And that cigar still has time to burn.