Hartlepool United takeover, 12 months on: Craig Hignett talks on and off-field progress, the financial cost of the deal & switching roles
April 7 marks 12 months to the day since Raj Singh, along with Jeff Stelling, was officially confirmed as the new owner of Hartlepool United.
In the run up to this weekend’s landmark date, we will be running a story a day from the people who made the deal happen, as well as those at the coalface when things started to go wrong at Pools.
First up this week is manager Craig Hignett.
Hignett was one of the driving forces behind the takeover at Pools.
A player, coach and former manager at Victoria Park, he is a man with his finger on the pulse in the region, and with a clear vision of what Hartlepool United could, and should be - with the right men at the helm.
So it was no surprise to see Hignett entrusted with the keys to the vault when former Darlington owner Singh’s deal was finally done.
His role, through circumstance, has evolved dramatically in the last 12 months. Starting out as director of football, Hignett was assigned to doing transfer deals, talking cash and being the middle man between Singh and the footballing side of the business.
Since then he’s sat in the dugout as caretaker, taken training as a coach under Richard Money and then stepped in to save the club face when ageing Money decided he was out of his depth in the job.
As we all know, things have not been plain sailing on or off the field for Pools under the guidance of Singh and Hignett - but they both accept it was never going to be.
Some football decisions have failed, and some financial ones have been tough to make.
For Hignett, when asked by the Mail to sum up the last 12 months, he is content with where the club sits at present.
“I think it’s where we wanted to be, we wanted to stabilize the club get it on an even keel,” he said.
“We wanted to improve it football-wise and move up the league and get top half. We are pretty much where we thought we’d be.
“And we always said if this season we consolidated and things were looking on the up we’d consider that a success.
“But then that’s a start so we’ve got a bigger job next year.
“We want to do a little better next year, but I think for the first year from the chairman’s point of view he’d class that as a successful but expensive one.”
Are all of Pools’ off-field issues sorted after 12 months with Singh’s financial men in charge of the accounts and the legals?
As sorted as they can be, according to Hignett.
He said: “It’s nice that they (legacy issues) are all under control, I don’t think they’re all sorted but they’re as sorted as they can be.
“Last year every rock you turned there was something else under it, but we’re not finding that any more - we’ve just got the same people wanting the money that they’re not due, so that’s in the hands of the solicitors.
“As far as the club and the football and the running of it, everything is really stable. I think you can tell with the atmosphere around the place how much more stable the club is than it has been in recent years.”
Pools are 13th in the National League table with five games left to play. They are not in the fifth tier play-off mix, but nor are they looking over their shoulders. That, in many ways, represents significant progress from last season.
Whatever happens off the park, Hignett is not losing sight of what he was brought back into the dugout to achieve.
“Getting out the division - yeah, that’s the plan,” said Hignett.
“eague two is quite northern based compared to this one so the sooner we can do that the better. That’s what everyone wants, that’s what we’re working towards but it’s going to take a bit of work to get there.”
It’s fair to say Hignett never imagined he’d be back in the dugout at Pools - he was very clear on that point this time last year.
He never wanted to be manager at Pools. If he was to manage again he’d much rather have done it somewhere else, understandably, with a clean slate.
One of the major sticking points was his loyalty to Singh, the man who he helped through the door, and gave him a job back in football - something he’d missed dearly since his sacking the first time around.
It was that loyalty, which led him to accepting the post again - a loyalty to Singh and to the project, whatever his own personal thoughts.
So has the return to management been everything Hignett hoped?
“Yeah, it’s been everything I was promised it would be,” he said.
“The chairman had told me what to expect and he hasn’t disappointed.
“He’s been straight down the line, like I knew he would be, I wouldn’t have got him involved with the football club if I didn’t know what type of character he was and I’ve got a great relationship with him.
“So, I know when he says something he’ll stick to it and to have that kind of support behind you, because you do need support as a manager you can’t just get on with it yourself. Perhaps I didn’t have it last time, I’ve certainly got it this time, so it’s down to me really.”
The use of the word “perhaps” is an understatement by Hignett, and he knows it.
Player sales and arrivals behind his back, angry confrontations in the dressing room between owner and players, the staff not getting paid on time before Christmas, players threatening to strike over unpaid wages - it was some baptism of fire in the management game for Hignett at Pools.
Has it been a bit easier this time around?
“Yeah the easy bit for me is coaching the lads and getting them to play and looking after them,” he said.
“The hard bits is the other bits that come with it where they’re not getting paid and things that aren’t football things that you have to deal with - that’s hard as a manager.
“I’ve got no worries like that this time. All I have to worry about is how we play on a Saturday.
“If it’s not going well every week, I know that nothing else is going to come in the way and make it harder for me.”