Welcome to Hartlepool - three words sacked Pools boss John Hughes will never forget

John Hughes manager of Hartlepool United at his press conference Victoria Park. Picture by FRANK REID
John Hughes manager of Hartlepool United at his press conference Victoria Park. Picture by FRANK REID

“WELCOME to Hartlepool, Yogi”, they said.

Maybe John Hughes did experience a sense of foreboding on that dreary, drizzly afternoon of November 17.

For it was in the wake of a most humiliating 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Coventry City – his first match in charge – that a string of punters had delivered the above words, laced with both sympathy and sarcasm.

The press later put forward gentle questions centred around “reality checks”.

Reality check? More like insanity check.

For here was a ravenously ambitious individual, an old-school footballer with a new-school approach to management.

Yet what had he chosen to inherit? Statistically, the worst team in the country.

The numbers did not make for good reading – eight points from 18 matches, nine from safety.

Just three days earlier he had boldly briefed reporters on his vision for the football club – it made for heady hearing.

There was mention of the Championship and a brand of football which would see neutrals flocking from afar.

But as the winless weeks wore on those words were nothing but an eerie echo – just what had he taken on?

Then, though, there was hope.

His side, somehow, signed off for 2012 with a gutsy – if completely unexpected – 3-2 victory at league leaders Sheffield United.

New Year, new promise.

Yes, it was not until the final Saturday in January that Hughes doubled his win tally, but there had been evidence of a newfound resolve in-between time.

A 3-1 triumph at Portsmouth was the platform for a miraculous, ridiculous even, February.

Pools whistled through the year’s shortest month in double-quick time, sweeping aside all laid before them, another four wins, coupled with two hard-earned draws, triggering genuine talk of survival.

Hughes, deservedly, was Manager of the Month.

Many believe it is a mischievous cliché that such honour is a curse?

Not when you consider the subsequent fate of Hughes and his side.

Eight matches – more than 12 hours – without a goal and that talk of survival was now a roar of relegation.

There was late – all too late – resistance with a pair of wins and draws in the final four matches, but demotion was inevitably confirmed.

And, yesterday, so, too, was Hughes’ departure.

For even through fantastic February and into miserable March there had been the odd throwaway soundbite suggesting all was not well – no new players had arrived despite the manager’s pleas.

And, in his final matchday programme notes, chairman Ken Hodcroft declared that “ALL aspects of the club would be reviewed”.

Hughes, evidently, not exempt from such a process.

So how to assess his 177 days at the helm?

A success? No, the club were, after all, relegated.

A failure? No, for the team did improve, his points-per-game ratio when projected over a season enough to keep them in the division.

The two – Hughes and Hartlepool United – just did not fit.

Perhaps now he understands more the tone of those early offerings.

“Welcome to Hartlepool, Yogi”.