Pools v promotion: A brief history as Hartlepool United look for number five in the National League
1968. 1991. 2003. 2007...2021?
Promotions have been few and far between throughout Hartlepool United’s 113 year history. It’s a fact Poolies don’t need reminding of as their club’s fate teeters between a Football League return and a fifth straight season of non-league football.
Desperately longing for the former, fearing the latter.
To be able to talk about Hartlepool in a promotion context is refreshing given its rarity.
It’s been exactly 53 years since Pools finished third in their first ever promotion season. On May 11, 1968, over 11,000 supporters packed into Victoria Park to witness Gus McLean’s side beat Swansea Town 2-0 thanks to goals from Cliff Wright and John McGovern.
A week prior, 16 Poolies travelled down to watch their side secure promotion at Swansea by the same scoreline – Bobby Cummings and Wilson Hepplewhite the scorers.
The promotion seeds were sewn by the great Brian Clough prior to his move to Derby County in the summer of ‘67. And hats off to the ‘Swansea 16’ who got to witness its confirmation in the flesh.
Unfortunately, Pools came straight back down to the fourth division and it would be 23 years until their next taste of promotion.
A generation later, Hartlepool finished third in what proved to be an emotional 1990-91 campaign.
It was 30-years ago today – May 11 once again – when Pools earned promotion with a 3-1 win over Northampton Town at Victoria Park.
A remarkable run of form at the back end of the season saw Pools head into the final day of the season in fifth but knowing a win could be enough to sneak an automatic promotion spot and potentially the title.
Darlington’s win over Rochdale and Stockport County’s victory against Scunthorpe United saw Pools miss out on the title but defeat for Blackpool at Walsall meant they were able to secure third place and promotion thanks to goals from Paul Dalton, Joe Allon and Paul Baker on a memorable afternoon at Victoria Park.
Allon, who was just a year old when Pools secured their previous promotion, hit a club record 35 goals to help the side return to the third tier.
"I can’t believe it like,” Allon said with his recognisable Tyneside twang following the promotion. “It’s great for the club, great for Pop [Robson], Alan Murray and let’s not forget Cyril [Knowles] as well.
"Most of all for those lads, not a lot of them have had much success. Fair enough I’ve had a few awards and all that but those [players] know what they mean to me and I’m nothing without them, I’ll put it all down to them like, they’re absolutely brilliant.”
The promotion came after manager Cyril Knowles was diagnosed with a brain tumour and forced to hand over the managerial reins to Alan Murray in March 1991. Knowles would sadly pass away later that year but his legacy at Victoria Park remains to this day.
The early 21st Century would be halcyon days in Hartlepool United’s history with six top seven finishes in a row and a promotion in 2003 to boot.
Again, Pools would be within touching distance of the league title as they headed into the final day of the season against leaders Rushden & Diamonds in poor form but knowing that victory would secure top spot.
Ultimately Pools stumbled over the line with a late Chris Westwood strike confirming a 1-1 draw at Nene Park as they settled for a second place finish following a run of three wins in their final 13 matches.
Unlike previous promotion campaigns, Pools went up not simply trying to survive in the third tier but to go up again. Two heartbreaking play-off campaigns followed before Pools quickly found themselves back in the four tier.
Thankfully this time their stay was short but sweet as they bounced back at the first attempt under the management of Danny Wilson.
A club record 23 game unbeaten run saw Pools climb to the top of League Two, beating rivals Darlington 3-0 along the way. That first ever league title would continue to elude Pools as back to back defeats to end the season saw them finish second behind Walsall.
14 years, two relegations and four seasons of National League football later, Pools finally have a chance at promotion number five.
But they’ll have to do it the hard way.
Unlike League Two, which has three automatic promotion spots, winning the league is your only sure ticket up from the National League
With three games remaining, Pools sit fourth, seven points adrift of top spot. It’s looking likely that they’ll have to settle for the play-offs.
It’s a route that has never yielded promotion for the club in five attempts as they hope it will be sixth time lucky under Dave Challinor.
In all of Pools’ promotions there has been one constant, the team spirit and camaraderie in the squad. It’s something they certainly have this season and it can only bode well.
Previous promotion campaigns have seen different generations of Poolies pack Victoria Park and fall in love with the club. Obviously this season has been different where every great moment has been experienced by supporters through a stream or social media rather than in person.
Instead, supporter interest has been somewhat sparked through digital means with social media accounts, podcasts and alternative commentaries (have my kids).
Anticipation has been building over the entire season and when fans return on May 29 and for the play-offs it will be an occasion to remember at Victoria Park, whatever happens.
We may not have the crowd charging the pitch at The Vic to celebrate promotion as we did in ‘91. After all, we don’t even know where the play-off final will be taking place in June.
Everything about this season has been as ridiculous as it has been remarkable and Pools are in with a shout of making it a remarkable end.