The day Hartlepool United supporters returned to Victoria Park
The final day of the regular National League season saw Hartlepool United host Weymouth at Victoria Park.
A game forged from uncertainty, a unique coincidence and a strong desire to get fans back at The Vic.
And just over 1,700 supporters returned for the first time in 449 days. And since that ill-fated defeat to Ebbsfleet United in March 2020, the world and football landscape has changed drastically.
But Dave Challinor’s Hartlepool side have been able to conjure up something special over the past 12 months, something we haven’t seen at Victoria Park since 2007.
It has been an unforgettable campaign where Pools went into the final day knowing a play-off place was secured, but still with a chance of a top three finish.
Challinor said that it should be ‘a day of celebration for everyone,’ and that’s exactly what it proved to be.
Weymouth went into the game having already bested Pools in January with a 1-0 win at The Bob Lucas Stadium.
For Pools, changes were expected following last Sunday’s 3-0 defeat at Sutton United with David Ferguson and Mark Shelton coming back into the side in place of Zaine Francis-Angol and Ryan Donaldson respectively.
One unforeseen change was that of joint top-scorer Luke Armstrong, who missed out after taking ill on Friday with Danny Elliott coming in. Luke Williams also missed out after suffering a hip issue – Tom Crawford returned to the bench in his place.
The 12:30 kick-off meant fans were queuing and chanting outside of the ground well before turnstiles opened at 11:15am. And after over a year’s worth of restrictions, live streams and turmoil, who could blame them for being so keen?
Never has the clunk of a turnstile sounded so good at Victoria Park – as soon as fans started to make the way to their seats, the matchday buzz was back.
Games at Victoria Park have been cold, sterile experiences despite Pools’ fine form. Saturday was the complete opposite, we had warm weather for the first time all season, fittingly matched by the warm atmosphere before kick-off.
As the Pools players took to the pitch to warm up, they shared a mutual applause with the supporters as both sides showed their appreciation for one another.
But it wouldn’t be until the Pools players made their way to the pitch to kick-off when the atmosphere would really hit. The second stand-in captain Nicky Featherstone stepped foot on the pitch, the roar was back with chants of ‘UNITED *clap, clap, clap* UNITED’ echoing around.
The outpouring of emotion and passion was there for all to see – 1,700 felt like 3,500 once again.
At this point, the fans had done their part so far, it was now up to the players to deliver.
From get go, Pools were right at Weymouth – a different beast to what we’d seen at Sutton.
David Ferguson forced a good stop from Gerrard Benfield one on one in the opening minutes after being slid in by Rhys Oates.
Featherstone’s resulting corner was met by Johnson at the back post to nod Pools into an early lead as The Vic went wild. All the stresses of the past 15 months were released in a wave of hysteria.
The goal meant Pools were up to third in the table with a play-off semi-final in sight although it would only last for around 20-minutes until Stockport County took the lead at Yeovil Town.
Instead of worrying about matters elsewhere, Pools continued to do the business. Ferguson’s long clearance was nicked brilliantly by Oates before a Weymouth defender could get to it as the Pools forward broke down the left before sliding the ball calmly past the rushing Benfield.
A fine goal and Oates’ 14th of the season to put him clear as the club’s top scorer for the season. The 26-year-old would also go on to be awarded the fans’ and player’s player of the season.
The score remained 2-0 until half-time with Pools putting on a show for their returning fans.
But that didn’t stop Weymouth firing a few warning shots.
After 62-minutes, The Terras registered their first shot on target as Ben Worman’s edge of the box strike was comfortably collected by Brad James.
Calvin Brooks also hit the crossbar with a long ranged effort to keep Pools on their toes.
Pools put the game to bed with 25-minutes remaining as Ryan Donaldson’s smart cross was volleyed in at the front post by Mark Shelton to make it 3-0.
Elliott, who was making his first start for Pools’, came close to getting on the scoresheet himself with a two great opportunities in quick succession.
With 12-minutes to go, Gavan Holohan wrapped up the scoring with a fine solo effort. The Irish midfielder looked to lose his footing but quickly got back on his feet to beat his man and find the bottom left corner from the edge of the penalty area – 4-0.
Weymouth’s Andrew Dallas should have pulled a goal back late on as he rounded James before hesitating, allowing the Pools goalkeeper to pluck the ball from under his feet on the byline. A wasted opportunity met by ironic cheers from the crowd.
Ultimately, it was a resounding 4-0 victory for Pools, their joint biggest at Victoria Park in the National League and a fitting match for the return of supporters.
And we get to do it all again next week as Stockport’s 1-0 win at Yeovil meant Pools finished fourth and will host seventh placed Bromley at The Vic on Sunday, June 6 (4pm kick-off).
Next week, Pools have their season on the line it will be tense and stressful. Saturday’s win over Weymouth was the opposite and the emotion of being back home is something that will be savoured by all who were there.
As Challinor said following the full-time whistle: "It’s something that I’ll remember for a long, long, time.”