'Come over and support them' – the inside track on Hartlepool United Women's team ahead of FA Cup first round clash with Leeds United

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Hartlepool United Women have had to weather a storm, but they're hoping to come out of it stronger than ever as they head into their biggest match of the season.

After challenging for promotion in each of the last two seasons only for them both to be cut short as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Pools Women's side have endured a difficult start to their 2021-22 campaign in the North East Regional Womens Football League Premier Division – the fifth tier of women’s football in England.

Following the loss of key players such as Abbey Lyle, Jenni Duffy-Smith and Sarah Bartlett all to local rivals Redcar Town Ladies, Pools are going through somewhat of a transitional phase having won just one of their opening six league matches with their inexperienced squad.

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But the side’s Women’s FA Cup run has provided some real respite to the tough league start.

A 7-2 win over Workington Reds and a 6-5 penalty shoot out victory over AFC Darwen following a 3-3 thriller has seen the club equal their best ever run in the competition by reaching the first round proper for only the second time.

In their way stand Leeds United, who compete a step above in the National League Division One North.

The match will see the side move from their usual home of East Durham College and play in the town at Grayfields (TS24 8PJ) this Sunday, November 14 (1pm kick-off) – entry is free.

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"We felt it was important we had it in the town and we're using the enclosure at Grayfields,” manager Chris Murphy tells The Mail.

Hartlepool United Women 2021-22 (photo: Mark Fletcher)Hartlepool United Women 2021-22 (photo: Mark Fletcher)
Hartlepool United Women 2021-22 (photo: Mark Fletcher)

“They've got their new bar facilities, dugouts, changing facilities, the pitch surround and all the facilities required for the first round of the FA Cup.

“It's something that we're really looking forward to. It's the biggest game of women's football the town has held outside of the England v Sweden game at The Vic in 2014. From a club level, it is the biggest game of women's football the town of Hartlepool has seen.”

Pools are hoping to establish a permanent base in the town as of next season and are currently exploring their options.

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"Bringing the team into the town will help raise our profile,” Murphy admits.

HUWFC manager Chris Muphy (photo: Mark Fletcher)HUWFC manager Chris Muphy (photo: Mark Fletcher)
HUWFC manager Chris Muphy (photo: Mark Fletcher)

The Pools boss has been involved with the club since its inception in 2015, originally as a coach before becoming vice-chairman. And this season has seen him take on the duties of first team manager as well as the under-18s team.

The club was originally Seaton Carew Ladies but adopted the identity and traditional blue and white stripes of Hartlepool United six years ago.

And those six years have been largely successful with the club securing or challenging for promotion in almost every season.

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But this time out has been different, as Murphy explains: “What we're seeing now is a lot of talent coming through and a lot of younger players and younger teams developing.

HUWFC captain Jussy Robinson (photo: Mark Fletcher)HUWFC captain Jussy Robinson (photo: Mark Fletcher)
HUWFC captain Jussy Robinson (photo: Mark Fletcher)

"We're on that journey and have lost a lot of experienced players as a result over the last few months and we're turning to our youth teams for players.

"Players are going from very much a grassroots level to a tier five level which we're at and the results have been tough.

“It’s is an unusual position for us because we haven't been used to losing since we started, but we're still adapting and developing.

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"We're changing the culture at the club so that we're bringing players through from under-15s, 16s, 18s, and giving them that opportunity.”

Club captain Jussy Robinson first joined the club back in its Seaton Carew days as a 22-year-old in 2012. Now 31, she is the oldest and most experienced head in an otherwise youthful dressing room.

And that has seen her take on more of a mentoring role as skipper.

Hartlepool United COO Stephen Hobin (right) alongside Suit Direct's CFO Nick Scott (left). Hartlepool United's stadium has recently been rebranded as The Suit Direct Stadium.Hartlepool United COO Stephen Hobin (right) alongside Suit Direct's CFO Nick Scott (left). Hartlepool United's stadium has recently been rebranded as The Suit Direct Stadium.
Hartlepool United COO Stephen Hobin (right) alongside Suit Direct's CFO Nick Scott (left). Hartlepool United's stadium has recently been rebranded as The Suit Direct Stadium.

“We have a lot of young players here and some of them don’t realise how good they are,” Robinson says.

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"A lot of them haven't played at the level we're at before so they can feel a bit defeated at times. But I have a team talk before every game and I just tell them to believe in themselves.

“I believe in myself when I go out there each week and it's important. If you doubt yourself for one minute out on the pitch and make a mistake then heads drop. It's all about self belief for me and that's something I'm always trying to drill into the younger ones.

"It's a challenge being the oldest one and trying to keep up! But it's important to keep the team spirit high as well because we have had a rough patch this season and we've lost a lot of experienced players.

"It's important we lift the team back up and keep things steady this season so that next season we can keep building.”

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After 10 seasons playing for the club in various positions, Robinson has no plans on leaving but she has revealed that she will be handing the captain's armband over to one of her teammates at the end of the season.

"It’s a big decision I've made,” the versatile skipper admits. “I'm having a baby so I'll have someone new in my life and obviously I'm getting older too.

"I'm still going to be at the club and I want to encourage the young players who are coming through. I feel it's time for someone else to take on the role and responsibility of being captain.

"Emily [Stuart] is vice captain, she's 25-year-old so I think it's about the right time for her. Her confidence has been a bit low and I think the captain's armband would help make a leader out of her.

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“But I love playing here and I still feel like I owe a lot to the club especially with everything that has gone on in the past couple of years and the fact we could have got promoted last season.

“I could have gone to Middlesbrough at least three times. They tried to get me last season but I'm really content with where I am.”

The biggest hurdles Pools have to overcome are actually away from the pitch. The club is self-funded and relies on sub fees from players and club fundraisers in order to function properly.

Attracting supporters has also proved troublesome. While the Hartlepool United brand has helped in that regard, playing outside of the town hasn’t.

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But Sunday’s FA Cup first round tie will be vital in raising the club’s profile.

"Playing in Hartlepool is important for us this weekend,” Robinson adds.

“My family don't like to travel, I'm getting on, 31 now but my mum and my step dad still love to come and watch when they can. I'm expecting a good crowd to be fair because I've had a lot of people message me about it.

"There's also been some of the younger teams, the younger girls are going to be mascots so we're going to have a decent crowd to be honest which will be good.”

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Pools are ‘massive underdogs’ for Sunday’s match with Leeds currently flying high sitting second in the fourth tier.

"They are having a great season in the National League,” Murphy admits.

“They are a very fit side with some quality players and there is no reason why they can't win their league. It's going to be a very difficult game and we know we're massive underdogs but it's the FA Cup and magical things happen in the FA Cup.

"Who knows? We just have to go into the game with no fear and enjoy the game and anything could happen. It's 11 v 11 and on the day we have players who can match any player, we've just got to have that belief and fight to see where that takes us.”

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Robinson played for Pools the only other time they reached this stage of the competition back in 2016.

But she’s hoping to go one step further this weekend.

"It’s the magic of the FA Cup,” Robinson says. “Everyone wants to play in the FA Cup and the last time we played in the first round proper we were up against Middlesbrough and at the time they were three leagues higher than us but they only beat us 1-0.

"For me, it felt like a victory because it's the FA Cup and it makes it that bit more special.

"We've played Leeds in a couple of friendlies and we've had a couple of close games but they've got some really good players.

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"They've just signed two good players who I know well so I know it will be tough but we're approaching this properly. We've been watching clips of them on YouTube to see how they play.

“This is probably one of the biggest games I've been involved in with Leeds being a big name and it being the first round proper.”

Moving forward, Murphy is hoping the club can 'harness the power of the Hartlepool United name’ and build to a brighter future working alongside the men’s side.

"We currently have four teams with the first team, under-18s, under-16s and under-15s and we're still looking to expand on next season,” the manager explains.

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"Having that link with the club is a big help but it’s also a double edged sword because people think we are directly tied to the club but we’re not.

"We're grassroots through and through and we're self funded.

"We want to harness the power of the Hartlepool United name to try and get bigger sponsors. South Shields Women, for example, haven't been as successful as us but they're able to attract big sponsors through their men's team for their home kit which means no player has to pay any subs for the season.

"We haven’t been able to do that so far but what I will say is that Stephen Hobin [Hartlepool United chief operations officer] from the [men’s] club has been absolutely superb with us and has given his full support to the women’s team with everything else going on.

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“In the short space of time he's been involved, he's interacting with us all the time and looking at ways to enhance the women's proposition as well. The club are certainly starting to get on board a lot more now since Stephen has arrived.”

Hobin himself has only been involved officially at Hartlepool for less than three months, but has already outlined his long term plans for the women’s team.

“We want to integrate the women's team properly into the football club,” he tells The Mail. “It should just be one club on and off the pitch regardless of age group or gender.

“It's massively important for us to have a women's team. Dropping into the National League hasn't helped in terms of being able to put any kind of investment or time into the women's team purely down to not having the bodies available to be able to support the team as well as we would have liked.

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"The product is everything for us and if we can work with the women's team and make them as professional as we possibly can with the support, the coaching and access facilities to be under the umbrella of a professional football club and all the things that come with that.

"There are a lot of teams in their division who aren't attached to professional clubs so they should have an advantage in that regard but at the moment they haven't been able to benefit from that.

"But Rome wasn't built in a day so if we can support them as best we can through this season then next season we'll do everything to integrate them into the club.

"Hopefully I've started to make some of those connections now. I've met with the ladies team, I've met Chris and it's fantastic to have them in the first round of the FA Cup and coming up against Leeds United is a big ask of them but it's a great challenge and it's something that we as a football club are fully behind and I'd encourage as many people as possible to come over and support them if they can on Sunday.”

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