England’s fifth tier may be the lowest level the club has ever competed in – but a club that has been crying out for some success for well over a decade finally has something to be hopeful about in the National League.
The 2020-21 campaign is now into its latter half and Pools have just 15 games left to seal their fate. Winning a first league title in the club’s history would certainly be welcomed with open arms but it would come with a sense of incompleteness knowing they have done so without the often lauded support of the Poolie fan base.
With fans or without, the goal is promotion and Dave Challinor’s side are doing their utmost to achieve it this season.
Despite a poor run of form in November and into December which saw Pools drop as low as 14th in the table, the side have occupied the play-off places for the vast majority of the campaign.
After failing to break into the top 10 in their previous three seasons in the National League, almost everyone at Pools would have taken a top seven finish this time out. But now the aim seems to be shifting higher.
Being crowned league champions is a huge ask, but securing a play-off place is looking more achievable by the week. A top five finish would guarantee a home play-off match at Victoria Park, potentially in front of a crowd for the first time in well over a year.
And the club have been pushing the boat out to give Challinor the best chance of achieving that. The signings of Luke Armstrong and Jamie Sterry may go down as some of the best pieces of business the club have done in years, particularly if they achieve promotion.
Hartlepool have two players who would get into most sides in League One and Two. Yet they’re at Victoria Park.
The club would be very fortunate to get the opportunity to acquire players of their calibre in the fifth tier again.
With that comes a sense of ‘make or break’ this season. Pools will not get a better shot at promotion from the National League than the one they have right now.
It’s painful to hear, but Armstrong and Sterry almost certainly won’t be back if the club fail to get promoted. With regular football under his belt, Sterry will walk into a League One or Two side while Armstrong, despite being keen to stay in the north east, demands a respectively large wage and has a lot of interest from elsewhere.
The majority of Pools’ squad are out of contract in the summer, including Saturday’s match winner Luke Molyneux, who has had several Football League clubs monitoring his progress.
But the continued backing of Challinor in the transfer market with the loan additions of Jake Cooper and Tom White to help bolster an already strong squad reinforces the notion that Pools are going all in this season.
Hartlepool are still hopeful of getting White’s loan from Blackburn Rovers extended but they’ve been unable to get anything agreed so far despite the player being keen to stay at Victoria Park.
With 15 games to go, the squad looks strong enough to mount a serious promotion challenge, but there is still some uncertainty over what the future holds.
A Companies House update confirmed two new registration of charge forms had been submitted by the club showing a mortgage loan agreement between Hartlepool United and Clarence 18 Limited.
The documents show that Clarence 18 – the company set up by Pools chairman Raj Singh when acquiring the club in March 2018 – has secured the loans against the lease and fixtures and fittings of Victoria Park.
Given the club are already around £2.5 million indebted to Singh, these latest documents have led to plenty of speculation and concern over whether further debt is being put on the club.
In response, Hartlepool dismissed the update as a ‘non story’ but would not provide further clarification when approached by The Mail for comment.
There is no doubt that Pools’ success on the pitch this season has helped mask some fragility behind the scenes.
Despite this, the club have still been able to secure some key sponsorship deals with Nuffield Health and new stand sponsors Brunel Group in recent weeks.
Following the departure of Martin Jesper as acting executive director in December, former Sunderland AFC Foundation of Light commercial director Phil King has been quietly overseeing things at Victoria Park.
King has been at the club since the start of the season though his hands on involvement has increased over the past few months due to the lack of an official chief executive officer, a role the club advertised for back in November.
Almost everything behind the scenes at the moment is a short term solution involving very few contracted full-time staff members. Cost-effective, but not a sustainable model in the EFL.
Even the club’s youth set-up has been switched to a college team. Challinor insists there remains a clear pathway to Pools’ first team through this system although an unpaid programme makes attracting some of the region’s best young talent more difficult.
It may not be perfect at Pools, but channelling investment onto the field seems to be paying off this season – but there’s still a long way to go.
Failure to secure promotion and Pools would be back to square one having spent a large amount of money for very little in return due to a lack of supporters.
The fact that talismanic manager Challinor is contracted until the end of next season is a huge source of encouragement that ensures some form of consistency and plan going into 2021-21 no matter what division the club finds itself in.
But in reality, Pools will not have a better squad in the National League than the one they have at their disposal right now.
This is their chance, and they need to take it.