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The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Mark Shar­man

WHEN Hartle­pool United take on Derby County in the FA Cup next Satur­day, they’ll be fol­lowed, anx­iously, by thou­sands of arm­chair fans, most of whom could no more pin­point the town on a map than they could find Tim­buktu.

They’re all mem­bers of Jeff Stelling’s Blue-and-White Army, cour­tesy of Sky Sports’ Soc­cer Satur­day.

The pro­gramme is unmissable if you’re in front of a TV on Satur­day af­ter­noons and Stelling, as the ac­claimed host, com­bines a deep knowl­edge of facts and fig­ures with zeal and hu­mour as the goals come in from around the coun­try.

But when it comes to Hartle­pool, his home-town team, he’s about as im­par­tial as Don­ald Trump on the cam­paign trail.

A score in a Pools match – for or, more usu­ally, against – evokes a Stelling re­ac­tion wor­thy of any fan on the ter­races. It’s in­fec­tious, the au­di­ence are liv­ing it with him and peo­ple from across Bri­tain have voiced their sup­port.

“I met a lit­tle old lady in a ser­vice sta­tion,” says Jeff,“and she told me her sec­ond team is Hartle­pool now. We seem to have cre­ated an army. Peo­ple write, I’ve been sent team shirts… even a signed foot­ball from some­one in Devon.”

At this point, if you’re not fa­mil­iar with the Stelling an­tics, I rec­om­mend YouTube to see him im­plore a ref­eree to blow for time in a cru­cial game, or dis­con­nect his mi­cro­phone in ex­cite­ment at a Hartle­pool goal, or, best of all, the James Brown saga (Hartle­pool had a striker of that name and when he scored Stelling pro­duced a doll of James Brown, the soul singer, and cel­e­brated to the tune of ‘I Feel Good.’)

So is this for real, or is it spiced with a pinch of show­busi­ness?

Jeff pro­vides hard ev­i­dence: “The League One play-off fi­nal against Sh­effield Wed­nes­day in May 2005. Hartle­pool were 2-1 up, seven min­utes away from the Cham­pi­onship.

“Then Chris West­wood gave away a penalty and was sent off. It was never a send­ing-off, the ball was in the keeper’s hands.

“That was 2-2 and you could see what was go­ing to hap­pen… Wed­nes­day had five strik­ers on the pitch and won 4-2 in ex­tra-time. To make it worse, we’d beaten them 3-0 a couple of weeks be­fore.

“They say you’re sup­posed to enjoy the big day, come-what-may. Well, I didn’t. In­stead of hav­ing a night out in Cardiff, I went straight back to the ho­tel, drew the cur­tains and went to bed at 6pm. Four hours later I got up and drove home.”

Stelling has been with Hartle­pool through thin and thin, since he first went to Vic­to­ria Park as a young boy, ac­com­pa­nied by his older sis­ter.

“I used to sit on the wall around the pitch, dan­gling my legs about two feet away from my he­roes. In those days there was no seg­re­ga­tion, so you could watch at the Town End in the first half, then walk to the Rink End for the sec­ond. You’d swap with op­pos­ing fans… there was ri­valry, but no trou­ble. We couldn’t af­ford to go ev­ery week, but they used to open the doors about 15 min­utes from the end to let peo­ple out, so we’d go in then. We’d usu­ally be two or three down.”

Hartle­pool or Hartle­pools United, de­pend­ing on the era, ha­bit­u­ally fin­ished in the base­ment of the Foot­ball League, a thread­bare club in a town whose proud work­ing-man’s history in ship­build­ing and steel was in de­press­ing post-war de­cline. So why did the young Jeff Stelling en­dure the pain?

Pain

“You ei­ther went to Vic­to­ria Park or you didn’t go to foot­ball. We didn’t have a car and pub­lic trans­port was poor, so we couldn’t get to Mid­dles­brough or Sun­der­land.

“We could walk to the match and back again – and you might just catch the foot­ball re­sults when you were home and sat in front of the fire.”

As all true fans know, Jeff had caught the bug, with all the emo­tions that en­tails, so he is quick to em­pha­sise Hartle­pool’s more suc­cess­ful spells in League One, and that Brian Clough and Peter Tay­lor started their man­age­ment part­ner­ship there, “chang­ing the men­tal­ity of the place”.

And, very oc­ca­sion­ally, the dark clouds of doom dis­perse, spilling a shaft of light on those toil­ers of the lower leagues.

Hartle­pool’s most re­cent joy came last sea­son, when a run of suc­cess un­der Ron­nie Moore saved them from im­pend­ing rel­e­ga­tion to the Na­tional League. They were a whop­ping ten points adrift at the bot­tom and writ­ten off, yet se­cured safety with a game to spare.

“That win, 2-1 over Ex­eter, was prob­a­bly our great­est day, be­cause if you do go down it’s very hard to get back,” says Jeff, suc­cinctly cap­tur­ing what sup­port­ing the likes of Hartle­pool is all about.

Since Oc­to­ber, Jeff has been the proud hon­orary pres­i­dent of Hartle­pool United, al­though work com­mit­ments mean he doesn’t see them play of­ten enough.

How­ever, he did watch the FA Cup re­play against Sal­ford City and con­fesses they were for­tu­nate to win through.

“We let Sal­ford punch them­selves out,” he said. “They could barely stand at the end, let alone run. It was one of the worst 90 min­utes you could see, but we beat them in ex­tra-time.”

So what of Cham­pi­onship heavy­weights Derby County in next week’s third round?

“I want very lit­tle to re­port all af­ter­noon,” says Jeff. “I really hope we don’t get a belt­ing, be­cause our home form is poor and con­fi­dence is al­ready low. It would be a mas­sive bonus go­ing for­ward if we could get some­thing.”

His le­gion of part-time Pools fans will doubt­less agree, but if his brave pre­dic­tion of a 1-1 draw comes true, it would be a gen­uine Cup shock. In fact, and with apolo­gies to Soc­cer Satur­day and pun­dit Chris Ka­mara, it would be “Un­be­liev­able Jeff”.

ON THEIR WAY: Scott Fen­wick breaks the dead­lock in ex­tra-time in Pools’ 2-0 sec­ond round re­play win against Sal­ford City

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