AFTER 106 years Hartlepool United Football Club finds itself at a crossroads in its proud history.
Managerless Pools are six points adrift with relegation out of the Football League a very real possibility, the club has been knocked out of the FA Cup in humiliating fashion by non-league Blyth Spartans and are searching for their third manager of a turbulent campaign.
Over recent months the club has gone from one crisis to the next but defeat to Spartans felt like a turning point.
Long-suffering supporters vented their anger and frustration in equal measure and just over 12-hours later manager Paul Murray paid the price for defeat with his job after just 45 days in charge, the shortest of any manager in the club’s history.
In some quarters, Pools have become a laughing stock but the fans aren’t laughing. Instead they have demanded answers from club chief executive Russ Green and chairman Ken Hodcroft.
Back in May 2005, Pools were within eight minutes of securing promotion to the Championship before eventually falling to Sheffield Wednesday in the League One play-off final in Cardiff.
Next May marks the 10-year reunion anniversary of the most successful squad in Pools’ history and it would be a crying shame if the celebration became a wake following relegation from the league.
Nobody wants relegation to the Conference and clearly Pools need the support of fans to help them drag themselves out of the mire they are in but they also need answers.
We have come up with a list of 10 questions around a number of hot topics and the club has responded.
Question One: What were the reasons for Paul Murray’s sacking as manager after just 45 days in charge and did the club get the appointment wrong in the first place?
On Saturday morning, Murray’s brief tenure along with his assistant boss Willie Donachie came to an end and the club issued a 42-word statement.
The statement was only three words shy of the amount of days Murray had been in charge and it came with the usual caveat “The club will be making no further comment at this time.”
It has become a commonly-used phrase and it is one that frustrates and annoys fans in equal measure. All it does is fuel intrigue and rumour.
The club’s response: “Paul and Willie left the club based on many factors and not just the Blyth result although, like the other reasons (financial failure and embarrassment), it was a factor. HUFC requirements are enjoy your work, don’t embarrass the club or yourself, and don’t get relegated.
“Their record up to the point of leaving was not in the interests of the club prior to the critical Christmas and New Year period, and this was despite the fact eight players had been approved by the club for Paul to bring in to help.
“With the experience of Willie and the keen attitude of Paul, the club had hoped it was the right decision to appoint them to ensure results could improve. The mystery of second-half performances by the players also caused concern, even for Paul.
“However, as there appeared to be no solution to that, or other issues, then a change had to be made to try and address that problem as quickly as possible.”
Question Two: What type of manager are the club looking to appoint next and what is the timescale for the appointment?
It is no secret Pools have to get this decision right – their fifth in three years. With the club bottom of League Two they are staring into the abyss of the Conference. Relegation would be a disaster for the club and the town.
There are no guarantees, of course, but it is crying out for an experienced manager with good contacts and the chance to spend some hard cash on new players in January.
The club’s response: “A manager who can quickly prevent poor second-half performances, instil a winning mind-set for 95 minutes and select a few players who can bring grit and determination in to the current squad.
“The timescale will be as soon as practical.”
Question Three: Will the new manager be allowed to spend money in the January Transfer Window on transfer fees or wages for free agents?
Pools need to weigh up spending in January to give themselves a shot at staying up with four or five permanent signings, compared with the cost of falling out of the Football League.
It would be an absolute travesty if that happened.
The club’s response: “Yes, as noted above and within reason, but HUFC will focus on free agents and any spending must conform to the Football League SCMP [Salary Cost Management Protocol] rules.”
Question Four: Can you outline what the club’s transfer policy is? There has been an over-reliance on loan players from other club’s academies recently, is that set to continue?
The current squad is arguably the worst in the club’s recent history, which is reflected in the league table. It is unbalanced and lacking in pace, creativity and goalscorers. It was at the start of the season and it still is now. Colin Cooper must shoulder a lot of the blame for his summer recruitment and over-reliance on loan signings – especially from former club Middlesbrough.
Murray went for the approach of bringing in eight new signings but questions remain as to whether they are better than what was already there.
The club’s response: “The club will always listen to sensible offers that are in the interests of the club and the player.
“Unfortunately, players are often approached by their agents about transfers before the club is aware, and once players have agreed terms with another club via his agent he wants to leave HUFC (eg. Luke James) and the negotiation power of the club to get the best terms is greatly reduced.
“HUFC agree that there has been an over-reliance on loan players, which first came about through Colin Cooper’s contacts with Middlesbrough FC, and the fact that HUFC were restricted by SCMP. The club usually – as the past track record shows – does not like having too many loan players. Unfortunately, if the transfer window is closed then loans are the only thing that can help HUFC with additional players.”
Question Five: What has happened to the staggered income from the sales of Luke James and Jack Baldwin and can that be used to improve the current squad?
Baldwin went to Peterborough United for £500,000 and James for at least £500,000, with add-ons for the pair of them. Why did Pools agree to staggered instalments before selling two of their best assets – neither of which have been adequately replaced?
The club’s last significant signing for hard cash was five years ago, the £60,000 paid to bring Adam Boyd back.
The club’s response: “The club has previously mentioned this issue in the chairman’s Programme notes. £500,000 was paid for Jack Baldwin, spread over 18 months. That was Peterborough United’s terms and they were not negotiable (see Q4 above ref player already wanting to leave HUFC).
“The Football League class all of that £500,000 as income in season 2013-14 for SCMP purposes, even though the club only received £100,000 in that season. The payments due in this season and in 2015-16 are not counted as income so cannot be spent on players if HUFC are at the SCMP limit (which we usually are).
“The Luke James money is treated exactly the same for SCMP purposes, i.e. all income in season 2014-15 and we can spend £500,000 – the problem is, we only get £200,000 cash this season (£100,000 last August and £100,000 in January 2015), the other £300,000 will not materialise until season 2015-16 but the Football League will not treat it as income in that season, so if HUFC are at, or near to, the SCMP limit it can’t be spent on players.”
Question Six: Why wasn’t last season’s top scorer Luke James replaced properly? Peterborough United made their first approach at the start of August and, even though James left on deadline day, no plans seemed to have been put in place to replace him?
It is no secret Posh wanted James from early August. SportMail first reported on August 7 that the League One side were in for James, who later went on strike to force the move, and he eventually signed on transfer deadline day.
Why wasn’t more done to replace his 16 goals last season?
The club’s response: “See Q4 above. We did not want him to leave, but he had already done a deal in principle. The money of £500,000 and the payment terms were not acceptable to HUFC. In early August, Peterborough United wanted to pay HUFC monthly over 36 months! And HUFC did not want Luke James to leave.
“They ensured the negotiations dragged on until the very last minute, leaving James not turning up to training and putting in two transfer requests.
“HUFC had no choice but to let him go on deadline day, but managed to get the payments made over 18 months and in £100,000 tranches.
“Up to that point, HUFC had no plans to replace him as it was hoped to convince him to stay.
“We believed it was in his interests to stay, and HUFC were not just wanting cash for the sake of it.
“In addition, because the season 2014-15 SCMP rules had started, HUFC did not have enough income (per SCMP rules) to be able to spend on a new player of James’ calibre.”
Question Seven: What does the club plan to spend the £90,000 income from the FA Cup this season (£18,000 First Round win and £72,000 in TV money for the Second Round) on? Will that be used to improve the squad?
The club’s response: “Such income will be used to ensure the club can help reduce its annual losses and will assist in helping to strengthen the squad. The club needs as much income as possible to ensure the club progresses but it was disappointing to note that certain fans and media go on about HUFC not spending funds on players, yet will not support the club by buying a £20 FA Cup ticket.
“If HUFC had reduced the prices to £10 then all the Blyth supporters would have only had to pay £10 – and they were guaranteed to come, hence the £20 was charged. Remember, Blyth get 45 per cent of the ticket income, with HUFC only getting 45per cent and the FA getting 10per cent. The club needed to maximise its 45 per cent.
“The club couldn’t guarantee that a lot of fans would come, particularly when the fans and media have threatened more than once this season to boycott games. All such actions do is reduce income even more, so less is to spend on players and, as a result, there is less income to go towards the SCMP calculation.”
Question Eight: With the club six-points adrift at the bottom of the Football League, who is responsible and what is the plan to get out of the current situation and avoid relegation into the Conference?
When it comes to blame, how long have you got? The players, certainly, have played their part with several managers questioning their character, desire and passion this season. Cooper, who resigned after Pools fell to the bottom of the league, is also culpable, and the form didn’t pick up under Murray either.
The club’s hierarchy Russ Green and Ken Hodcroft must also take responsibility for decisions made.
The club’s response: “1) Ultimately, the chairman is responsible for all aspects of the club.
“2) In addition, the past two managers are responsible. They make the decisions on training, players (and sourcing new players), formations and tactics and selecting favourite players. Both managers (as have previous managers) have had the full supports from HUFC and IOR, and approximately 95 per cent of players they have asked for they have had permission to try and obtain to better the squad.
“3) Also, the SCMP rules which restrict HUFC spending on players because the club does not have enough guaranteed support and income.”
Question Nine: Is the club willing to meet Hartlepool Borough Council’s asking price for the Victoria Park ground or begin re-negotiations again with the local authority? What are the plans for the ground if IOR did purchase it in future?
Ken Hodcroft claims the council has failed to support the club over the sale of Victoria Park and hit out over a plan to re-introduce five-yearly rent reviews but the council’s stance is clear. They say IOR must make a realistic offer and agree that Victoria Park is only ever used for football purposes – something the club has always agreed to.
It is an uneasy stalemate but a decision one way or the other is needed soon.
The club’s response: “HUFC did ask the council how much they wanted several months ago. Unofficially, the club was told a figure. The club offered that figure and it was rejected.
“HBC do not recognise the importance of IOR owning the ground. They have not even offered IOR a draft purchase agreement to review, nor have they accepted HUFC’s previous offers and development ideas.
“Certain council members just don’t want to sell the ground, others do. Some with limited vision would rather have rent for the next 50 years, plus rent increases.
“HUFC have had many plans in the past and have plans for the future, which the council are aware of, but unfortunately the council have procrastinated for so long the opportunity appears to have been missed, especially not with the drop in oil price.
“No doubt they just focus on the price of petrol being reduced at the pump and not the bigger picture at HUFC.”
Question Ten: What is IOR’s long-term vision for the club? Is IOR committed to the club for the long term, even if Pools are relegated out of the Football League?
The club used to hold AGM meetings every December which were a great chance to get an insight into the club’s financial situation plus an annual statement from Ken Hodcroft – that no longer happens due to cost cutting.
The playing squad isn’t up to scratch, even investment in the pitch itself has reduced, along with other cost cutting measures. That will only accelerate if the unthinkable happens.
The club’s response: “IOR always considers its investment and economics of any of its business models.
“The situation with the council is very serious and the club has even hinted to the local MP to take notice but with no response.
“Until the council sell the ground, then IOR will always evaluate its forward position and decisions, no matter what league the club is in.”