One hundred and ten years of football, and it’s only taken two of them to take Hartlepool United to the brink.
The club, a North-East and lower league institution, is only hours away at any time from administration.
Up for sale, on the edge of a relegation scrap at the foot of the National League, owners who won’t put another penny into the club to keep it going and without any money in the bank to pay staff wages, these are the most troubled of times at Victoria Park.
Their first season in Non-League football has proved a thousand times worse than anyone expected.
When Pools were sold in the summer of 2015, it was a debt-free club. Owners Increased Oil Recovery had overseen the best of times at the club, when promotion and play-off campaigns were the norm.
But when the oil industry they were heavily involved in dried up, they needed a way out. And so the collapse started.
Along came, at first, a consortium by the name of TMH – The Monkey Hangers, in a quirky throwback to the town’s heritage.
Funny they were not. IOR and astute chairman Ken Hodcroft saw them off before the deal went through. At the back end of last year two of the would-be buyers were jailed for fraud.
Six months later, after Ronnie Moore instigated the ‘Great Escape’ to keep Pools in the Football League at the expense of Tranmere and Cheltenham, and Gary Coxall and JPNG, an Essex-based recruitment firm, took over.
Coxall was a different character to Hodcroft and won everyone over with his chirpy nature and bubbly outlook.
By the time he left at the start of May last year, the club was in a complete mess on and off the pitch. The good work of IOR had been undone in a period of pure turmoil behind the scenes.
It was announced last week that Cleveland Police have launched an investigation into the club’s finances after Victoria Park officials handed over a comprehensive dossier.
Where the FA fit and proper persons test comes into play when an interested party is looking to buy a football club is anyone’s guess.
Dropping out of the Football League in May, as Newport County scored late to condemn Pools to the drop, hit hard.
It was hoped they would follow the likes of Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham in recent years and bounce straight back.
Instead, they are on the verge of following York City and Stockport and plunging further down the pyramid; and that’s if they are able to continue at all.
Chairwoman Pam Duxbury could drop the club into administration at any time. She has been loathe to do so, being of the opinion that all it brings is a ten-point National League deduction. Contracts remain in place, debts still linger.
A tax bill, of around £48,000 was paid last Thursday. Not by the club, who were the subject of a winding-up order from HMRC, but by a supporter. It comes to something when the payment is made by a fan and announced on a Facebook page.
Rachel Cartwright set up a JustGiving page with the aim of saving her club. Over £86,000 was raised by football fans across the globe.
Many felt she was better off not paying the tax man and letting the club go, to use the money to start afresh a few divisions below the National League.
Even after that payment, there’s every chance they will tumble into liquidation.
Since being put up for sale officially – and they were quietly seeking new investment long before then – there’s been little interest. Who would want to take over a Non-League football club with £1.8m of debt, a mess of finances behind the scenes, and little hope of getting back on an even keel let alone progressing?
One Hartlepool businessman was set to take over, but felt even the £1.5m he was willing to put in immediately would only have been putting his finger in the dam.
Pools have had their problems in the past, but nothing on the current scale.
There’s a handful of National League teams in financial turmoil. Pools might not be top of the league, but they certainly head the ‘money mess’ table.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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