By Jeff Stelling, Soccer Saturday anchorman
It’s the international break which means I could have gone away for a bit of sun in Portugal. But where would I rather be: sitting on a beach in Portugal or visiting the Super Six Stadium to see Hartlepool take on Barrow?
I was also up for the Chesterfield game on Bank Holiday Monday and the atmosphere at the ground was better than I can remember for years. And years!
Of course it’s very early days and we’re not getting carried away, but there’s a real feelgood chatter around the place. The fans understand things aren’t like they used to be – this is a more austere regime and we warned them at the start that it’s about stability this season.
But with my fan cap on, we’ve recruited fantastically well and the optimism fills the air. We’ve had a good start even without our captain and leader Andrew Davies, who is injured at the moment, and without Luke Williams who has been captain at pretty much every England level from U17s to U20s and who will be a massive attribute for us.
We picked up some bargains like Peter Kioso, who was on the books of MK Dons and the kid from Hendon, Niko Muir – he looks a proper talent. Liam Noble has been a really good signing, he has quality but is also a great character.
I went in the dressing room before the Harrogate game to impart some words of wisdom. Every interjection, you knew it was from Noble. Inevitably as I’m walking out the door I heard a voice from behind me, ‘Unbelievable Jeff!’ It was obvious who it came from!
Luke James has also been excellent and epitomises everything the team is about – he runs through brick walls – and even Nicky Featherstone has scored twice already!
And I’ve got to mention the manager Matty Bates. He looks a different person this season. I hope he’ll forgive me for saying that last season, although I knew he was phenomenally popular in the dressing room, outwardly you couldn’t see the character you can see now.
He’ s alive, he’s bubbly and he’s loving it – it’s fantastic to see. I hope he goes on to have a really good managerial career and there’s no reason why he can’t reach the top level – hands off for now!
It’s all a far cry from six months ago when we didn’t think the club was going to make it to this season.At the worst stage we were 48 hours from liquidation. We’ve now sold more season tickets than we have for years, more replica shirts and the town has really got behind the team.
As many people know, when the club was struggling to survive I had to get involved. Mrs Stelling took some convincing I can assure you. But she knows the club is my passion.
Craig Hignett introduced me to Raj Singh last season and, being well aware of what happened at Darlington, it was hard not to be, as many people would be, suspicious.
But I liked him from the first day I met him. He was the only one willing to face the problems at Hartlepool head on and, let me tell you, there were a lot of them. All he wanted was someone to go in with him. I was that person. Raj has been brilliant.
We’ve got a new chief executive in Mark Maguire and new sponsors in Sky Bet and local brewery Camerons – the heartbeat of the town – are back involved again. Everyone is on side.
It makes the long trips to games worthwhile – even if we had to settle for a goalless draw with Barrow on Tuesday!
Non-League Day is fast approaching – it’s a great opportunity to celebrate this level of the game and raise some vital funds for Prostate Cancer UK, who are teaming up with Vanarama and the National League.
I’d like to think Pools fans are really embracing Non-League. They got to make the trip to Havant & Waterlooville last Saturday, somewhere we’ve never been. It’s an adventure.
Obviously we don’t want it to last for too many years but we can enjoy it all the same.
I mentioned the Harrogate game – their fans were brilliant. Two-one down with seconds to go and they were backing their team like mad.
People who turn up to watch a game on Non-League Day will see a good standard of football – I think it will surprise them.
The feel of it is also important. You’re very close to the action and it gives you a very different perspective. We could hear everything Martin Allen was barking out at his Chesterfield players recently! It was a brilliant sideshow.
For NLD to be tied in with the charity as well is even better. Vanarama have raised a lot of money in recent years and I’m sure they will over the coming weeks.
Anything that can help raise awareness of this terrible disease is fantastic – one man dying every 45 minutes from prostate cancer is a stat we can’t ignore.
The Man of Men badge has become part of footballing life. We see managers in the Premier League wearing it every week.
Now I get to go in the posh boardrooms and directors from both sides will be sporting the badge – it’s brilliant to see.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday for £1.50 in all good newsagents and supermarkets