(OUR LOCAL HAIR-O! Liam Noble sports his Ronaldo haircut, like the Brazilian’s 2002 style. PICTURE: MI News & Sport)
By Jon Couch
When it comes to finding incentives for Hartlepool United to achieve at least a play-off place this season, the list is endless.
It could be for the club’s new owners, who saved Pools from going under last season amid debts of £1.8 million, for the loyal fans, who themselves injected £200,000 to keep the club running throughout the uncertainty, or maybe for their talented young manager Matthew Bates, given a chance to make a name for himself at the age of just 31.
Either way, they’ll be no shortage of celebration at Victoria Park as the club look to reclaim their proud 96-year stay in the Football League after 18 months in exile.
But for star midfielder Liam Noble, famed for his slick set-pieces and even slicker hairstyles, there’s another pretty good reason why the club will be gunning for a top-seven place come May – and football fans everywhere are going to love it!
“After the recent 0-0 draw at Leyton Orient [club honorary president and Soccer Saturday presenter] poked his head around the dressing room door,” Noble explained to The NLP.
“He said that if we got to the play-offs then he would copy my ‘Ronaldo 2002’ haircut and sport it on Soccer Saturday! That’s all the incentive the players needed, can you imagine Jeff Stelling presenting Soccer Saturday with a ‘Ronaldo’!?”
Noble, though, accepts that his days of sporting wild haircuts may be over – by the orders of girlfriend Abigail.
The former Carlisle, Notts County and Forest Green Rovers ace has just become a father for a second time to three-month-old Millie, joining six-year-old brother Tommy at their Newcastle home.
“The girlfriend wasn’t too chuffed with the ‘Ronaldo’ to be honest,” the 27-year-old muttered sheepishly. “When the lads get get bored, we decide to do something a bit silly and it’s usually me who ends up getting a new haircut.”
Don’t be fooled by appearances, though, it’s Noble’s mature approach to life and his football which has made him one of the most sought-after players in the National League.
After helping Forest Green to promotion to the elite 92 for the first time in their history in 2016-17, earning his place in the Team of the Year in the process, Noble returned to Notts County for a second spell before being lured closer to his north-east roots by Bates in the summer.
“It was a no-brainer really,” he added. “When I left Notts County, I wanted to be closer to my girlfriend and the kids so when I got the call from Hartlepool it was an easy decision to make.
“Living in the north-east, I’d followed their plight last year and with new owners in place I knew it was a club on the up.
“There was a real buzz about the place as soon as I arrived and there still is now. I’m back working with Ged McNamee, who was my academy director for 10 years at Sunderland, so I’m really enjoying life here.”
And why wouldn’t he be? Bates’ side made a storming start to the campaign, losing just one of their opening 12 matches, only for a recent blip to see them just outside the play-off places – but still very much in the hunt.
Noble admits that their fast start took the newly-assembled squad by surprise and claims it has heightened expectations among fans and players alike.
“Everyone from the coaching staff and players knew we were in for a tough season so expectation wasn’t that high to be honest,” Noble continued.
“We expected to enjoy this season, give the club some stability and then kick on but, after such a good start, all that kind of changed. We couldn’t have asked for any better.
“But for a few late equalisers and missed chances, we might have been higher but we’ve come up against the big clubs in recent weeks, like Leyton Orient, Sutton and Wrexham and held up to them, which gives us confidence and something to strive for. We were under the radar but now we’ve got people talking again.”
Much credit for the progression must go to rookie boss Bates, who has already justified the faith put in him by Stelling and his consortium of new owners – and Noble says he has the full backing of the players too.
“The gaffer has been spot on with me ever since I arrived and is hugely popular here with everyone,” Noble said of the former Middlesbrough defender. “Everyone loves him.
“You forget sometimes that he’s just 31 and people must remember that. He did really well keeping the club up last season in difficult circumstances and is doing well this season.
“It’s great to see a young English manager given a chance and doing it in the Conference and moving the club forward.”