Football: Record that leaves Hartlepool with a score to settle: Derek Hodgson on how the Second Division club's day of Cup glory has proved no inspiration for their season

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The Independent Online
HARTLEPOOL UNITED are no ordinary football team; things tend to happen to them.

In 1916 a Zeppelin dropped a bomb on their main stand, some time later they set the record (109) for the number of goals conceded in a Fourth Division season, and are still the only club to have had three hat-tricks scored against them in the same match (by Ron Barnes, Roy Ambler and Wyn Davies of Wrexham, on 3 March 1962).

But even by their standards the first nine weeks of 1993 have been remarkable. On the first weekend of the new year the Second Division club were the giantkillers of the FA Cup's third round, Andy Saville's penalty knocking out Crystal Palace of the Premier League. It was the last goal they have scored.

Last Saturday's defeat by Bolton saw them break Coventry City's record of playing 17 hours 43 minutes without scoring a goal. It was set in 1919. Since then there has been Tuesday's goalless draw with Wigan so, going in to today's game at Blackpool, the record stands at 1,176 minutes. And counting.

Every team aspires to make cup triumph the catalyst for league success. Few, if any, can have got it as spectacularly wrong as Hartlepool.

It was not as if the defeat of Palace was a complete surprise. Under Alan Murray, who was appointed when the late Cyril Knowles fell ill, they began the season well and victory over Swansea City, at home, in October, would have taken Hartlepool to the top of the Second Division, the highest position in their history. They lost 1-0, unluckily.

Yet after their day of glory everything that could have gone wrong has done. A few days before their fourth-round tie with Sheffield United they were served with a winding-up order. The club has received three such orders since 1980, and this last escape was accomplished in no humdrum fashion.

The Supporters' Association were opening their purpose-built club, The Corner Flag, when, that afternoon, their chairman, Dave Latimer, took a telephone call from the Hartlepool Mail: 'We were all set to go when the phone rang at 5.45. They told me that the club could be wound up that very day. I was totally banjaxed.'

The truth is that the club survives only because of people like Dave Latimer. He is 43 and has supported them all his life. This season he has missed two matches, home and away. His wife accompanies him. His son, David, 19, has seen every match while his 14-year-old daughter, Jill, makes the sausage sandwiches at the Corner Flag. 'Oh, aye, you could say we're all quite keen.'

A month ago Murray, who could claim to be the most successful manager in the club's history, was fired and Viv Busby, who had been Denis Smith's coach at Sunderland, took over. 'Alan had a bit of a raw deal but we had hit a slide. We were surprised when it happened but the board probably felt there had to be a change. Certainly Mr Busby seems more outgoing than Alan Murray, a better PR man,' Latimer said.

Why was Murray fired? The chairman, Garry Gibson, a 38- year-old local businessman, said: 'The team's performances were depressing the crowd. We felt a new face was neeed to revive the season and the players have responded favourably - even if they can't score]

'We were averaging 3,000 last year, sometimes reaching 4,000. The fans started voting with their feet - we were down to 1,700 this week but I have to say I think they have been very patient. I don't think they've been too disappointed with the play, just the lack of goals.'

Such a view is endorsed by Latimer. 'Oh, it's been frustrating,' he said. 'You see, we're not playing badly, we just can't get the ball in the net. Every opposing goalkeeper has has a blinder once he's seen our shirts. This is probably the best Hartlepool team in my time and we're too good to go down.'

Busby, who established a good reputation as a coach at Roker and, before that, at Stoke, also praises his team: 'When we played Wigan in midweek, and the record was in danger, we had TV cameras here and a lot of buzz. I've been in charge for three games now and can't claim to put my finger on why we aren't scoring but I have seen there's not too much wrong with our football. I've changed the training and I've pushed the front men further upfield, into the danger areas; they were were hanging back in midfield.

'All the fuss puts extra pressure on our front men (Lennie Johnrose and Saville had 27 goals between them before the drought) who feel they are to blame. They were hanging their heads aftewards and I told them I couldn't ask for more. If we had won one of these three games, with goals from others, no one would have noticed that the strikers had dried up. It's a matter of confidence.'

It is, perhaps, appropriate that it would be possible to see every episode of The Prisoner while waiting for Pool to score, but as they go in to today's game Busby is taking a determinedly upbeat view: 'Every minute's play is another minute towards our next goal.'

(Photograph omitted)