It is mid-morning at Maiden Castle and Chris Turner and his Hartlepool FA Cup heroes are getting ready for training. This is the Maiden Castle on the south side of Durham, not to be confused with the Iron Age hill fort of the same name on the outskirts of Dorchester, where Terence Stamp memorably teased Julie Christie with his swordsmanship in John Schlesinger's classic adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd. This is the Durham University sports complex, where Newcastle United held their open-to-the-public training sessions during the days of Kevin Keegan's entertainers, and where the great Kenyan runner Paul Tergat won the first of his five world cross-country titles in 1995.
It was here that Turner and his Hartlepool United squad laid the groundwork for the result of the third round in the FA Cup: a 2-0 win against Stoke City at Victoria Park that came as a shaft of light in this gloom-laden season for North-east football. It is here that the League One side have been preparing for another tilt at Premier League opposition: their fourth-round engagement at home to Gianfranco Zola's West Ham tomorrow lunchtime. Times have moved on for Hartlepool since Brian Clough arrived at the club back in 1965 to find rain pouring through holes in the boardroom roof and to discover that training took place on the beach at Seaton Carew.
They have a director of sport now. That has been Turner's role since 2006. Following the dismissal of Danny Wilson on Boxing Day, he has also been performing the manager's duties, guiding Pools to only their second FA Cup win against a top-flight team. There has been much debate about whether the success against Stoke eclipsed the 1-0 third-round home win against Crystal Palace in 1993 as the greatest single result achieved by a club who have never played in the top two divisions of English football. For many Poolies, though, nothing could beat the August evening in 1988 when Hartlepool hit Manchester United for six in a pre-season friendly.
Turner needs no reminding of that 6-0 scoreline. He was on the suffering end of it as the Manchester United goalkeeper and gives a wry smile when he is asked to recount what happened when Alex Ferguson got his team – which included Norman Whiteside, Viv Anderson, Paul McGrath, Mick Duxbury, Lee Sharpe and Mark Robins – back to the dressing room. "I'm not going into that," Turner says. "It's all been well documented. Read Lee Sharpe's book."
Within the pages of My Idea of Fun, Sharpe devotes more space to the subject of Fergie's fury at Hartlepool than he does to his own fling with Abi Titmuss on Celebrity Love Island. He tells how Ferguson came into the dressing room "ranting and raving," telling the players they were "not fit to wear the red shirt of Manchester United," and how the manager's observation that only McGrath could hold his head high was met with a lone dissenting voice. That belonged to Turner. "You can't single out one person," the goalkeeper is said to have retorted. "We win as a team and we lose as a team."
According to Sharpe, what happened next was that Ferguson's "face started to turn the colour of a tomato, ripe enough to burst. I think he booted some kit bags out of the way to get at Chris Turner... He put his face just three or four inches from Chris's face – this was what they meant by the Alex Ferguson 'hairdryer.' Then he released it all and started tearing in, the air turning blue.
"'You little fucker,' he said, 'who the fucking hell do you think you are, telling me how to run this football club'." The tirade apparently lasted "for what seemed like five or 10 minutes," before Ferguson abated – only for Turner to make the mistake of adding, "Hang on a minute, all I'm saying is..." For his troubles, the goalkeeper got more of the same – and worse. The next month he was sold to Sheffield Wednesday for £175,000. Three years later he kept goal for the Wednesday side that beat Ferguson's United in the League Cup final.
If nothing else, the episode shows that Hartlepool have maintained their tradition of having men in charge who happen to have something about them. There was Clough, of course, who trained to drive the team bus (but never actually took the wheel for away trips), and Fred Westgarth, who kept chickens under the Clarence Road Stand to supplement his wages. There was also Bill Norman, who, when his players complained about training on a snow-covered pitch, stripped naked and rolled about in the white stuff.
For Turner, this is his second spell in charge of team affairs at Victoria Park. The 50-year-old Sheffielder made his name in the North-east as the goalkeeper whose heroics helped Sunderland reach the 1985 League Cup final (where they lost 1-0 to Norwich). He made his name as manager in the region when he saved Hartlepool from relegation in the Football League's basement division in 1999 and then moulded the team that Mike Newell ultimately led to promotion after Turner left for the lure of his beloved Wednesday in 2002.
The length of his tenure as manager this time round has yet to be determined. "If things continue the way they are, we may just leave it till the end of the season," he says. "But we haven't made our minds up. The beauty of it is that we haven't got to rush into it."
For the time being, Turner is managing very nicely with a team who showed their capabilities back in August when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-1 at "the Vic" in the second round of the Carling Cup. His squad includes one familiar name: Ritchie Humphreys, whose goals shot Sheffield Wednesday to the top of the Premier League table at the start of the 1996-97 season.
"Everybody knows West Ham's players but they don't know our players," Turner says, looking ahead to tomorrow's challenge. "The West Ham lads have got no idea what we're like. For our players, it's their Cup final. They're playing against the eighth-top team in the Premier League. As a player, you relish games like this. We're not just going out to make up the numbers. We feel we have as good a chance as we did against West Brom and Stoke."
History beckons: Hartlepool have never reached the fifth round before. If they make it, maybe it will be Manchester United next – with Lee Sharpe looking on from a ringside seat.
When Pools became The Monkeys
They have always done things a little differently at Hartlepool, the club who fought a long battle for compensation against the German government when two bombs dropped by a Zeppelin destroyed their main stand in 1916, and whose mascot (Stuart Drummond, alias H'Angus the Monkey) became elected as the town's mayor in 2002. When the club won a campaign for re-election to the Football League in 1973 (one of a record 14 such applications), their players (among them a youthful Neil Warnock) recorded a pop song to celebrate.
"Never Say Die" was a classic of the football genre "Eleven bold lads from the far-off North," it opened. "You'll notice we're still bottom of the Fourth. Though we seldom win, boy, we never give in here in Hartlepool." The second verse was even better: "We go on the park and we're full of hope but some days it seems that we just can't cope." And the chorus was sheer poetry: "We've got the ducks here but never the luck, here in Hartlepool. We're not very flash and we haven't the cash, here in Hartlepool." A columnist in The Sun suggested that the lyrics would "pimple a goose".
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