Minnows fashion a journey that isn't monkey business

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The Independent Online

In Hartlepool, the times are assuredly a-changing. The legendary monkey washed ashore from a French shipwreck in Napoleonic days would these days be greeted by a marina and a designer retail store rather than a seeth-ing mob intent on stringing him up as a Gallic spy. He could always buy Armani sun glasses and some French Connection gear as a disguise.

In Hartlepool, the times are assuredly a-changing. The legendary monkey washed ashore from a French shipwreck in Napoleonic days would these days be greeted by a marina and a designer retail store rather than a seeth-ing mob intent on stringing him up as a Gallic spy. He could always buy Armani sun glasses and some French Connection gear as a disguise.

Or he could pop along to the Civic Centre to see Stuart Drummond, who was elected mayor on the strength of his popularity as H'Angus, the monkey-suited mascot of Hartlepool United and a promise of free bananas for children. Then again, if he were washed ashore this afternoon, le singe would probably have his run of the town. Some 16,000 Hartlepudlians will be in Cardiff to see if Hartlepool United can complete a transformation from the butt of even their own jokes into a club of second-tier status in English football.

Sheffield Wednesday, their opponents in the First Division play-off final at the Millennium Stadium, have their proud tradition as four-times champions of England and three-time winners of the FA Cup. Pools - as the North-easterners are known to their followers, from their days as Hartlepools United - have their less glorious claim to fame as holders of the record for the most re-election applications to the League, 14 of them. It prompted their outclassed class of 1973 to cut the finest of all football records. "Never Say Die" opened with the lament "Eleven bold lads from the far off north, you'll notice we're still bottom of the Fourth" and included the classic line "We're not very flash and we haven't the cash, here in Hartlepool".

They have always done things differently at Victoria Park, or the Victoria Ground, as it was known in its more ramshackle days - such as in the 1950s, when Fred Westgarth kept chickens under the Clarence Road stand to supplement his income as manager, and in the 1960s, when Brian Clough took out a public service vehicle licence so he could drive the team bus.

The club's fortunes may have changed in recent years, since the Aberdeen-based company Increased Oil Recovery became owners in 1997 and Chris Turner started to turn the tide on the pitch back in 1999, but the idiosyncracies have continued. Mike Newell, Turner's successor, was not offered a new contract after guiding the club to promotion from what was then the Third Division in 2003. Then, three weeks ago, Neale Cooper was asked to relinquish his post as Newell's successor, just three days before the final fixture of the regulation First Division season.

Pools still needed a point to qualify for the play-offs. They gained it with a 2-2 draw at Bournemouth, then overcame Tranmere in a shoot-out in the play-off semi-finals - thanks to the heroics of the Greek goalkeeper, Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, and a winning kick struck by Ritchie Humphreys, whose three goals in four games of the 1996-97 season put David Pleat's Sheffield Wednesday temporarily top of the Premiership table.

Martin Scott - promoted from assistant manager to caretaker - has been responsible for picking up the reins following Cooper's sudden departure and guiding Hartlepool to the brink of the Coca- Cola Championship. According to many close to the club, he has also been largely responsible for the club's progress in recent years, grooming a crop of talented young players as youth team coach under Turner and formulating a good deal of the training and the tactics as Cooper's assistant. Just 37, the former Sunderland left-back has a fair chance of permanent promotion, although a return by Turner, who left for Sheffield Wednesday and has since moved on to Stockport, has also been mooted.

"I've told the chairman that I won't speak to him about the position until after the play-offs," Scott said. "But, yes, I am ambitious." So was the young Clough, under whom Scott spent a month on loan at Nottingham Forest during his days as a Rotherham player.

As a native Sheffielder, who started out playing for Hillsborough Celtic, Scott knows all about the might of the club he will be facing this afternoon. Wednesday have average gates of 23,100 - compared to Hartlepool's 5,188 - and will be backed by 40,000 fans. Still, the Hartlepudlian Davids did subject the South Yorkshire Goliaths to a 3-0 slaying at Victoria Park only last month. And Scott has little doubt about their ability to compete as a Championship side.

"Yes, we'd need to strengthen," he said, "but we're not far off coping at that level. We've got players who are very capable of stepping up."

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