Rugby Union: Gibbon charts decline and fall

Simon Turnbull discovers much more is at stake than mere north- east pride today
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The Independent Online
The supreme irony surrounding the Pilkington Cup derby at Kingston Park today is that each club possesses what the other is desperate to acquire. The Newcastle Falcons, for all their riches, crave a place in the top flight of England's club structure; West Hartlepool, Courage League One members for three seasons now, are in need of cash. The contrasting tale of the two North-east neighbours might be a parable of life in the professional era.

West Hartlepool's troubles can be traced to the demise of those good old shamateur days, and to Newcastle's sudden emergence at the head of the new, monied ranks. At the time the rugby union revolution broke, West Hartlepool had elite players to match their elite status (Rob Wainwright and Tim Stimpson); Newcastle were star-less, and struggling to cope as second-class citizens in League Two. Fifteen months later, while Newcastle are powering on an upwardly mobile path under Rob Andrew, their regional rivals are in the direst of straits.

Since the shock resignation a fortnight ago of Phillip Yuill, West Hartlepool's executive chairman and chief sponsor, it has emerged that the club are some pounds 650,000 in debt and could be forced to sell their ground to cover a pounds 200,000 repayment due by the end of May. In a letter urging members to attend a special general meeting on 3 January, Bob Bateman, their president, points to the significantly lower than expected cut the club received from the Sky television deal as the root of their problems. They anticipated a pounds 1m injection and implemented a pounds 700,000 budget for the season. The pounds 337,000 share that was ultimately agreed has left the books somewhat imbalanced.

Frank Gibbon calls it "The economics of the madhouse". Gibbon, a former secretary of the National Clubs' Association, was Bateman's predecessor as West Hartlepool's president and is still a club member. "They have brought in a group of players, administrators and backroom people with no money to cover the costs," he said. "You can't run a business relying on pounds 1m you have no guarantee of receiving. In 30 years a group of us had taken the club from being pleased to reach the second round of the Durham Cup to a place in the first division. We were told a more business-like approach was required but in 18 months the club has been brought to its knees. It's not sour grapes on my part. I always expected something like this but any bystander could see what was going to happen.

"We were never going to live in the first division as soon as Sir John Hall put his marker down. With no benefactor like that, West can't afford wages of pounds 700,000. We would be better starting from scratch and doing it the way we used to, accepting that we'll drop into the second division or even below."

Considering they have won just one league game in the past season and a half, West Hartlepool seem out of their depth. They lost all 18 games last season but were reprieved by the top flight's expansion from 10 clubs to 12. This time only victories will save them and the success against Saracens in September appears to have been a one-off blip in a consistently depressing run.

Of equal concern is the fact that gates have dropped from above the 3,000 mark to between 1,000 and 2,500. Those who formerly flocked to see predominantly local lads take on the best in England are not so keen to follow "Welsh" Hartlepool, as the team Mark Ring has assembled with marked help from the land of his fathers has become known.

Bateman dismisses talk of a crisis as "alarmist". "We have hit problems, like other clubs," he said. "But we know what our resources will be over the next two years and we can see our way to managing our finances, spread over that period. Talk about the sale of Brierton Lane is nothing new; it is something we have been investigating for some time.

"It's very easy to criticise with hindsight. But while the dispute between Epruc and the RFU went on we had to plan if we were going to compete this season. We were stripped of players by other clubs last season and we had to make plans to replace them. We have followed the long-standing club policy which was implemented when Mr Gibbon was president: to work as hard as we can to create a first XV to play at the top.

"We have been confronted with a professional game and we have had to adapt as best as we could. We've had many generous and loyal sponsors, but not on the scale of NEC or Sir John Hall or Frank Warren. We have no big-money benefactor."

It was not always thus, in relative terms at least. Back in 1981, a Sunderland businessman called Bernie Nesham had a son who played for West Hartlepool and a pal in New Zealand whose sons fancied a season in England. Thus, as much by luck as the indirect financial help which paid for their travel and accommodation, Gary and Alan Whetton played their part in Hartlepool's West-side story.

The club's rise to top league status from the homeless days of 1965, when they were evicted from Hartlepool greyhound stadium, was a rags to riches tale. Now they could be forced to sell up and move in with Hartlepool United. "I find it heartbreaking," Frank Gibbon said, "that after 30 years of hard work the club might turn full-circle."