Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hartlepool United v Swindon Town (League One)

Hartlepool, I’ll be the first to admit, is not the ideal place for the Scottish Football Blog to find itself stranded on the Saturday that the SPL kicks off. Still, I didn’t get where I am today by moaning – much, so keeping calm I carried on to Victoria Park for the only show in town: Hartlepool United v Swindon Town.

A functional ground, not the best aesthetics but designed to get the job done, Victoria Park was most welcoming.

Once it had got over being not welcoming at all.

I’ll admit I don’t pine for the days of terracing. I mainly pine for a good sit down and a nice cup of tea. So my plan was to head into the Cyril Knowles Stand. A plan that stumbled at the first turnstile shaped hurdle when I was told I needed to buy a ticket from the ticket office.

No problem. Head to the ticket office. And stand ignored for a couple of minutes. Finally get served. Only to be told that I’d need to register for a seat in the CK Stand. OK, can I register? Only if you have proof of identification and address.

Why do we like making it so needlessly difficult to see a game of football? After explaining that I’d arrived from Edinburgh within the last hour and hadn’t thought to bring a passport or utility bill with me on my cross border jaunt I was informed this was non negotiable. Fine, then you can negotiate your game of football right up your...!

Eventually I discovered that I could get into other areas of the ground without being subjected to a full Criminal Records Bureau check so I made my way round to the Millhouse Stand and the terracing that runs the length of the pitch.

A quick pint and then out in time for kick off.

The first thing I noticed was the quality of the pitch which looked as though it would put most SPL grounds to shame. Apparently this is all down to a superb groundsman and the club have won awards for it. From what I saw the plaudits are well deserved.

The second thing I saw, and this struck me as a bit odd, was a gentleman of a certain age sitting on his own in the Swindon end of the ground wearing a blue dress and red and white striped scarf.

I’ve seen many things at football matches over the years but this was a new one. I was brought up, not dragged up and I know it’s rude to stare. But it’s difficult not to when the supporters next to you start chanting abuse at said supporter.

As it turns out this is a local, Hartlepool-ian gentleman who has vowed revenge on the club and takes his seat – sporting a dress and the colours of the opponents – in the away end at every match. So that’s that mystery solved - unless you’re intrigued to discover what led him to commit himself so fully to the wreaking of revenge. Maybe it’s better not to know certain things.

The football itself wasn’t bad. I was lucky enough to see a very decent performance lasting 90 minutes. Unfortunately it was Hartlepool who were impressive in the first half and Swindon who were impressive in the second. An entertaining 2-2 draw would have been even better had either team being able to keep it up for more than 45 minutes.

The home side started better. I was especially impressed by Andy Monkhouse who gave former Celtic full back Paul Caddis a torrid time out wide throughout the first half and Antony Sweeney who was involved in Boyd’s opening goal and provided a cute finish for the second as United looked unstoppable in the first half.

Another former Celtic youngster, Simon Ferry, was part of a Swindon midfield that couldn’t get a hold of the game and former Hibs winger Alan O’Brien looked, as ever, like the loneliest person you will ever see playing a team game. You’d almost think he was a victim of bullying the number of times his teammates look for another pass rather than feed him. Almost. Then you realise how poor he is at taking up the positions that would let him use his pace and realise how frustrated his colleagues must be.

By half time, having survived an almost Hithcockian invasion by a large flock of large seagulls around the half hour mark, Hartlepool looked in command and I was pleasantly surprised. In fact I’d almost convinced myself I was going to be their good luck charm, invited to every game as some sort of superstitious counterweight to the befrocked Laurence.

I should have known that I’m incapable of ever displaying any confidence at a football game.

Somehow the teams contrived to swap personas as well as ends at half time. Where Swindon had been lethargic and disjointed and Hartlepool fluid and cohesive there was now an almost complete reversal. Suddenly the impressive Monkhouse was anonymous and Caddis was featuring in attack as well as looking comfortable at the back. Mind you, Alan O’Brien still looked like he had wandered on to the field after staging a daring escape from the local nursing home.

Two double substitutions sealed the fate of this one as a clich├ęd game of two halves. Goalscorer Boyd and the soulfully monikered James Brown were replaced by McSweeney and former Gretna hero Fabian Yantorno and any lingering pretence of shape left Hartlepool.

Two minutes later Swindon replaced Ferry and ex Livingston player Jon-Paul McGovern with strikers Vincent Pericard and Thomas Dossevi. It only took Dossevi ten minutes to pull one back and, inevitably, they equalised two minutes after that when Charlie Austin made the most of cock up in defence.

Swindon could, will probably feel they should, have gone on to nick it but given that each side gave us a half of decent football a draw was probably a fair result. By the end even Alan O’Brien was marauding down the wing looking very like a footballer.

Strangely before the ninety minutes were up there was another invasion of aggressive seagulls. I’m amazed I got out of Victoria Park without any dry cleaning issues.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be back but if I do ever find myself with a couple of hours to spare in Hartlepool on a Saturday afternoon I’d certainly consider it.