Hartlepool, in County Durham, is located between Middlesbrough and Sunderland on England’s north easterly coastline. A town of around 90,000 people with a proud shipbuilding history, responsible for constructing the Angel of the North’s famed steel, honing Ridley Scott’s directorial skills and (supposedly) hanging a monkey during the Napoleonic wars, it is also a historic rugby heartland, having maintained eight clubs for over a century.
The best known of these is West Hartlepool RFC, a member of a small group of once great clubs who both gained and lost everything with the advent of professionalism in rugby.
The club is completely unknown by those of a younger generation, and now plays in the sixth tier, yet for others Hartlepool provokes memories of a heady era, times of flux and chaos, when clubs were scrambling to adapt to the disorientating jungle of professionalism.
Having grown steadily for over a century, the club, founded in 1881, reached its peak in the late 20th century, only for all that was built slowly to unravel in four swift years as financial pressures tightened.
After reaching the top tier in 1992, they flipflopped regularly between the top two divisions, until in 1995, after years of obstinate amateurism, rugby finally, and suddenly, turned professional. This was a great collision between the forces of modernity and a sport deeply wedded to seemingly archaic notions of decency, honour and traditionalism. Players were supposed to play ‘for the love of the game,’ not for financial betterment.
Unable to adapt to a world of millionaires and mergers, debts of some £1m quickly mounted for the club, who were forced to sell their stadium to pay them off. Crowd numbers swiftly collapsed, and with them the club’s future. The 1996/97 season was their last as an elite level outfit, soon West would be sharing a pitch with a local sixth form college.
Four consecutive relegations followed, with West Hartlepool winning just three games in a little less than four seasons. The club went into administration in 1999. In their glory days however, West Hartlepool boasted a raft of top-class internationals, including Gary Whetton, an All Blacks captain who won the 1987 World Cup, and his twin brother and fellow All Black Alan.
West Hartlepool, though, are steeped in rugby history. The great England captain of 1901, Jack Taylor, captained West, as they are known locally, for ten great years, famously beating the Barbarians in 1902. They have had two British and Irish Lions, and three international captains over the years. In 1905 West Hartlepool teamed up with local rivals Hartlepool Rovers to play the original touring All Blacks.
Legend has it that is was the Hartlepudlians who coined the moniker ‘All Blacks,’ misspelling the phrase ‘all backs’, intended as a compliment to the New Zealanders expansive style of play.
It is for an intoxicating decade or so, though, rather than this more ancient history, that Hartlepool provides such an interesting insight into the world of modern sport.
In the years between 1986 and 1996 they played Western Samoa, a Fijian Barbarians team and reached England’s top tier. An array of international stars flocked to this post-industrial enclave of Teeside, to play alongside locals proud to represent the town.
“You were always fighting for something,” said John Stabler, a player and coach of West Hartlepool during this exhilarating period of boom and bust. “It was never boring, you were never mid-table, there was always something going on.”
“I was playing in the top league of rugby with my mates,” he continues, “with kids I’d played with since I was 14. The two props; one was my best mate at school, the other went to the school next to us… It was like a family, yet we used to play in the Premiership.”
The north east is an area that has suffered terribly in recent years: neglected by those in Westminster, a guinea pig for universal credit and all too easily dismissed as a hotbed of nationalism and xenophobia. Sport, of course, seems irrelevant in comparison to the pressing issues of poverty, pollution and unemployment.
Yet, whilst cautionary, the tale of West Hartlepool is one of community, colour and excitement: mates from the town playing with All Blacks, getting coaches across the country to face legends like Brian Moore and Jason Leonard: these are stories from times long departed, but their extraordinary nature shows that anything is possible. It is, fundamentally, a tale of hope.
Written by Joe Ronan