To this day, there are still people who think the monkey story is true. That during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, a monkey really did wash up on the Hartlepool shore and was immediately assumed by the credulous townspeople to be a French spy. That the monkey was arrested, questioned, put on trial and – unable to account for its actions – hanged.
It’s not true, obviously. I mean, give it a moment’s thought. Hartlepool is a port town. It’s been a trading centre since Roman times. They’re going to know what other people look like. Actually, the monkey legend originates in a music hall song written by Ned Corvan in the 1850s. But part of the reason people still want to believe it is because it verifies their vague caricature of what Hartlepool must be like. A dim backwater. A scared, unworldly place. They thought a monkey was a Frenchman! Hah! No wonder they voted for Brexit.
Even now, on the rare occasions Hartlepool punctures the national news, it tends to be as a source of wacky comedy or half-baked political analysis. Hey, did you hear about the time they chose a man in a monkey costume as their mayor? Hey did you see the club issued an official statement mourning the death of Meat Loaf? Meanwhile, last year’s byelection saw the entire Westminster freakshow descend on the town for 72 hours to emote, nod sagely and point at things. Boris Johnson kicked a football. Keir Starmer drank a pint. Both disappeared within hours.
“People here saw through the bullshit, they know what they’re voting for,” says Stuart Drummond. He was the man in the monkey costume, the football club mascot who famously won the inaugural mayoral election in 2002 on a platform of free bananas for schoolchildren. Less well known is what he did next. He cleaned up the town centre. He healed rifts in local government. He was re-elected twice with a larger majority. And of course, the kids got their bananas.
“I call it the world’s biggest village,” Drummond says of his hometown. “You don’t pass through Hartlepool. If you’re there, it’s because you’re from there. We can often be quite scathing about our town, but when someone else says it, we close ranks.”
What’s missing, paradoxically, is a town itself. In 2020 the think tank Onward produced a “social fabric” index ranking UK local authorities not just on metrics like health and poverty but things like volunteering, public space, trust in politics. Hartlepool came 375th out of 380. Hollowed out by austerity, fractured and forgotten by politicians, people in Hartlepool have essentially been left to fend for themselves. And so, insofar as this town does have a beating heart, a place to come together, it’s football.
Which is all the more remarkable when you think about the football club itself. They have never played in the top two divisions. When they won a playoff against Torquay last June to return to the Football League, it was the first trophy of any kind in the club’s history. Hartlepool have spent most of the last century staving off relegation or extinction. They have never been past the fourth round of the FA Cup. That, at least, is something they can now put right.
Early this morning, a convoy of buses will leave Hartlepool for south London, where they will play Crystal Palace for a place in the last 16. All 4,700 away tickets were snapped up within hours. “That shows the type of support this football club’s got,” says centre half Gary Liddle. “They haven’t had too many good times.”
For Hartlepool it has been a long road back from the brink. Four years ago, after being relegated to the National League, it was on the edge of ruin until a last-minute takeover by businessman Raj Singh. Now 16th in League Two, things are looking up.
Seven new players arrived in January. The academy, which went with the club’s Football League status, is being reopened. The tired, weathered Victoria Park has had a refurb. “We’re no longer embarrassed to bring people here,” says chief operating officer Stephen Hobin. “When I started, it was dilapidated. It didn’t look like a place you’d be proud to work.”
The squad has been built around a strong local core, with a former player as its manager in Graeme Lee. “My whole career I’ve wanted to come back in some capacity,” he says. “It’s a family club. We do a lot of work on character. It is difficult sometimes to bring people from the south this far north-east. But the ones we’ve brought in are the right type of people.” For him, playing a Premier League team is a sign of the club’s progress, but he warns his players: “If you swap your shirt, there isn’t a spare one.”
Money is still tight, not just at the club but in the region at large. But still they come, 5,000 or more every week, and a noticeably younger demographic too. “It’s a football town,” Hobin says. “There are not many football clubs where 50 per cent of your gate receipts are taken two days before the game. About 1,500 wait until they get paid on Friday afternoon. Then they’ll queue round the block at the ticket office.”
Drummond, to his great regret, will not be going to London. He and his family are self-quarantining before flying to Australia to start a new life. Of all the things he’ll miss about Hartlepool, football will be felt most keenly of all. “It’s been more hard times than good,” he says. “But you actually become more of a fan when you’re away. I’ll be watching them from afar.”
Hartlepool will probably lose. That’s not the point. The point is that in a game becoming ever more unequal and divided, where clubs go to the wall and others scream silently for help, it’s easy to lose yourself in abstracts and numbers. In the wider tableau of English football – trophies, fame, revenue, global footprint – maybe Hartlepool means very little. But to some people, it means everything.
Like many stadiums, there is a wall outside Victoria Park containing bricks dedicated by Hartlepool fans, each with a personal engraving. “Pop Bluckert, 1899-1987.” “Lexi Freeman, born 29 Jan 08, Poolie Princess.” “Heslop family, Koh Samui.” “Owbridge/Wilson, 5 generations of Poolies.” Young and old, local and distant, here and departed, every brick tells a story. Every fan matters. Every club matters. It all matters, or none of it does. – Guardian