Oil, money and football: Hartlepool know all about it
Michael Walker: Boris Johnson, like many, sees football through the lens of soft power
UK prime minister Boris Johnson at Hartlepool’s ground last week. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
The morning after the Parisian night before, they were doing a spot of maintenance on the Neale Cooper stand at Hartlepool United on Thursday. Victoria Park can seem a long way from Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City in the Champions League, this being a tier five club on England’s north-east coast. But Hartlepool have things in common with their illustrious counterparts beyond a ball and one of them is the ability to generate headlines.
Hartlepool, just like PSG and City, is very much a current affair. Next Thursday’s by-election in the town of 90,000 is of sufficient jeopardy to have it peppering the British news agenda for a few weeks already. It could be a significant result, telling us more about the state of England 2021; Labour could lose a constituency, and its predecessor, they have held since 1945.
It is why the Conservative prime minister, Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson, turned up at Victoria Park eight days ago. Johnson likes a bit of political football and will have nodded knowingly at the union jack flying high between two Morrisons flags outside the supermarket beside the Vic.
The club went through the procedure of a photo-shoot on the pitch and the presentation of a No10 Pools jersey. It was the type of public appearance Johnson enjoys.
It seems unlikely he watched PSG-City on BT Sport on Wednesday or that he will have an eye on Hartlepool-Chesterfield on the same channel this evening - Pools are third in the table and have a chance of regaining Football League status. But Johnson knows the influence of football on the country and so delivered his strategic “legislative bomb” threat onto those who would try to break away and form a European Super League. City were one of them.
Johnson understands English football and the Premier League in particular through the lens of soft power, hence his apparent eagerness to see Saudi Arabia stage a successful takeover of Newcastle United. Not all politics is local, despite what they say.
The perspective is not his alone, after all the Saudis hold it too, as do the owners of City from the United Arab Emirates and PSG from Qatar. All three Gulf entities have a national vision post-oil and buying up chunks of western Europe and its culture is part of it. In quiet moments, the latter pair might even suggest that neither PSG nor City would be near a Champions League semi-final without their money.
What may have shocked them is the street-level antipathy directed toward the ESL and the owners involved, antagonism witnessed in Milan and Madrid as well as in Leeds and London. It has been instructive to see that beneath tribal Saturdays, fans have a latent appreciation of what has gone on at theirs and others’ clubs over the past 10-20 years. And they don’t like it.
Manchester City are an example. It is near impossible not to warm to what Pep Guardiola does as a coach, the football his teams produce, such as on Wednesday night, the improvement in players he oversees. But it is most possible not to warm to the overall City project, the acquisition of clubs across the globe, the routine buying of players at exorbitant cost.
It is the same with Chelsea. Since the breakaway failure, owner Roman Abramovich has been portrayed in certain quarters as a reluctant participant in the ESL idea. It is being made out Roman doesn’t like a carve-up, which will be news to the USSR.
All this does not occupy our foremost thoughts on matchdays, but the spontaneous displays of displeasure at the ESL show awareness is there, lurking. In his ESL analysis in the Daily Telegraph, Sam Wallace wrote of the broad attitude towards the so-called ‘Big 6’ boardrooms, referring in passing to “City and Chelsea, whose owners regarded their clubs primarily as a public relations exercise”.
It’s quite a statement when you sit back and re-consider. City and Chelsea could meet in this season’s Champions League final and at some level it will be ‘a public relations exercise’.
Then again, it was like that on Wednesday in Paris. The match was hyped, sometimes ironically, as El Gasico or El Cashico to take in the prodigious wealth of the PSG and City owners. But sometimes irony can miss the point. This is the exploitation of football for geo-political ends (as opposed to the ESL, where the motivation is primarily financial.) And funnily enough, if there’s a football club in England where they know about irony and oil, it’s Hartlepool United.
If the place has a profile in Ireland, it will be as a Farage kind of town, voting 70 per cent for Brexit. Before that it may have been down to its former mascot, a monkey called H’Angus. This was an in-joke about the folklore tale of Hartlepool’s citizens finding a monkey aboard a French ship in the Napoleonic wars and deciding it was a spy. So they hung it. In 2002, H’Angus the Monkey - Stuart Drummond - stood for local mayor as a publicity stunt. Drummond beat Labour to win and was re-elected in 2005 and 2009. Either story suggests a suspicion of outsiders.
And yet Drummond’s tenure coincided with the club’s golden years, which were not funded by Hartlepool money. Having spent most of their Football League decades loitering around the foot of the old Fourth Division, in 2005 the club was eight minutes away from reaching the Championship.
How did Hartlepool rise? Well, in 1997 a company called Increased Oil Recovery bought the club. IOR was based in Aberdeen but at the Vic it was said the real HQ was the bank account of Berge Gerdt Larsen. Larsen was a Norwegian oil man. He did not seek the limelight, but his company sponsored the shirts and IOR’s money signed Peter Beardsley.
Another Peter - Mandelson - ‘Minister without Portfolio’ in Tony Blair’s government, was Hartlepool’s MP at the time. He was also club ‘president’. As the oil company were to explain: “IOR are an international business and football is an international language - perhaps getting involved with the club would be a good business move.”
Side-street localism went alongside international manoeuvres. For a while it worked. As one director said, “there are boardrooms in Angola, Dubai, other places, with Hartlepool United shirts on the wall.”
IOR sold up in 2015 with Pools struggling once again in League Two and with the likes of Mandelson no longer in power. There has been relegation and new ownership since. But in a way, at Hartlepool they saw long before Abramovich or City or PSG: oil and money and football and influence.