Middlesbrough 2 Port Vale 2
League Division 3
23 August 1986
Fifteen miles separate the towns of Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. But until 1986 their respective football teams had always seemed a long way apart.
Ayresome Park was not a happy place that summer. The cause was not one single thing, rather a prolonged sequence of misfortune and bad management. Opinions vary as to the point when the club’s decline truly began. Some blame relegation from the First Division in 1982, others trace it further back to the sale of talented players who were not adequately replaced. In 1981 Boro had effectively cashed in an entire midfield with Craig Johnston, Mark Proctor and David Armstrong joining Liverpool, Forest and Southampton respectively. Heine Otto was recruited from FC Twente in part replacement and became something of a cult hero, but the fact that he finished as top scorer with a paltry five goals tells its own story of the miserable season that followed.
Neither did these sales balance the books. The annual AGM posted significant losses and there was no prospect of recouping them while an average team fumbled around the lower reaches of Division 2. Malcolm Allison had been persuaded to exchange Lisbon for Linthorpe but not even this bold move could break a vicious circle where the club’s best players were sold and attendances declined year on year. Even more unsettling was a rapid turnover of at boardroom level, which indicated even more deep-seated problems. In mid-1983 Mike McCullagh became third chairman in eighteen months and during the summer of 1985 he gave way to Alf Duffield, the successful owner of a Teesside engineering firm.
When Allison also decided he’d had enough the team was managed briefly by Jack Charlton before former crowd favourite Willie Maddren took over. Boro sank still further in 1984-85 and needed to win their final game at Shrewsbury to avoid relegation to the Third Division. At the turn of the year, with the side still struggling, Bruce Rioch was brought in as assistant. He and Maddren failed to hit it off and the latter was sacked. Rioch (a former Torquay manager who’d been coaching in North America) achieved just four wins in the last 13 games and the financial pressures grew. Rioch had a terrible argument with Duffield – who had been keeping the club afloat with his own money – and the chairman quit. In April the club were forced to ask the PFA for a loan to pay players’ wages.
The season’s last fixture was once more at Shrewsbury. Middlesbrough were in turmoil off the pitch, with a number of senior players unavailable after they objected to Rioch’s disciplinarian style. An inexperienced team went into the game needing to win and hope Carlisle and Blackburn didn’t, but there was no repeat of the previous year’s escape and Boro lost 2-1 (Blackburn’s result meant they would have gone down anyway). The mood quickly soured after the sending off of young defender Gary Pallister and the travelling support lacked its party mood of the previous season. A tea bar was ransacked following Shrewsbury’s opening goal and the afternoon soon unravelled completely as nervous Shropshire police lost control of a bad tempered away end.
These memories from fans who were there, and the others below, are reproduced with thanks to fmttmboro.com .
“After last orders on the Friday night we all piled into a Transit van and headed down there. The van was full of booze. On the outskirts of Shrewsbury we were stopped by police at a road check. When they opened the back door we all fell out onto the road, together with empty whisky and Double Maxim bottles.”
“Travelled down with ten others in the back of a Transit van. Went to Blackpool for a night out after the game.”
“I remember the Seven Stars pub beforehand. Bet they wished they’d got the memo not to open like most of the other pubs had.”
“A terrible day all round. Started with the tea hut in the Boro end getting trashed and ended up with riot police being called in.”
“1986 at Shrewsbury was the lowest point for our team and the behaviour of our fans. Not a day to be proud of.”
“As low as I have ever been at a football match.”
“I was devastated coming out of the ground. My world caved in.”
By contrast Hartlepool were doing rather well. This probably surprised them as much as everyone else, because even judged against traditionally modest standards the previous few years had been particularly tough. One match in 1984 attracted a crowd of just 700 and they’d subsequently been obliged to seek re-election for a record eleventh time. Coming 19th a year later was scarcely an improvement. But then manager Billy Horner appointed recently-retired defender John Bird as his assistant and the two worked a minor miracle. Most of 1985-86 was spent in the top four places with a rare promotion only eluding Pools due to a late run of defeats and a tendency to leak goals away from home.
Horner had been a mainstay of Boro’s defence between 1960 and 1969. He later made more than 200 appearances for Darlington, including a number as player-manager, and was in his second spell at the Victoria Ground following a brief absence in 1983. His decade in charge had produced four re-election applications and a single top half finish. The team’s success the previous year was due in no small measure to the efforts of Alan Shoulder, a 32-year old ex-Newcastle and Carlisle target man who starred in Blyth Spartans’ famous giant-killing side of 1978. Shoulder’s nineteen goals made him Pools’ highest scorer since 1971. A slightly more reliable defence would have seen them start 1986-87 in the same division as Middlesbrough.
The Victoria Ground
Pools’ home today (rebranded as Victoria Park to emphasise its new-found smartness) is essentially a 1990s construct. It has a uniformly tidy appearance varied only by some unexpected sculptural steelwork on the Clarence Road frontage (a kind of galvanised Britart with footballs). The new stand here commemorates Cyril Knowles, the manager who lifted Pools out of the basement division in 1991. Modern club offices occupy a building that for many years did service as the Clock Garage. There’s a tidy terrace at the Town End and a sleek 1960s cantilever on the Mill House touchline, that manages to look far more modern than it actually is. In contrast the comparatively recent Rink End is so dingy and pillared that it looks older than all the rest put together.
The rink in question was the Queen’s Rink. This stood at the ground’s northern end and was built in 1910 as a roller-skating arena (roller-skating apparently being a popular pastime in Edwardian Hartlepool). The Rink later became a dance hall and remained a busy nightspot until its 1968 closure. During the Sixties the likes of Lulu, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Johnny Kidd played there. Young couples wanting privacy would end up in the Vic’s conveniently-placed Main Stand, leading Pools’ jocular manager Fred Westgarth to quip “A policeman called me on Friday night. He’d caught a dozen courting couples in the stand and asked me what to do with them. I told him to fix the bloody fence and board ‘em in. Best gate of the season it would have been.”
The stand was a temporary structure that remained in place for seven decades. It would survive until 1985 before being finally pulled down following the Bradford fire. Simon Inglis unflatteringly described it as “resembling a timber yard”. Spectators entered via a narrow passage behind a wooden fence on Clarence Road and the roof was supported by telegraph posts that swayed alarmingly when high winds blew in from the nearby North Sea. The stand owed its existence to a 1916 Zeppelin raid that ended with two bombs falling onto the ground’s original stand, an act of aggression that led the club to enter into a protracted and largely one-sided correspondence with the German government following the War. No compensation was forthcoming.
Westgarth was older than both stands. He joined Pools in 1943 and was previously a respected coach at Stockport, Carlisle and Bradford City. His personality was of the larger-than-life kind. Although he once famously told Fulham chairman Tommy Trinder that there were too many comedians in football, it was a view that didn’t stop him being one of them. By 1957 he was in his seventieth year. The team had progressed in the FA Cup by virtue of wins against the amateurs of Selby Town and Blyth Spartans, but when Manchester United arrived in the Third Round Fred was in Hartlepool General with what sadly proved to be a terminal illness. Trainer Ned Westgarth, his son, was looking after the team.
The United game on 5 January 1957 is remembered as a famous occasion on which a workmanlike Division 3 (North) side stretched the Busby Babes to their absolute limit. Fred Westgarth received bulletins in his hospital bed as the visitors ran up an early 3-0 lead through Billy Whelan, Johnny Berry and Tommy Taylor only to see Pools fight back with goals from three players who would rack up more than a thousand club appearances between them – Frankie Stamper, Kenny Johnson and Jackie Newton. But in the event Whelan scored a late winner to thwart what at times had seemed a likely giantkilling, and Matt Busby later described the occasion in his autobiography as “the most exciting match I’ve ever watched.”
Many of the crowd – officially recorded as 17,264 – got in over the rickety fence between the Town End and the adjacent greyhound stadium. This method of entry was popular with generations of Poolie youth. “Via the dog track was my favourite”, remembers one reprobate on pooliebunker.co.uk . “The choices were to brave the glass on the Millhouse side or the police at the Rink End, or to climb into the dogs and then over.” The track formed part of the grandly-titled Hartlepool Stadium, which predated the Vic and was originally used for cricket and later by the town’s rugby team. Greyhounds arrived during the 1930s and in its heyday the venue boasted a restaurant, 35 kennels and seven on-site bookies. In later years a stock car circuit was built inside the greyhound track.
The track was still going strong in 1986 but little else about the ground would have been recognisable to a visitor from the 1950s. There were now floodlights, erected in 1967 during Brian Clough’s brief but memorable spell as manager (Pools were the last Football League club to install them). All that remained of the main stand was the sawn-off telegraph poles and the famous wooden fence. The teams changed in portable buildings and both terraced ends had lost their admittedly basic lean-to covers. Capacity was limited to less than 4000 on safety grounds. And, in the most profound change of all, Hartlepools were now Hartlepool. This was due to a 1968 amalgamation of two local boroughs into one. They dropped “United” at the same time but that soon made a comeback.
And so back to Boro. Duffield’s successor as chairman was Steve Gibson, the owner of local shipping company Bulkhaul. He’d been a director since November 1984 but was only now beginning to appreciate the extent of the club’s debts. Some went back a decade and all were accruing interest. By May 1986 they totalled £2m. Liquidators were appointed and the Inland Revenue secured a winding up order. At the start of August Rioch was sacked, along with his assistant Colin Todd and the remainder of the club’s non-playing staff, and liquidators padlocked the gates to Ayresome Park. But a hardcore of younger, mostly Middlesbrough-born players elected to remain and carried on training under Rioch and Todd on local parks pitches.
Gibson set about putting together a consortium to buy the club. He recruited the local council, ICI, Scottish & Newcastle Breweries and secretive envelope magnate Henry Moszkowicz. They persuaded Duffield to wind up the existing company but the Football League were uncharacteristically reluctant to support the move. A tense meeting followed on 22 August and the new club was ultimately registered just ten minutes before the League’s deadline. One complication, however, remained. Middlesbrough needed to fulfil their first fixture just 24 hours later, a home game against Port Vale, and with Ayresome unlicensed and barricaded they needed somewhere to do it. This was the point at which Pools came to the rescue. They were at home to Cardiff that Saturday but offered Boro the use of their ground afterwards.
Although Middlesbrough and Port Vale were both new to the Third Division they’d entered from different directions. For the first hour it showed. Although Boro lacked match practice they could still raise a team of young players who had turned out in the higher league, and these pummelled Vale with a direct, aggressive style of play. Striker Archie Stephens scored twice – a towering header from a corner, and a speculative effort from distance – and the game seemed over. But then Boro legs tired and the visitors took charge. Ray Walker and Robbie Earle took control of the midfield and Earle’s cross set up Richard O’Kelly for a diving header on 69 minutes, before Walker helped on Alan Webb’s pass just before the end for Paul Maguire to rescue a point.
Despite the positives this didn’t feel like the start of a season that would see the same inexperienced team win promotion back to Division Two. Few of those present would have predicted that as an outcome or regarded it as a priority. The evening was first and last about affirming the club’s survival and acknowledging the generosity of their neighbours. By coincidence Boro were back at the Victoria Ground within days, this time as the away team in the first game of a two-legged League Cup tie. It was the first meeting of Hartlepool and Middlesbrough in a competitive match and by perfect symmetry the second leg marked Boro’s return to Ayresome Park. This was an outcome that had seemed impossible a few short weeks before.
All in all it felt like a fresh start after the club’s long and difficult decline.
“I was getting married that summer but my real concern was ‘Will the Boro survive?’ A week before the season started the club was still in turmoil. We didn’t feature on the pools coupons till about October.”
“It was just a relief we still existed after seeing the Ayresome gates locked with some security bloke stood there.”
“It was a warm night in Hartlepool – they stuck £1 on admission prices and we had to wait until their match finished before playing a follow up game there.”
“A summer Saturday evening, sunny and mild. It was the second show after Hartlepool v Cardiff on the same pitch.”
“Went to both games at the Vic that day – Pools v Cardiff, then the Boro game. There was a fair bit of trouble at the first game with Cardiff fans in the Pools seats and then in the pubs near the station. Don’t remember any bother involving Boro fans at either the Port Vale or the League Cup game.”
“Boro did have a big group of Joey boys who travelled but Hartlepool wasn’t an issue, we were grateful they let us use their ground.”
“The kickoff time was very unusual and made the game seem even stranger.”
“There was a strange feeling at that game, almost like a friendly.”
“Everyone just seemed happy we were playing. We only had 12 players, who hadn’t played all summer, I thought Port Vale were bankers. Backed them big time in Corals in Stockton, I was in shock when we went 2-0 up.”
“It was a great atmosphere and Boro raced into a two goal lead before all the summer caught up with us and turned the legs to lead.”
“The lasting memory of that night was Archie and his ability to get almost supernatural hang-time.”
“Only home game I missed that season as I didn’t get back from Spain till the Monday after. So I was the only Boro fan in living memory not to be at that game. A shame, the 175,000 packed into the Victoria Ground must have been a sight to behold.”
“Went to the opener at Hartlepool (honest!) Such a relief to see us run out as it really did seem at the start of the summer that we would be out of business.”
“I can be seen as an 11 year old right behind the goal on the highlights.”
“There was never a thought that we would go on to achieve promotion. It was a feeling of relief that the match had gone ahead, it was such a surreal situation. We were down and had almost been out. The fan base had dwindled. But on the pitch things really took off very quickly indeed, against all the odds and a transfer embargo. It was us against the world and that attitude really helped.”
“After three games it was obvious something special had begun.”
“It was a great season all told. At the time I was just happy we had a club, so the fact we did well was a bonus.”
“It was a good time to be a Boro fan. It felt special. We were happy to have a team at all but for them then to play so well was unforgettable.”
I stopped off at Victoria Park on an unseasonably grey and chilly August afternoon. A supermarket has obliterated the dog track but the Rink site remains undeveloped and forlorn. Pools have fallen on quiet days since relegation from the League in 2017. The bold 1990s frontage on Clarence Road is faded by salt winds to the extent that a fan from 1986 would instantly recognise the ground’s ambience if not its structure, and parts of the surrounding area bear out Harry Pearson’s 1994 description as “like a scene from Mad Max, only colder.” And yet there is kindness here. Anyone who visited the Corner Flag Bar in happier times will vouch for this, and confirm that – as ever, beneath a tough and uncompromising shell – the spirit of 1986 lives on in Hartlepool.
Middlesbrough: Pears, Parkinson, Kernaghan, Laws, Cooper, Mowbray, Gill, Hamilton, Ripley, Slaven, Stephens. Sub: Turnbull.
Port Vale: Grew, Webb, Bromage, Walker, Sproson, Williams, Smith, Earle, O’Kelly, Jones, Maguire. Sub: Hunter.