Why I love relegation
It's hard to convince any football fan that relegation can sometimes be more of a blessing than a burden.
But back from the brink after three years of disillusionment and indifference towards my hometown club, I've finally become a committed Hartlepool United supporter once again. We were, after a torrid 2012/13 campaign, relegated from League One back to the basement - and with confidence I can say I'm one of the very few fans in the Football League more devoted to their team because of it.
Pools are back where they belong with the Chesterfields, Cheltenhams and Torquays of the bottom tier. After last year's antics most Monkey Hangers wouldn't disagree, though many feel we could have hung on and challenged for mid-table (or better) once more.
But I'm celebrating our relegation because, for the first time in three years, I feel like a 'real' fan again. There are plenty of other reasons too, but these were put on the backburner when the Football League reminded all Poolies that we're back in our rightful place.
Scheduled as part of its big birthday in a few weeks' time, Hartlepool will open their season with a trip to famed Lancastrian underperformers Rochdale - the 137th tie between the two teams and most-played match between current league members. And that already gives us as many positive stories as last year. In February, we made headlines after beating Notts County 2-1 with goals from Peter Hartley and James Poole (thankfully something other than Jeff Stelling to talk about).
Hartlepool and Rochdale share the dubious honour of playing the most seasons in the Football League without ever reaching either of the top two tiers - that's 85 campaigns and counting.
Back in the late '90s and early 2000s, Pools were the big fish in a small pond. We were going up against the likes of Walsall, Shrewsbury and Carlisle United though, so it wasn't hard to look good. The irony of those three teams now being a regular part of League One fixtures is not forgotten but neither are other memories; a 7-1 demolition of Swansea at Victoria Park and 4-0 win over Hull despite being down to 10 men at a riotous Boothferry Park. You know where both will be playing come August.
The blue and white stripes were once feared by all. Travelling teams were once wary of our unbeaten home league run for over a year. The north-eastern Iron Curtain remined for almost the entirety of 2003 but for a 2-1 defeat by Barnsley on December 26 - our last home game of the year.
Still, after years of coming close in the play-offs, in 2003 we were finally promoted behind Rushden & Diamonds. Fans disassociated themselves with Rochdale and we started chasing the dream instead.
Looking back now it was more like chasing the dragon but it was good while it lasted. Pools went on to capture hearts and minds outside the town with back-to-back promotion campaigns and play-off final appearance against Sheffield Wednesday. Around 17,000 fans made the trip to Cardiff, only to lose 4-2 in dubious circumstances.
From there things fell apart. We soon dropped back into League Two and, despite rising again at the first time of asking we finished second best again behind Walsall. A few years later and the odd high-profile cup win against Stoke or West Brom and, well, here we are back in the basement. It all went so quickly.
But while looking at those who went on ahead we got an insight into the terror that could have befallen Pools' possible success and second consecutive promotion. Fellow small-town clubs Scunthorpe, Bury and Southend United all made the second tier but each had their Icarus moments and we will be playing all three next season. Stockport County, who also made the trip to the second tier, are now a Conference North side.
For the average Hartlepool fan it's easier to understand the negative examples of success because of where we're from. Our great rivals Darlington - once pairing up with Pools to create the fourth-most staged derby in the country - are now in the Evo-Stik League Division One North following financial troubles. Even that town has 100,000 inhabitants to support the club (Hartlepool has 93,000).
Scarborough, meanwhile, completely disappeared from the league in 2007. Further afield, FC Halifax Town returned to the Conference National with a play-off run last season (I remember a Hartlepool win at an incomplete and all-but-abandoned Shay in 2003) after financial troubles forced them to re-form in 2008/09.
Ultimately, Pools wouldn't have stood a chance at long-term solvency with a Championship run. Our stadium holds under 8,000 fans and, to my memory, we've only filled it a dozen times in the last 15 years. Our wage bill has remained low. Even if we had attracted quality players and more fans, what would we have to deal with? Unfulfilled possibilities of a stadium expansion and maybe the odd home win on a miserable Tuesday night against Barnsley.
Pools wouldn't have stood a chance at long-term solvency with a Championship run"
Sure, if we had defeated the Owls in the play-off final it would have been exciting to count down the days until early March when it was mathematically impossible for us to survive in the second tier, perhaps a grafted 0-0 draw against Derby County at Pride Park keeping hopes alive for another week.
With that, I'll happily have us become that big fish in a small pond once again. We might face the prospect of games against Fleetwood Town, Burton Albion, Newport County and Mansfield Town next season but we at least have our first 'derby' in six years with York City - who themselves narrowly escaped a drop into the often-bottomless pit that is the Conference. The fans will come back once we start winning again, regardless of opposition.
Any team can beat another in League One, as we found. Seeing Yeovil Town's season after they were promoted against the odds could once again prove to be further reflection of Hartlepool's probable failure in the Championship. It's still a game of chance, though. What's to say League Two won't provide another Stockport moment?
Whatever happens, the nameless Football League executive's interview regarding Hartlepool's opening fixture threw up a quote of truth: that Hartlepool v Rochdale is still one of many 'exciting fixtures in the Football League'. To me, anyway. Even after 136 of them.