THE pressure is on Hartlepool United this season, according to Peter Hartley. That in itself is nothing new, but the smile on the centre-back’s face gives the game away. This time it is a pressure to look forward to.
This will be the 23-year-old’s third campaign on Teesside and all have been pressurised.
The first ended dramatically, a controversial points deduction in the final week causing a last-day relegation battle Hartlepool only survived on goal difference.
In his post-match press conference, then-manager Chris Turner broke down in tears under the stress of it all.
A few months on and relief had turned to pessimism.
Unhappy at what he saw as a lack of boardroom backing in the transfer market and frustrated by his inability to bring in new investors, Turner’s was the most vocal voice tipping the club to finish bottom last season. With Turner soon replaced by Mick Wadsworth, the prediction was quickly made to look foolish.
If Hartlepool were going to leave the division, they looked more likely to go up than down. Pressure? What pressure?
The doom and gloom of 12 months ago seemed a world away when Hartlepool reported back for pre-season.
Even before a ball has been kicked, they are already one of the Football League’s success stories of 2011-12.
After years of struggling just to make ends meet with some of the lowest crowds in the division, Hartlepool have cottoned on to a lesson some in the Premier League would be well advised to learn.
Realising it was better to have twice as many people in the ground paying half the price, they announced a bold pricing strategy which rewarded fans with cheaper season tickets the more people signed up.
As a result 5,700 have been sold, most for only £100. For a club whose average gate last season was just 2,933, it is an eye-watering number.
The fact it has probably brought in more money than would have been the case had prices stayed the same (£350 for most “early bird” season tickets) is only one part of the equation. Another is the excitement generated, cleverly built on by May’s signing of Nolberto Solano.
As a lifelong Hartlepool fan Hartley feels it as much as anyone and hopes to reap the benefit on the field.
The former Sunderland defender said: “It (the season ticket offer) has been a massive idea.
“We (the players and coaching staff) have all bought tickets to help the cause and show we appreciated what they were doing by putting their money forward early doors.
“The lads are delighted because it is more than 4,000 more (season-ticket sales) than we managed last season.
“It has shown a big improvement to the town and put a lot of belief into the team we have at the minute. You have to repay them on the pitch.”
Excitement quickly translates into expectation and that in turn becomes pressure.
Hartley added: “There are a few fans waiting to see how the season goes, so there is a lot of pressure on the pitch to start well and get a few wins under our belt early doors.
“We are more than capable of doing that, to be honest, because we have generally had a good start to the season in recent years. Let us just see how it goes.
“All the boys have come back in great shape and the training has been of a great standard.
“Everyone is looking forward and not back. We have steadied ourselves in the league over the last two years, so hopefully now we can really push on.
“Everything is working towards MK Dons. We just want to go down there, gain a result and take it from there.”
The only pity is that tomorrow’s opening-day game is in Milton Keynes rather than at Victoria Park, but a win there will only add to the atmosphere when Sheffield United come calling three days later in the League Cup.
If the fans are excited, the players are too.
As well as the prospect of running out in front of full houses after getting used to sparsely-populated terraces, they have the added attraction of a superstar team-mate.
When the likes of Hartley were just wide-eyed young fans as opposed to hard-nosed professionals, Solano was a Premier League footballer – and not just any Premier League footballer.
A South American winger in Sir Bobby Robson’s bold Newcastle United side, he was genuinely one of the best around.
At 36, the legs might not move as quickly as in his pomp, but the brain and the skills are untouched by the ravages of time.
Hartley added: “We saw him the first two days in training and you could see some of the things he did were class.
“He is a very experienced player who has played at the top levels in different countries.
“When the ball is at his feet you know you are going to get quality from him. He can win us games.”