IT was a photograph guaranteed to make you smile. An entire escalator at King’s Cross Underground station was filled with Hartlepool United supporters dressed as smurfs heading to Charlton Athletic.
On the next, the people of London got on with their daily lives without batting an eyelid.
If nothing else was achieved at Victoria Park last season, smiling is back in fashion.
The campaign began with far loftier ambitions. Buoyed by the signing of Nolberto Solano and a season-ticket drive which saw nearly 6,000 sold at a club whose average gates had been around a third of that for some time, it felt like the start of something special.
It was a cruelly false dawn. Perhaps weighed down by expectation, the League One side failed to live up to it.
As Sunderland unveiled Martin O’Neill as their new manager, Mick Wadsworth was being shown the door after seven straight home defeats.
Often when a club sacks its manager, they look for the polar opposite in a replacement. In place of the dour Wadsworth came a laugh-a-minute Scot. Neale Cooper was Hartlepool’s Christmas present to the fans.
“I want the people and the players to be happy,” he says after his first season back since leaving with the League One play-offs beckoning in 2005.
“I’m quite a happy person and I like a happy atmosphere. We’re all in it to help each other. Smaller clubs have got that closeness. Genuinely I feel that.
“I was at Durham University (where Hartlepool train) and I met a women who said, ‘I haven’t heard laughter in this place for a long time.’ That was just a random women.
“The boys train extremely hard but they come to work wanting to be happy. The ball’s always out and that means so much.
“There’s the odd day when I’m a bit grumpy. Maybe at times I say things that are a bit hard on the team, but that’s how I feel at the time.”
“Smurf Day” reminded Cooper why he came back. “I bet you that was the best PR in this club’s history,” he says.
“The feedback was amazing. The whole day was amazing.
“I got a call from my daughter. She said, ‘Dad, I’m standing with 20 smurfs in the middle of London!’ She told them who she was and they didn’t believe her, so they started quizzing her. She said it was so funny.
“They were happy to buy her drinks all night. I said, ‘You should have stayed’ but she said it would look a bit funny having 20 smurfs buying her drinks all night. They were all well behaved, in fantastic outfits.
“I’ve never seen it in my life – 27,000 Charlton fans singing, ‘There’s only one Hartlepool’. It was scary.
“I said to the boys that’s what we’ve got to try and aim for – the happiness on the day.”
That last game of the season, at the division’s runaway champions, summed up the infuriating nature of Hartlepool.
“We played really well against a really good team,” said the former midfielder. “We went to Sheffield Wednesday and played really well there too. When we play the smaller teams, we get beaten.
“I think that’s mental pressure. Maybe boys think they’re not expected to do anything.
“Aberdeen had that in the 80s. We’d beat the top boys but it was hard to go to the lower teams with the right mental attitude.
“Preston away was a big example – we played really well, had numerous chances and lost 1-0.
“We were 13th in the end and always around there. That’s not a bad season really. It’s a small club and a small town but with big ambitions. Can we get to the play-offs? That’s a big challenge.
“To be in the top ten, play-off positions, that’s the target.”
Cooper was surprised to be asked back. “I was walking my dog in Aberdeen in the woods when I got a phone call from a reporter telling me there were rumours I was coming back,” he recalls. “I knew nothing about it. Then it spiraled.
“I did put my CV in, but I never thought anything of it. There were a lot of people in for it. I was delighted to come back. The staff in the offices had never changed. They were all very welcoming. When I came in they said, ‘We’re struggling, can you keep us in the league?’
“Straight away you saw we were lacking a bit of pace in the wide areas and up front but we played to the best we could and used what we had. It was a great bunch of boys, which helped.
“They played to a 4-3-3 system. I like two wide players and two through the middle but I didn’t much change that. We worked defensively a lot and had one of the best defensive records.
“By all accounts they started the season very well but people told me they were winning but they weren’t playing brilliantly. My first real game was Scunthorpe, we got beaten 2-1, then we got the monkey off our backs when we beat Rochdale (at home). That was a big turning point.
“I saw the camaraderie. Hopefully I’m a players’ type of manager. I try to get the best out of them and make them feel happy.”
“Mentally we’re weak at times if we go a goal behind, especially at home,” he added. “There’s not many times we’ve come back and won.
“When things aren’t going great and fans get on your back, that’s when good players come out.
“At times I thought there was no one in the team who could really do anything dynamic to change it.
“In the past we had the kind of character where if we lost a goal, they’d say, ‘We’ll score two.’ I didn’t feel that.
“As a coach or manager you need that. You were hoping for a lucky break.”