On 21 March, Jeff Stelling begins his Men United March, walking 10 marathons in 10 days to help beat prostate cancer. The route will take his beloved Hartlepool United to Wembley, a place their fans have never been. But why is Hartlepool so special to Jeff?

Jeff Stelling with 'Angus the Monkey
21 Jan 2016

Victoria Park is a football ground Jeff Stelling knows well. It’s here he came to watch his first game, aged seven, with his sister. Jeff was lucky enough to see a Hartlepool United victory, which he thinks was a 3-1 win against Workington Town.

"I thought: 'Well this is great, this is how it always is.' Then we didn’t win for 19 games after that, and I realised it isn’t how it always is."

Sky Sports' Soccer Saturday presenter for more than 20 years confesses: "In those days, we could barely ever win a game."

I’m a one-team man, born in this town. They were always my club, and always will be till I die

Like every football fan, your home team’s ground is special, where memories are born.

"They call these places 'Fields of Dreams'," Jeff says. "It wouldn’t be many people’s field of dreams but it is mine. It’s where a lot of my fondest memories come from. The only reason you're going to support Hartlepool, generally speaking, is if you were born here and that was me.

"I’m a one-team man, born in this town. They were always my club, and always will be till I die.” 

Formed in 1920, Hartlepools United was a founding member of the Third Division North. By 1968, they dropped the 's' and the 'United', before the United was re-instated.

But it’s the 1966/67 season which provides the first significant footnote in the club's history for the outsider. A young manager arrived saying, "I don’t fancy the place", but took the job anyway and oversaw a short but successful reign at Victoria Park.

That young manager was none other than Brian Clough, who became one of the greatest managers of the modern game. Together with his assistant, Peter Taylor, he changed the fortunes of this hitherto little-known club, and went on to scale even greater heights with other teams, too.

Hartlepool United stadium

Recruiting Les Green and John Robertson, who went on to be future championship winners under Clough and Taylor at Derby County and Nottingham Forest respectively, 'Pools' finished 8th in the 66/67 season. And Jeff was there cheering them on from the stands.

"The great thing about a smaller club is you do have special memories," says Jeff. "Brian Clough cut his managerial teeth here. I remember that vividly, with Peter Taylor on the sidelines.”

Hartlepool United's successes have perhaps been relatively few and far between but, like many clubs, they’ve had their moments.

"In more recent times I remember we beat Crystal Palace here in the FA Cup in the early 1990s," he says. "Palace were flying high at the time. I’ve seen some good players here as well. What people forget is, even at the lower levels, there are some darn good footballers around."

Part of the motivation for doing the challenge is taking Hartlepool to Wembley. It’s a journey none of our players have ever made

And Hartlepool did reach the League One Play-off final in 2005, losing to Sheffield Wednesday, but this was during the 'Millennium Stadium Years' not Wembley.

"Part of the motivation for doing the challenge is taking Hartlepool to Wembley," says Jeff. "It’s a journey none of our players have ever made, so I’ll be the man who's making it, along with their Chief Executive, Russ Green.”

Jeff and Russ will be walking past 31 clubs through the heartlands of English football: the North East, Yorkshire, the Midlands, Hertfordshire and London.

"I’ve been fortunate that during my broadcasting career I’ve gone to various different grounds, and I’ve never had anything but a warm welcome," he says. "It’s great that the clubs and their supporters are all rallying round this cause.

"Although more women now go to matches, it’s still a stronghold of male life. A lot of these supporters at some stage in their life may get prostate cancer. The more they understand, the better and the more we can help beat it. For them, and for their friends and families."

On Wednesday 30 March, when Jeff arrives at Wembley, he’ll be a long way from Victoria Park. But Hartlepool United won’t be very far from his mind at all.

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