15 Years Later – Mickey Barron reflects on Hartlepool United’s play-off heartbreak

After almost 15 years, the memories – and the what ifs? – of the Millennium Stadium, Sheffield Wednesday and the League One play-off final still eat away at Mickey Barron. 

What if that penalty had not been given? What if, even more contentiously, that red card had not followed? What if club legend Neale Cooper, and not a managerial rookie, had still been in our dug-out?

And what if Pools had reached the Championship?

Surprisingly, that final question – despite the club currently sitting outside the Football League, let alone England’s second tier – is the one which troubles Pools’ 2005 skipper Barron the least. 

For while he knows a lack of resources might have made for a season of long, hard struggle had their Cardiff adventure gone differently, Barron’s belief is that, with Cooper still in charge, they could have won the day.

Having guided them to the play-offs a year before – and a heartbreaking semi-final defeat against Bristol City – Pools were all but guaranteed another shot at the end-of-season promotion lottery when Cooper resigned for personal reasons.

And although youth coach Martin Scott stepped into the breach and not only confirmed play-off qualification but steered Pools past Tranmere in another semi-final thriller, Barron believes Cooper’s loss was decisive, come Cardiff.

“Maybe on the day of the final he could have given us that extra inspiration, or perhaps done things a little different which could have helped us,” Barron reflects.

“Even though Neil wasn’t there anymore, we were doing it for him. I think we were at Bournemouth when Martin had taken over, and I spoke to Neil on the Friday night before the game. He told me not to change what we’d been doing all season.

“But it’s always difficult when there’s a change of manager, especially at such a late point in the season where we were playing well.

“It’s just sad he wasn’t there until the end.”

However, Barron also still mourns the lack of support of another key non-playing individual for the death of Pools’ Championship dreams.

Mike Jones . . . referee that day, and a name which still haunts Victoria Park.

Pools were eight minutes away from victory when Jones ruled Chris Westwood had fouled Wednesday’s Drew Talbot in the box – and delivered the double blow of a penalty AND a red card.

A decade and a half on, it still boils Barron’s blood.

“I actually watched it with my lads the other day,” he admits. “Straight away, both of them said ‘That’s not a penalty’.

“I think on the day it’s possible that the atmosphere and where the referee was stood had a massive impact.

“I know that at the time Westy (Westwood) was adamant that it wasn’t a penalty, and he’s the type of lad to hold his hands up if he made a mistake.”

Having glimpsed unprecedented glory – they have never played above England’s third tier – Pools have seen little but strife since that day in the Welsh sunshine.

But Barron believes their vision of establishing themselves as a Championship club was a mirage in any case.

“Honestly I think we would have really struggled because the chairman at the time wouldn’t have put a lot more money into it.

“If we had stayed up it would have been through the togetherness of the players and the relationship we had with the fans.”

Well, maybe that and the talent of Adam Boyd.

A key catalyst for that play-off run, the Hartlepool-born striker scored 29 goals in all competitions in 2004-05, and Barron revels in recalling the chemistry of a strikeforce also featuring Australian ace Joel Porter.

“For a couple of seasons he {Boyd} was tremendous, and him and Joel were fantastic together. The good thing about Adam was that he could score or make a goal from nothing.”

Boyd was crucial in the play-off semi-final against Tranmere, scoring two goals in the first leg, and seeing Ritchie Humphreys score the winning penalty in a nerve-shredding shoot-out after a 2-0 defeat in the return game at Prenton Park.

That in itself was sweet redemption for Humphreys, who had missed the decisive spot kick in the same situation against Bristol City a year earlier – and delighted his skipper and close friend Barron.

“With Ritchie, everyone was so happy for him because we had seen him miss penalties before, and as one of his closest friends I know how much that affected him,” Barron recalls.

The stage was set. Hartlepool, the North East’s perennial poor relations, against Sheffield Wednesday, a relative giant who had been in the Premier League at the turn of the century.

With Wednesday fans also inevitably in the majority at the 70,000-plus capacity Millennium Stadium Barron recalls the relaxed nature of being underdogs.

“You could sense the pressure they had on them,” he says. “Before the game I spoke to a few of their players and even though we wanted to win the game, they needed to win it.

“I had heard about how if they didn’t go up they would’ve really struggled financially.” 

But the first half at Cardiff went to Wednesday’s script.

Hartlepool struggled to retain possession, and things got worse when Jon-Paul McGovern snuck in at the back post to hit them with a sucker punch on the brink of half-time. 

But there were no fingers pointed – or spirits dampened – in the Pools dressing room at half-time.

‘There wasn’t a lot of shouting and screaming or anything like that,” Barron recalls. “We’d been up against it in the first half and the manager was just trying to calm us down.

“We weren’t upset – we were still in the game.”

And it took Pools less than two minutes after the restart to make that clear to everyone else, as substitute Eifion Williams – on for Thomas Butler – arrived at the back post to equalise from a long throw by Humphreys. 

Then, 24 tense minutes later, Hartlepool reached the pinnacle of their now 112-year existence. 

Gavin Strachan whipped in a free kick, and the ball was headed emphatically past Wednesday goalkeeper David Lucas.

But not by Boyd, the near-30-goal striker, nor by Porter. The scorer, incredibly, was Jon Daly. The goal, only his second ever for the club.

He had only been on the pitch for a minute. The header was his first touch of the ball. 

For just over 10 minutes, the impossible seemed probable for Pools and their supporters. But then their joy was stripped away . . . and they haven’t felt anything like it since.

Talbot managed to get behind Hartlepool’s defence and fell to the ground with Westwood in close proximity, and referee Jones – and Wednesday’s penalty scorer Steven MacLean – did the rest.

The wind knocked out of them, Pools conceded a further two goals in extra-time. The dream was over.

There was no time for reflecting, though. As with any major game, players and staff have to fulfil their media obligations.

For Barron, it all sank in only days later.

“I remember seeing everyone’s families in the bar afterwards, and as we were a really close group a lot of the parents and kids knew each other, we were greeted with open arms. So the disappointment goes away for a while, until a few days later when it hits you hard.

“I was sitting in my garden a couple of days after the game and that’s when I got really down about what happened.”

Fifteen years later, the town is still in mourning. 

The club now reside in the National League, three tiers below where victory would have taken them that day.

Their fans, as loyal as ever, still wonder about where the club would be now. 

What if Mike Jones hadn’t given that penalty? What if Neale Cooper was in the dug-out instead of a managerial rookie?

If all these factors went in their favour, would they have prevented Hartlepool United’s downfall?

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