These programme notes were written by Sky Sports' Jeff Stelling, for the Hartlepool United edition of Talk of the Town.
It’s that time of year again when I start to look ahead to an exciting end of the season – championships, promotions, play-offs and relegations aplenty give us so much to talk about in Sky’s Soccer Saturday studio.
But the other thing nagging away at the back of my mind as the goals are flying in and the champagne corks are being popped is the agony I’m about to experience. No, not the drop for my beloved Hartlepool United.
I’m confident new boss Dave Jones will see to it that is not an issue. But the aches, the pain and the inevitable blisters I’ll be suffering in June when I undertake my second walk in aid of Prostate Cancer UK! Last
season’s trek from Hartlepool to Wembley, calling in at many football clubs along the way, raised £420,000 for the EFL’s partner charity.
I’ve got to be honest, the idea of a second walk in as many years was a bit much at first. But we found something to hang it on by going from St James Park in Exeter to St James’ Park in Newcastle, and although the dread is there, the thought of all the football fans and people from clubs who walked with myself and my good friend Russ Green, the Hartlepool chief executive, joining us again and chatting about the beautiful game as I go is what drives me on.
It’s a possibility we could start and finish at promoted clubs with Exeter and Newcastle – which would be nice. Luton fans might not see it that way, but it would bring a feel-good factor to the 400 miles we’ll cover doing 15 marathons in 15 days.
It’ll be tough, as Paul Merson pointed out to me the other day when he said: “You must be mad Jeff – Exeter to Newcastle is all uphill!” It’s just a case of trying to do something a bit different. Last season the walk was predominantly down the eastern side of England, and this one is predominantly – but not totally – down the western side. It gives a chance for football fans from a different part of the country to get involved with the walk; to encourage, cajole and to donate.
Raising a few quid is a bonus, but we want to keep prostate cancer in the spotlight, and keep people aware of what to look for and who might be vulnerable.
It’s one of the easiest forms of cancer to treat, but only if you catch it early. The big deal is that prostate cancer’s link with football is blindingly obvious. There are a lot more women than there used to be – thank God – involved in football today, but most of the people at Kenilworth Road will still be men, and that is the case up and down the country.
These are the people the campaign is targeted at. One in eight men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. That frightening figure narrows to one in four for black men. Think about that for a minute when you consider that at least three of the men you see on the pitch in front of you at kick-off tonight – including ref and his assistant – will suffer at some stage. Of course, the suffering that I’ll go through on the walk is nothing by comparison.
Last season all the clubs laid a physio on at the end of the day for a massage, which was fantastic. We started one of the legs at Luton and then finished it at Watford, but by then, Russ and I were relatively used to it. But you always got some of the first-time walkers who thought – like I did at the start – that walking a marathon was a piece of cake They soon realise it’s not.
Max Rushden, who does Fantasy Football on Sky and presents on TalkSport radio, had to be carried into the dressing room and helped into an ice bath by some of the Watford staff because he physically could not move!
I saw him a couple of days ago and he said he’s going on holiday for the whole of June this year…but I’m going to twist his arm again to join me! The Luton one was a really well supported leg actually, which was great. We were joined by former players Paul Walsh, Kingsley Black, Scott Oakes, chief executive Gary Sweet, commercial manager Dave Hoskins, marketing manager
Ed Smith and ticket office manager Mike Hooker from the club, plus the likes of Merse, Tony Cottee, Peter Taylor and Bianca Westwood.
It was a really good leg, apart from the fact it ended in torrential rain. We’d already had Storm Katie a couple of days before that, but that was nothing compared to the rain in Watford – it was like a tropical monsoon! This one is in June, so we are hoping for balmy, early English early summer weather and I’m already looking forward to walking along the seafront and splashing in the sea on day ten from Fleetwood to Morecambe. My burning feet will need it by then!
HYLTON, MARRIOTT AND TOMMY TRAVELODGE!
We always like to have a giggle on a Saturday afternoon and as many of you will know, two of the current Luton squad give me one of my most popular lines.
Having a couple of hotel chains regularly on the scoresheet has been perfect script for me from the opening afternoon of the season when both Hylton and Marriott were on target in the 3-0 win at Plymouth.
‘Tommy Travelodge’ – who I also refer to as potentially being Nathan Jones’ next five-star striking signing, and who Danny and Jack both joked about when Bianca came to the training ground to interview them together earlier in the campaign – does exist, although I noticed the transfer window closed without his arrival at Kenilworth Road!
We were on the seafront at the end of the first leg of last year’s walk, heading towards Marske, and this fella came across with a banner saying ‘I am Tommy Travelodge’, and it gave us a big lift because it was so funny.
But if you look at him, I’m not surprised that Nathan – nor anyone else for that matter – has signed him yet! Yes, Hylton-Marriott and Tommy Travelodge has turned out to be a daft line, but sometimes these sort of things develop a life of their own, like in years gone by when we had ‘They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions’. People expect you to say it every time the boys score now and I’ve been thinking about introducing a couple of new characters.
There are so many foreign imports these days, I was thinking about ‘Nacho Novotel’, or someone like that. But it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a Marks and Sparkes, who netted on the same day for Braintree against Nuneaton and Alfreton, or when Hartlepool had Hartley and Poole – Peter and James – scoring in the same game. I keep wanting Freeman, Hardy and Willis to score on the same day somewhere, but three might be pushing it!
GRAY SHADES IT FOR ME!
There have been a few Hartlepool and Luton links over the years, with the likes of Steve Howard and Mike Newell, but I’ll talk about Jake Gray because he’s the most recent – and he’s involved tonight!
Jake was great for us last year, and it’s no secret that we’d have been desperate to keep him again this season.
For a young kid who came who came from Crystal Palace – heart of London, Premier League side –to make the transition to the north-east coast, and a world he must have known precious little about, was a great effort. He was brilliant, box to box. I remember sitting at home watching on TV in the middle of one of our worst, deepest parts of the season, and he got a couple of goals against Leyton Orient. They battered us for 70 minutes and somehow we won 3-1, principally thanks for him.
He was a key player that day and a key player for us really, right through the time he was there, and I’m always pleased to see players who played for us doing well – as long as it’s not against us! Just as a footnote, in recent weeks we’ve seen Ryan Bird, who was on loan to us and almost signed permanently, score on his Newport debut against us. And last Saturday week, Matt Dolan – who is a Hartlepool boy and he’s had two loan spells at our place – scored Yeovil’s late equaliser at Victoria Park…so come on guys!
I’m just hoping that our secret weapon, Nathan Thomas, will be fit again. He scored in the first game and he’s a class act. We’ve missed him a lot. He’s been out for three months now and he came back with ten minutes a couple of weeks ago, then was out for the whole of the next week but was back on the bench again against Yeovil.
Dave Jones wants to be careful with him, I know that. He wants to be very cautious because come the closing weeks he could be crucial to us.