IF it is indeed true that the bigger they come the harder they fall, then Garry Gibson - 6ft 6ins and with a profile yet higher - hit the ground like a spacecraft with a perished parachute.

At 34 he was chairman of Hartlepool United, a member soon afterwards of the Football League management committee, a rich quick property dealer and a highly readable newspaper columnist.

"I thought I could walk on water and now realise that I can't, " he admits on the eve of the biggest game in his old club's history. "It was like roulette, I kept on playing lucky seven and it kept on coming up. It was great when it worked, but you can't always win." He lost spectacularly. In 1997 both he and his company were declared bankrupt, Gibson retreating to Hawick, in the Scottish borders, where he spent four years on the dole. Few knew his whereabouts, fewer still his phone number.

Your kids suffer, your parents suffer, everyone suffers. It was the nearest place I could go where no one would know me but I could be reasonably close to the kids." Sheep shorn of confidence, credit rating and even a car, he rarely left the house except for the end-of-the-day run at the sellby section of the supermarket.

"I didn't know anyone and I didn't want anyone to know me. The dole was £48 a fortnight, which was all right for nine or ten days but then you got stuck a bit.

"When the kids came I'd have a sore throat at the end of the day because I was so unused to talking to anyone. When I wore shoes my ankles chafed, because I was almost always in slippers, when I went home my dad had to pay my bus fare.

"I'd been the most confident man alive and it had been shot completely. I didn't want to put my head above the parapet and have someone else kick it in again. When you're on the floor, there's a lot of people want to give you a kicking." Now the man who came to earth is once again reaching for the sky. He has a masters degree in entrepreneurial skills from Stirling University, a property consultancy ("doing aal reet") and is gleefully groomed for a July wedding in Edinburgh to Gaynor Salisbury.

She's 43, he's 50, though he knocked five years off - "the five wasted years" - when they met.

For an engagement present at New Year he bought her a new salmon pink Mini. "She likes pink, very Barbara Cartland, it cost me £2,500 just to have it sprayed." Today she flies to New York to choose a wedding dress.

We meet for lunch in Sedgefield, where his mother still lives, GG clearly up and running again.

Neither his Co Durham accent, his appearance, nor his taste for wrap-around suits has changed a bit.

The previous evening he'd been to a Neil Diamond concert in Newcastle, birthday present from the bairns. His favourite Diamond song, he says, is Love on the Rocks - "it's summat I know all about." In his first interview since The Fall - coruscatingly good form, the Adam Boyd of fish, chips and peas - he insists that he himself has learned even more than they can teach on a masters course at Stirling.

"I'm not as arrogant as I was, " he says. "I went to being very humble, now I'm just slightly arrogant.

"My problem was that I got so wrapped up in Hartlepool United that I took my eye off the ball elsewhere. Now I take two days to make decisions, it's one of the things they taught me at university; at Hartlepool I took two seconds." Happy again, he looks forward greatly to his second wedding - he was divorced in 1986. A Hartlepool win in Cardiff on Sunday really would be the icing on the cake.

"I've never stopped looking out for them. It's like being divorced, you don't stop caring about the mother of your children just because you're not married to her.

"I didn't think about going to Cardiff because I don't know what sort of reception I'd get, even 11 years later. It's one thing taking all the abuse when you're involved, a bit harder when you're not.

"I'll be sitting at home writing my wedding invitations and listening to it on the radio. I remember in my day playing Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup or something and it was like playing royalty. Look what's happened to them. Hartlepool look to have some very good players; I'm sure we can win on Sunday."

HEwas born in the former east Durham mining village of Wheatley Hill, left school at16, entrepreneurial from an early age. "I'd pick blackberries, wash them and sell them round the doors; I'd buy and sell rough books at school, owt.

"It's not the money, it's the deal, always has been. It's the thrill of the transaction, whether it's two bob or two hundred grand." Thrown in at the Pools deep end in 1989, the League's second youngest chairman - "The youngest was using his father's money, I was using my own" - he quickly found his feet. The team not only won a hen's back teeth promotion but rose to second in the old third division.

The chairman himself enthusiastically marketed his better players, striking deals for the likes of Paul Dalton, Paul Baker and Rob McKinnon but not always paying the bills.

In 1994 the tide turned and left him stranded. Bailiffs ploughed furrows to Victoria Park, fans foamed, the league position seemed all too familiar.

"I remember taking my seat in the directors' box behind the goal and the fans at the Mill House end pointing and singing 'You fat bastard'. I looked around and there was no one behind me, and I realised they were on about me. I thought 'You ungrateful sods'." He was succeeded by Harold Hornsey, then by Ken Hodcroft and the OIR group, happily acknowledges their role in 'Pools' extraordinary revival. "Harold stabilised it, the others have taken it on. They've all done very well.

"In the end it didn't work particularly well for me at Hartlepool, one or two things didn't go to plan, but I like to think that I gave things a bit of a jolt, perhaps laid the foundations. Changed perceptions started with me." His personal revival began with a short course at HerriotWatt University - "I knew nothing about computers, couldn't even switch one on" - followed, new currency, by Stirling.

Though no longer short, the big man insists he learned lots of lessons in winning an MA. "I still do my shopping in the sellby section, though these days I leave some for the lads on the dole, poor buggers.

"I'm much more appreciative of money these days. To this day my two favourite sounds are a pricing gun - it meant it was after four o'clock and stuff was cheaper - and the sound a cash machine makes when it's giving you a few notes. I hadn't heard that one for years.

"I sometimes wonder about going back into football, but I don't think I will. I could be a director with an area of responsibility, but if I thought the rest were dummies I'd want to be in control again.

"I don't think I've any regrets, though. As you get older you regret what you haven't done, not what you have." Gaynor's a business adviser who, coincidentally, took the same degree course two years before him; the wedding invitations describe them as "Chalk and cheese".

"She's very sociable, I'm not; she's a night person, I can hardly last to News at Ten these days". The ceremony will be conducted by a woman Church of Scotland minister with blue toe nails in a deconsecrated Catholic church which now serves as a sort of one-stop wedding shop.

He'd particularly noticed her toe nails.

"I asked her if she had all her tickets out, " he says - they'd understand in the Cons Club in Wheatley Hill.

His three loyal children are grown up, her two much younger. They'll live in Edinburgh, where he hopes further to build upon recent successes.

"I'll tell you in football parlance what I am now, I'm a 34year-old centre forward who's dropped back into midfield. I haven't the legs and I haven't the speed, but I still have the brain to spray good balls about and let the younger lads do the running.

"The thing I learned amid all the hardship was that you have to have a light at the end of the tunnel, even just a chink.

"There was a time I couldn't really see it, but it was there. But for all this, I'd never have met Gaynor.

"You have to have perseverance. You have to be willing to put your hand in the fire, get your fingers burned and put it in again." The secret, says the high flier who escaped the wreckage, is that the next time you don't put it in quite so far.

Grounds for more tales

WHAT last Saturday's FA Cup Final Escape Committee (and Scotch Pie Fest) delegates hadn't realised was that Arthurlie are not only former Scottish League members but play at the same ground in Barrhead, near Glasgow, as in those heady, hurdy days of the early 20th century.

John Briggs in Darlington offers a little more meat for the confection.

Second division members from 1901-15, Arthurlie rejoined the new third division in 1923 - together with relegated East Stirling and Beith, Brechin City, Clackmannan, Dumbarton Harp, Dykehead, Galston, Helensburgh, MidAnnandale, Montrose, Nithsdale Wanderers, Peebles Rovers, Queen of the South, Royal Albert and Solway Star.

By 1925-26, however, administration was so greatly in chaos and clubs so helplessly in debt that only Helensburgh completed their fixtures, winning the division as a result.

Arthurlie (as David Munday points out) continued in division two until 1929 but, in turn, couldn't complete the season. The third party had been brought to a close rather earlier.

THE minutes of the Escape Committee (Backtrack, May 24) also wondered how Bury FC came to be known as the Shakers.

Alf Hutchinson in Darlington not only believes there to be a connection with the fundamentalist religious movement of that name but attempts a link with Anne Lee, who believed herself to be the female Christ.

Though the club was formed in 1885 by a marriage of Wesleyan and Unitarian church folk, the more likely explanation is that in 1891 the club chairman urged his boys to "shake" the opposition.

Doubtless they have been so doing ever since.

SHILDON-based Manchester United fan Brian Shaw, among those who found the final ineluctable, asks - "not sour grapes or nowt" - what would have happened if the penalty shoot-out had reached 10-10.

"Since Arsenal had had a man sent off, wouldn't it have given them an unfair advantage, their best penalty taker presumably taking the 11th against Man United's worst?" On the spot, we asked Jeff Winter, the Stockton lad who refereed the 2004 final. No it wouldn't, he says.

"If one side has had one or more players sent off, then the other side is asked to denominate ? as it were ? one of their own men, probably the least likely to score.

"If it had been 10-10, they'd have started again.

"The slight advantage would have been to Manchester United."

ASlast Friday's column forecast he would, former Hartlepool defender Malcolm Dawes also missed the Cup final ? in order to watch his 24-year-old son Mark box in the ABA "Novices" finals.

Though Fishburn based Mark lost by a single point, his dad remains upbeat. "Everyone agreed it was the best fight on the bill, an absolutely cracking contest." Like his father, Mark now hopes to turn professional.

A LOYALTY clash ahead of Sunday's Cardiff showdown for BBC Radio Newcastle sports reporter and familiar former Northern League player Paul Dixon.

Basically, he says, he always wants any North-East team to succeed but his 20-year-old nephew Patrick Collins - Newcastle born and released by Sunderland - is in the Sheffield Wednesday squad.

Paul's equivocal. "I'll be shouting," he says, "for the team which usually plays in black and white."

ANOTE has arrived from Keith Nicholson, chairman of the DRV (Cricket) Challenge Cup - "formerly Regency Windows, Coles Cranes, Leyland Daf, Northern Invitational and probably some others." Some newspapers, says Keith ? "including your own esteemed organ" - are mistakenly calling it the Armourpost Security Shutters DRV Cup, though Armourpost are indeed the sponsors.

The name Armourpost, Keith concedes, might also seem a bit rude to those of French extraction.

To circumvent the problem, competition secretary Ian Jackson simply calls the trophy the "Love stick" instead.

And finally...

THE first team from the old third division to win a Wembley final (Backtrack, March 24) was Queens Park Rangers, 3-2 victors over West Brom in the 1967 League Cup.

"I'm taunted about it to this day," writes Steve Smith, and John Milburn in Chester-leStreet is equally anxious to point out not only that Swindon Town were the second third division winners, two years later, but that Arsenal were their opponents.

"Who could forget Don Rogers' goal?" he asks.

On the back of the previous column's question, about the reason for the Duke of Norfolk's hush-hush departure from MCC's 1962-63 tour of Australia, Dave Blake in Durham points out that Winston Churchill didn't actually die until 1965.

"No wonder, " he adds, "that they wanted to keep the funeral rehearsal a secret." Since today's column has mostly been about a Wheatley Hill lad, readers are invited to name the former Arsenal player and Darlington manager who came from that same village.

Up hill as ever, Sisyphus returns on Tuesday.

Published: 27/05/2005