IN SEPTEMBER 1997 Hartlepool United were trundling along in the slow lane.

Then along came a company called Increased Oil Recovery, a chairman by the name of Ken Hodcroft, and Pool have never looked back.

Pool fans had their fingers burned years before, when it took the steadying influence of Harold Hornsey to get the club back on track after the Garry Gibson era. That meant many cynics quickly dismissed the oil men as no slick outfit.

A subsidy of a million pounds or so later, a promotion, club records galore, three play-offs and a pack of players arriving at the club who would fit into any all-time Pool XI, Hartlepool fans can look back on the best years of their lives.

And there is still the tantalising promise of further improvement.

When Hornsey shocked everyone by selling his controlling interest, Pool had just drew 1-1 at Darlington and were about to meet Orient at Victoria Park, while sitting in 14th place in Division Three in front of 2,253 fans.

Today they are seventh in Division Two, have showed they can be more than a match for the division's best, and average around 5,500 at Victoria Park.

Because after outplaying leaders Port Vale earlier this season, they proved the equal of second-placed Brighton in Saturday's goalless draw. Watching Pool in the last six years has been a thoroughly enjoyable affair.

"The club will go forward. I am not coming in with pots of money, but I want to build up a squad with good players, some niche players and see the club do well,'' claimed Hodcroft in The Northern Echo on September 24, 1997.

True to his word, there's been no massive financial outlays, instead things have shrewdly and steadily improved as good players have arrived at Victoria Park in abundance.

Pool are now one of the most professionally run outfits in the Nationwide Leagues. That's why they can attract the calibre of players they do now.

Only one player remains from the changeover, skipper Micky Barron.

He had the pleasure in the early days of playing alongside the classy Jan Ove Pedersen, brought to Victoria Park through IOR's Norwegian connections.

On the other hand who can ever forget Stig Larsen and Tim Sperrevik?

On Saturday, Barron was part of the Pool defence which kept their fourth clean sheet at home in five Division Two games.

The only team to breach, Barron and Co was Grimsby, the team who went home after conceding eight, after Pool's biggest win since 1959. No-one had every heard of the oill industry then, never mind IOR.

They are currently seventh, with a goal difference of plus nine (the second best in the division) and in a very healthy state.

How much of that is down to Neale Cooper, IOR's fourth manager and the third unassuming chairman Hodcroft has appointed.

Cooper currently leads the Pool manager's mini table, his team ahead of Chris Turner's Sheffield Wednesday (one point and two places behind) and Mike Newell's Luton (two points seven places in tow), with a home game against Wrexham tomorrow and an intriguing tie with Wednesday a week on Friday to come.

Last season against Wrexham, Turner and a Mark Tinkler hat-trick led Pool to a 4-3 win, before Newell trudged them to a 2-0 defeat at the Racecourse Ground in the days the title was thrown away in March.

It's now 366 days since Pool lost a league game at home, the 2-1 reverse to Rushden on September 28, 2002 the last time they suffered defeat at Victoria Park.

There's been a couple of Cup defeats, one in the FA Cup to Southend last season and last week's Carling Cup loss to West Brom.

On Saturday, the proud run rarely looked under any threat. At least Brighton boss Steve Coppell enjoyed a more pleasant time at Victoria Park than his last visit; a 1993 FA Cup tie when his Crystal Palace side were beaten by an Andy Saville penalty.

Little Leon Knight looked Brighton's biggest threat, but he joined the list of strikers to be nullified by Chris Westwood and Micky Nelson. He never recovered after clattering into the Rink End adversiting hoardings under pressure from Westwood.

Provett stood firm to keep out a strong Gary Hart shot and went full stretch in injury time to claw out a 35-yard strike.

The visitors stepped up the tempo at the start of the second half and fired in four shots high or wide from long range in the opening ten minutes. That was a worrying period, but from then on Pool looked the more likely to score.

Pool asked their fair share of questions. Barron floated over a deep first-half cross which Eifion Williams attempted to flick over Michele Kuipers and later on Gavin Strachan shot wide from 12 yards after a Ritchie Humphreys cross caused havoc.

"We went three at the back and four across the middle of the park, but I thought our problem was that the front men weren't holding the ball up,'' said Cooper.

"But we didn't lose a goal again and it's a year now since these boys lost at home - they can be proud of that record.''

Result: Hartlepool United 0 Brighton and Hove Albion 0.

Read more about Hartlepool here.