Needles in haystacks, train times in Timbuctoo, may be found more easily than background information on Mr Ken Hodcroft. If it's flesh on bones that's sought, there's more meat on an anorexic spuggie.

His website offers little more than name, rank and number, his profile is resolutely horizontal. Getting an interview with the chairman of Hartlepool United, recently and rapturously promoted, is like seeking sea coal at Seaton and striking gold instead.

Sports columns there may have been; personal columns never.

"I'll save you the search fee at Companies' House, there's nothing there either," he adds cheerfully. "You'll find nothing about me anywhere."

After weeks of reminders - pestering, some might say - he has agreed to a 9am chat at a Hexham hotel and is chided over coffee for his self-effacement.

"Good," he says. "You won't have found out about my 1992 speeding ticket, either."

Hodcroft is also director of Increased Oil Recovery - IOR in every supporter's shorthand - the Aberdeen based company which for five years has owned the club and greased the wheels of its happily upward mobility.

A man who clearly knows the drill, he will admit neither to his age ("forties, probably") nor to the number of his children ("private"). There are still questions which he declines to answer, others which he insists remain off the record.

In every respect except one, and more of that dumb insolence shortly, we are very happy to oblige.

It should at once be stressed, however, that Ken Hodcroft is the most engaging and agreeable company, a courteous and quietly spoken man at the very top of his game and of the business which he alone seeks to mind.

When the Pool went around town in an open topped bus, he was probably downstairs talking tickets to the conductor; after the promotion match, he had a quick drink and, as usual, drove home.

"I don't know what the public think of me and obviously I can't control that, but I've never been one for the headlines and the limelight.

"I get on fine with the media. I smile at them, I'm civil to them, but it's the manager's job to talk to them, not mine."

No leaks from IOR, either? "You should never talk about the oil industry, a wrong word can cost millions. It's like what they said in the war: Be like dad, keep mum."

For all his urbane exterior, however, he is dispassionately passionate; for all his success, he watches every penny.

"The club is pretty nicely set up now, but working within IOR guidelines, constraints and budgets. I don't really have any fears in that sense."

He has a BSc and a masters degree, turned down a playing contract with Tulsa Roughnecks, supports Newcastle United and had never seen a Third Division match until negotiations began to buy Hartlepool. He loves it.

He also looks a bit like Charlie Walker, the Demon Donkey Dropper of Eryholme, though only Backtrack regulars would appreciate the comparison.

Son of a marine engineer, he was born in Newcastle and was a contemporary of the former Newcastle United player Paul Cannell, who is 49. When the family moved to Leeds when he was five he watched Leeds United - "there were some very good players and Sprake was all right" - but never lost his loyalty to the Magpies.

He attended the fee paying, rugby playing Leeds Grammar School, gained O level maths a year early, took chemistry, physics and biology at A Level, wanted to be a doctor but was put off by the five year course and studied chemical engineering at Newcastle instead.

His head had also been turned by The Troubleshooters, a 1970s television programme about the oil industry. "They went around the world solving problems, I thought it looked a great job," he says, and he's solving them, enjoying it, still.

"Last year I took over 100 flights. The day I tire of flying will be the day I tire of the oil industry."

After university he was head hunted, found himself for two years at Phillips Petroleum headquarters at Bartlesville, Oklahoma - "all I knew about America was Kojak" - and is happy to recall those days.

Bartlesville was dry, or damp at best. Alcoholic Beverage Control they called it, and hotel guests had to have their name on the watered down bottle. "You can imagine the amount of bootlegging which went on, and this was the land of the free in the 1970s, don't forget."

In America he also helped teach soccer to local youngsters - "we were pioneers, not even Peter Beardsley had been over by then" - and played in a cup final after which Tulsa stuck their roughneck out.

"I'd scored what looked like a really good goal, but it wouldn't have happened but for the Astroturf," he says with characteristic modesty.

"I'd only been working one and a half years. I'd too much to learn about the oil industry to give it up for football. You could see the potential, though, you could see it coming."

After seven rugby playing years in Norway he became a consultant before forming IOR against a background of declining oil fields. "The big boys were moving out of the North Sea. We saw a niche in the market place."

We thought about this time of asking how he met his wife, but almost immediately thought better of it.

IOR prospered, though he insists that he's not an oil rich man. "It's a hungry business and you have to know what you're doing, but it's one of the most pioneering ways to make a living.

"It's instant, it's always needed yesterday, there's so much money at stake. We have no turnover at IOR, no one leaves our employment. You have to keep one step ahead and if you don't adapt you don't survive.

"Oil has been very good to me. I've enjoyed every minute."

The family lives near Hexham, where usually he spends Monday and Friday working from home and the other three days, often until 11pm, on an eighth floor overlooking Aberdeen docks.

Ian McRae, a former Brechin City player, acts as middle man between IOR and Hartlepool United, speaking several times daily to his boss.

"Even when Ken's abroad there are floods of faxes and e-mails and the amazing thing is that he remembers every word of them," says a United insider.

The chairman, he adds, is "a gem."

IOR bought the club after Hodcroft, who perhaps uniquely among football chairman admits closely to following the media, read a Sunday Sun interview with former United chairman Harold Hornsey.

"I forget when it was, about 1998 or 1999," he says. It was 1997.

The oil company wanted to get into football, knew it would never be a Newcastle United or an Arsenal, decided that their ship (as an oil man might almost say) had come in.

"Harold seemed to be a saviour, but reading between the lines I wondered if he'd taken it as far as he could.

"He'd helped save the club but perhaps he was at a crossroads. He might say that he wasn't, but that was how I read it. I wondered if he might be interested."

Solicitors - "we'd no idea how to buy a football club" - made the first move. Subsequent meetings were amicable.

"I'd always looked for Hartlepool's result like I did for all North-East clubs, including Sunderland, but it had never been more than that.

"I'd not been to the town since I was there with my father and I was amazed at the transformation. The place was buzzing, the people were friendly, I felt very comfortable there. You know how it is in the North-East, people are always happy, even in the bad times.

"Harold was actually very good, his only concern was for the football club and whether these people were going to destroy his dream. When we had assured him that we weren't coming in to asset strip and so on he was quite happy.

"He came round to thinking that maybe this was the next step. I knew by his concern that he wouldn't have let anyone have the club. We had to meet his criteria."

Hand or heart? "It's very difficult, that. You have to look at the books like any other business. I had to make sure it wasn't going to bring us down as a company.

"The economics had to be right. We had to ensure that it wouldn't be an animal out of control, to run the football club in the same way as we run the oil companies. My heart might have been attracted at first, but after that it was my head.

"It's like another part of the business, but it's part of my life, too."

Run with a tight control of which the Chancellor himself would be proud, Pool three times reached the play-offs before final promotion. In IOR's first season, however, they were almost relegated.

"It was the doomsday scenario for us," says Hodcroft. It was very frightening at the time."

His managers are free to manage so long as they have a Plan B and always tell the board what's going on. The only pressure - "anything else is a bonus; we only ask people to do their best" - is not to be relegated.

Chris Turner and Mike Newell were appointed after several interviews because they proved they wanted to work for the company.

There are meetings before and after every match at which minutes are taken and individuals named to take action. They pay all their bills on time, expect others to do the same. There's no invoice system and hospitality boxes must be bought in advance.

"We're not a charity, we've never said we have pots of money," says the chairman." The business is now a core part of IOR. We evaluate things case by case but we're not going to start talking silly money because we're in a different division."

Would he ever sell? "I don't think anyone would buy. Football isn't the flavour of the month just now."

Administratively, he supposes, the second division will be little from the first though he concedes that new players will be needed. "We're preparing our budgets now."

The council owned ground, though small, may have to suffice. "We've invested a lot of money on the infrastructure, but moving isn't that easy because we haven't a ground to sell.

"At this stage of the club's life it isn't necessary, but I'd love to have the problem of locking people out."

We'd been talking so long that at the Beaumont Hotel they were bidding customers good afternoon. Outside, a few snapshots as a reminder of the Hexham Abbey habit, he rehearsed those things that he didn't want in the paper.

"Oh," added the chairman, "and you won't put in about that speeding ticket, will you." Like the Ken Hodcroft of old, we quietly declined to comment.

Published: 16/05/2003