But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. – Luke 15:20

IT may not be said that last Thursday night in the Rovers Amateur Quoits Club in Hartlepool is wholly akin to the parable of the Prodigal Son, but there are similarities, nonetheless.

Nor may it be said that they’ve killed the fatted calf, though the pie and peas are very canny.

The occasion – Rovers return – is the reunion of the Hartlepool United team of 1990-91, the first Pools’ side to win promotion since St Luke was a little lad.

“We were invincible,” says Paul Gough, the organiser, thus bequeathing to the rich panoply of sports writing the first known example of “Hartlepool United” and “invincible” deployed in the same sentence.

Many have reassembled.

There’s Alan Murray, the ever-affable team manager who’d been translated from chief executive; leading scorer Joe Allon, sold for £300,000 to Chelsea in order to keep the ship afloat; John Tinkler, the little lad from Trimdon – “Trimdon twinned with Las Vegas,”

someone says – who still effortlessly speaks the language.

None has expected to see Garry Gibson, club chairman from 1989-94 but a man who since leaving the Victoria Ground had never once set foot in Hartlepool.

“I’d driven through a few times but that was only to get to the fish and chip shop in Seaton Carew,” he confides. “Bloody good fish shop in Seaton Carew.”

If not exactly falling on his neck and kissing him, as did the Prodigal’s old feller, they receive him warmly and spontaneously, even so.

“You once gave me a couple of free tickets for the match,” says the doorman, the first person he encountered.

“It’s pay back time,” says Garry.

HE was a Wheatley Hill lad, a miner’s son and 6ft 6in giant who at 34 was already high rise in property development.

Back in the summer of 1989, the family had gone on a fortnight’s holiday to Nice, the bairns unhappy about the heat, the adults uncomfortable on a beach like Blackhall Rocks.

“After a week of that we decided to fly home at extra expense and have a few days in Blackpool instead,” he recalls.

Between trips he saw a television news item that Hartlepool, perennially penurious, needed directors.

Translated, it meant that they needed money.

Though a Sunderland fan, he applied, was accepted, witnessed soon afterwards a coup – said to have been orchestrated by the late Roland Boyes, Durham’s Euro MEP – in which club boss John Smart was ousted and the chair, the penitent stool, became vacant.

Garry was asked to put himself forward. “My ticket was to sack the board. I never thought they’d vote for me on that basis. When they did I had to be as good as my word, and went round all their houses with the news.”

As manager, he appointed the celebrated Spurs and England full-back Cyril Knowles, preferred at interview over Malcolm Allison. “I asked Big Mal about the birds and the booze-ups,” recalled Garry.

“He said that you always had to celebrate your successes. I took his advice on board.”

Knowles was a hard nut.

“He’d go on the bus to away matches, sit at the front and never speak to the players for the whole journey,”

recalls the chairman.

“I’d be at the back playing cards with the lads. Quite soon we learned to let them win on the way there, good for team spirit, though we usually got our money back on the return.”

He also allowed Knowles to give the team a drop of whisky before matches, and to bring in a hypnotist – “a wife from up Morpeth way”

– in an attempt to boost the team’s confidence. It failed.

In 1989-90 they finished, familiarly, second bottom.

The following season he took out insurance against promotion, in order to pay the win bonuses if it happened. When Knowles became ill, later dying from a brain tumour, his place was taken by the agreeable Murray, who’d played principally for Doncaster Rovers, become a brewery sales manager and whom Garry had first appointed as chief exec.

“I used to sit beside him at all the matches. He knew what he was talking about,”

he says.

“The last time I saw you, you sacked me,” says Alan.

As football people do, the chairman had left amid acrimony. He subsequently lived and worked in Scotland, maintained as low a profile as a man of 6ft 6in might reasonably be expected to do.

Though still based there, he’s a Sunderland season ticket holder, was back in the North-East for a match when he read something about the reunion in the Hartlepool Mail.

We are old friends, good friends. “Can you ride shotgun?” he emailed. “I’ll go if you will.” We went.

THE Amateur Quoits Club overflows, subsuming even the question of whether Hartlepool may once have had quoits professionals.

Paul Gough, formerly familiar as a radio DJ, remembers well the events of the great promotion season.

“I was 14,” he says, improbably, “behind the Rink End goal.”

Garry hasn’t told them he’s going, crashes amid them like a returning moon rocket, appears not to have much of a parachute – never had – but is happy to be back to earth. Most players, old habits, still call him Mr Gibson.

“Garry Gibson was an integral part of our promotion and he’s had the bollocks to come,” says Joe Allon.

“Mr Gibson did a fantastic job in bringing money into the club,” says former centrehalf John McPhail.

Allon, the top scorer, also recalls the promise of a club car. It proved to be a second (or third) hand Micra. “Even the wings were different colours,” he says.

Others assure the chairman that he was the man who gave them hope, who reversed decades of decline, who brought the Victoria Ground a little belatedly into the 20th Century shortly before the turn of the 21st.

Garry’s a bit overwhelmed.

“I’ll be giving up my Sunderland season ticket just now,” he says.

THE night goes hugely well.

Former players like Ian Bennyworth reminisce about the days that they changed in a Nissan hut, that grass was a synonym for mud, that the car park resembled a holding pen in the local cattle market.

Rob McKinnon, a future Scotland full-back, reckons his 12 years at Hartlepool the best of his life – “the people were just so welcoming, I wouldn’t hear a word against them”.

Mick Smith, Sunderland lad and hard as the hobs of Hendon, recalls adventures with the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon and old Vic exploits little more credible.

Andy Davies came with Cyril Knowles from Torquay – “he wouldn’t have fitted in with today’s Premier League society, that’s for sure” – only started four games, liked Hartlepool so much he stayed, even so. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” he admits.

Among those who can’t make it is goalkeeper Kevin Poole, among the true heroes of the promotion season. At 47 he’s still playing for Burton Reserves.

The former chairman’s roundly applauded, signs everything except cheques, forsakes diet for pie and peas, beams like a Poolie promotion parade.

Glad he came back, then?

“Oh aye,” says the Prodigal, “but with hindsight I still wish we’d roughed that second week in Nice.”

■ Former Durham County cricketer Michael Gough, among those at the reunion, is at 31 the youngest umpire on the first-class list.

Now the former Northern League centre-half has taken up refereeing, too.

“The ECB wouldn’t let me carry on playing but they’re happy for me to ref. They must think it’s safer,” he said.

Still grass rooting round the Hartlepool leagues, he hopes at least to reach Northern League level, if not to emulate Martin Bodenham, the former Premiership referee who has also become a first-class umpire.

“Martin and I talk quite often,” says Michael. “Martin did it the other way round, of course. I think I’m a bit old for the Premiership now.”

And finally...

THE all-rounder who in the Fifties played cricket at Edgbaston and Old Trafford for his county and also captained his side to victory at Wembley (Backtrack, November 20) was Bert Steward, who played his cricket for Durham and his footy for Crook Town.

Following Saturday’s column on father and son George and Stuart Neal – Sunderland lads both still playing in the Over-40s league – John Briggs in Darlington invites the identity of the only father and son to play together in the Football League. That, by nice coincidence, was against Hartlepool, too.

Hasting back, a report from Glasgow on Saturday.