When Hartlepool United lost to Sheffield Wednesday in the 2005 League One play-off final it was cruel. As the club launched its official history book yesterday, club chairman Ken Hodcroft told Chief Football Writer Paul Fraser how a "mystery letter" predicted such pain.

IT was Tuesday, May 31, 2005. Two days after Hartlepool United’s dreams of becoming a Championship outfit for the first time in the club’s history disappeared after an enthralling encounter at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

The hangovers and the disappointment still lingered when the administration staff returned to Victoria Park reflecting on the events in the League One play-off final, after Sheffield Wednesday came from behind to inflict a cruel defeat.

A hand-written letter arrived at Victoria Park.

For the previous 48 hours, talk among all associated with Hartlepool United had centred on the moment that changed the game in Wednesday’s favour, much to the delight of the majority of the near 60,000 crowd.

After goals from Eifion Williams and Jon Daly had turned a one-goal deficit around, Hartlepool were within nine minutes of promotion to within one tier of the Premier League.

Disaster struck.

Chris Westwood was judged to have pulled Drew Talbot down. Westwood was sent off, striker Steven MacLean slotted away the equaliser from the penalty spot, paving the way for the Owls to celebrate scoring twice during extra-time.

So on the Tuesday morning, after the Bank Holiday weekend, you can imagine the impact when the short letter, in a brown envelope, post marked Friday, May 27, 2005, was opened at Victoria Park.

It suggested Sheffield Wednesday were always destined to earn a penalty that fateful afternoon.

“Under normal circumstances there might have been someone in on the Saturday morning to open it, but because everyone was on their way to Wales nobody was here,” recalled Hartlepool chairman Ken Hodcroft yesterday.

“When they opened the mail on the Tuesday they found a letter with old-fashioned hand writing, copper-plate type writing, that somebody of the older generation would do.

“From memory it was addressed to Hartlepools United, West Hartlepool.

Again that led us to believe that it must be somebody from the older generation.

“It was marked with a Tyneside postmark, the Friday before the Cardiff game.

“When we opened it up, it had the nice old-fashioned writing again. It wasn’t very long.

“I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like ‘take care on Sunday in the final, a penalty will be awarded against you by the referee’.”

It might not have been Hodcroft who opened the letter, but it did not take him long to be told about it.

For a long time it was safely stored away in a club safe, now it is believed to be “in a police file somewhere for their records”.

The Hartlepool chairman and the club’s owners, Increased Oil Recovery, initially pursued the authorities, seeking an explanation where the letter came from.

Now, four-and-a-half years on, the whole situation has been consigned to the history book, the club’s own history book.

“We looked at it, we were eight minutes from victory, with a referee (Phil Crossley), who was halfway down the field, a long way from Chris Westwood and he never looked at the linesman when the player went down,” said Hodcroft, speaking at the launch of the club’s new book, The Official History of Hartlepool United Football Club 1908-2008.

“Whether Westwood made contact or not I don’t know, personally I don’t think he did.

It was just straight pointing to the spot.

“We thought nothing of it, we didn’t agree with it on the day. But then we got the letter on the Tuesday and it was all very concerning.

“I’m not saying there was any conspiracy, but it was strange we did get a letter about a penalty and there was a penalty eight minutes from time. It was just the circumstances.

“The police came and looked into it, they did some DNA testing on the stamp, but couldn’t figure it out.

“We were not trying to accuse anyone, blame anyone or even mention there was a conspiracy theory. You can think that in any game of football.

“What we wanted was to try to find out who sent it. We weren’t trying to get a match overturned, a replay or anything like that. We wanted to find out who this guy was and ask him. We could never find out.”

Hodroft also claimed that Sky only showed one replay of the penalty incident after the game, when he thought it would have been a major topic.

He said: “If it was a penalty in the Premier League it would have been analysed to death, just like Wednesday night with Thierry Henry against Ireland and his handball.”

Time has clearly been a great healer because yesterday he repeated on more than one occasion that “it has gone now – we just found it interesting”.

What will never go away, however, is the feeling among Pools’ supporters that that afternoon in Wales was their big chance to climb into the Championship.

This season, under the management of director of sport Chris Turner, Pools are ninth in League One when they head for Huddersfield this afternoon.

It is a division which boasts Leeds United, Southampton, Charlton, Norwich, yet Hodcroft would certainly never rule out reaching another play-off final in the future.

“Since we took over we have always said that has been the highlight, of course it has,”

said Hodcroft, speaking in the Centenary Suite at Victoria Park.

A giant photograph of Williams and Daly celebrating their goals at the Millennium Stadium provided the backdrop.

“I think we are quite capable of doing it again. It’s hard to get promotion automatically these days. A lot of the clubs who have come down these days are big clubs. We play Southampton on Tuesday.

“It would be great if we could get up into the Championship like the Scunthorpes etc.

“But we never set a target to get up there, we never put pressure on anyone to deliver promotion.

“This season could turn out as bad as the last, or it could turn out to be as good as the ones before. There’s no reason why we can’t.”

While there is no anger being directed from Victoria Park towards anyone in light of the events inside the Millennium Stadium that Sunday in 2005, there is a belief that the penalty decision prevented Hartlepool from playing at a higher level today.

“If we got promoted that day in Cardiff, I think we would still be in the Championship now. We had had a lot of false alarms at this club, I think if we had gone up we’d have maintained our own,” said Hodcroft. “We would have had a spell in there without investing a lot of money.”

Despite enduring one season of relegation, there has been steady progress at Hartlepool United since Increased Oil Recovery bought out Harold Hornsey’s stake in September 1997.

The 12 years that have followed have included playoff heartache on five occasions, automatic promotion twice and a rise in expectations among fans.

BUT there are no signs that IOR’s interest in striving for improvement at Hartlepool is fading, even if they continue to find obstacles to overcome in their attempts to buy the club’s Clarence Road home, which they currently lease from the council.

“It’s been in our plans for a long time but it’s frustrating that it carries on as it does,”

said Hodcroft.

“It’s not the fault of Hartlepool Borough Council, that’s how they are. We have had a lot of meetings, a lot of committees, talk to a lot of people, and they have been happy with what we have been saying.

“Why is it important? It’s like everything, it’s an asset and we are investing a lot of money in this club. It’s like anything, you would not invest money in your house if you didn’t own it.

“That’s not to say we will throw our toys out of the pram and sell up. We do invest in it.

“I think the investment we have put in over the years would have been greater had we owned it.”

There are no specific plans in place for the day that IOR eventually owns Victoria Park.

But Hodcroft feels the discussions should highlight the club’s owners remain committed for the long haul.

Many observers will question the sanity of a foreign investor bank-rolling a club that operates at a loss year on year, when crowds have dipped worryingly towards the 3,000 figure.

Hodcroft, though, maintains that he and his employer are still enchanted and excited by what lies ahead. “Being involved in football attracted us here and has kept us here,”

he said.

“We have a tight team, everyone works hard at the club. Not everyone is going to win the FA Cup, but you take each match and enjoy it for what it is.

“It’s very concerning that the gates are down because it’s having an effect on us. We have to look at the corporate side, bring in incomes in other ways.

“It is tough. This will be one of the toughest seasons for us yet economically if the crowds stay away.

“This club is owned by IOR, an oil company, and that doesn’t mean there are unlimited funds.

“The oil price is high right now. We all get concerned in the oil industry when the price drops to $30 a barrel.

“I know the general public like it down there, we don’t have any control over that.

“Right now it’s $70-75, that’s good for business and keeps things stable. It doesn’t mean to say we have unlimited funds, though.

“The funds within the oil company are not allocated to the football.

“We really need 5-6,000 people every week. We are half that. If we could get that figure every week we would probably break even.

“If we could break even then the money we are paying for the losses, as we do now, can be used on other things within the club, like bettering the facilities, strengthening the team.”

Did you know?

POOLS’ first Football League game was in September 1921 at Wrexham. The team departed West Hartlepool train station on a midmorning train bound for Wales, arriving seven hours later. The XI that triumphed 2-0 were G Gill, T Crilly, H Thoms, J Dougherty, W Hopkins, W Short, L Kessler, T Mulholland, J Lister, P Robertson, R Donald.

IN 1928, the club’s supporters association raffled a bungalow in Oakland Avenue, West Hartlepool, to raise funds for the club.

The fully-furnished property was worth £615 and the deeds would be handed over to the winner.

To win the victor had to write down an estimate as to how many bus tickets were sold on the local Corporation bus and tram services over the Whit holidays. Uncannily the winner guessed the exact figure. The club was handed £189 11s and 2d from the supporters association AS football was played in World War II, sides were made up of guest players.

Among Pools’ two finest players were auxiliary fireman Horatio Stratton Carter, better known as Raich, and former Scarborough Working Men’s Club wing half Bill Nicholson.

Carter was part of Sunderland’s 1937 FA Cup success. Nicholson, who made his bow on March 30, 1940 in a 3-1 victory over Darlington, went on to be one of Spurs’ most famous players and also managed the team that did the double in 1960-61.

WHEN Pools lost 4-3 to Manchester United in 1957, the Busby Babes lined up as follows: Ray Wood, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne, Edward Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, Johnny Berry, William Whelan, Tommy Taylor, Denis Violett and David Pegg.

Sir Matt Busby claimed the game was the greatest he had ever witnessed.

BRIAN Clough was given his first managerial job in 1966, after his playing days ended at Sunderland.

However, he was second choice for the job, as the board of directors wanted Alvan Williams back at the helm, but couldn’t agree terms. Clough, 30, accepted the job for a basic salary of £2,000 with an additional payment of £500 to be paid if the club finished in the top half of the table.

IN 1982, defender Phil Brown, the club’s PFA rep and current Hull City manager, threatened a players’ strike.

The club’s bank account had been frozen after the High Court backed the Inland Revenue and Brown claimed that three weeks’ wages and five weeks’ bonuses were due and a strike was imminent unless it was swiftly received.

Brown insisted that unless they were paid by 2pm on the afternoon of Friday, April 29 they would not play the game at Halifax that evening. They didn’t get paid, but played and lost 3-2. Pools’ next home gate was just 804.