Gordon Watson is on his way back to Hartlepool next week – but he has no plans to return as manager just yet. Sports Editor Nick Loughlin spoke to the former Pools goalscorer, who recalled some happy memories, before his visit for a talk-in with supporters.

FEBRUARY 21, 2002, and, in the early hours of the morning, Gordon Watson is in bed ahead of his next game.

The Hartlepool United striker is resting up ahead of a trip to Carlisle with his playoff chasing team-mates.

But any hopes of a good night’s sleep were shattered with the events taking place outside his window.

A semi-permanent resident in the Norton Hotel, Watson’s room overlooked the North Sea.

The same area of Seaton Carew and the Hartlepool coastline where police, coastguard and air sea rescue were desperately searching for a man who was last seen pushing a canoe into the water.

“I would stay in Seaton Carew, at the Norton Hotel, and I had Sky installed in my room, so I had everything I needed,’’ he recalled.

“My room faced the North Sea, the window was open and I had to jump up and run around the room at times just to warm up!

“One morning my mate picked me up from the hotel to take me to training and I’d been up half the night.

“The air sea rescue helicopter had been up and down outside looking for someone.

“I said at the time – seriously – that the bloke they were looking for was probably at home. Sure enough he was – about six doors down the road from me as well!’’ That bloke was, of course, John Darwin. The search and rescue operation didn’t find him.

And it was not until fiveand- a-half years later that the full story began to unravel.

By then, Watson was long gone from Hartlepool United, long retired from football.

He may have made just 53 appearances for the club, but the impact he made was far greater. He scored 23 goals as he dragged Pools from the foot of Division Three, as it was then, up to the top of the table and a seemingly unassailable advantage.

Pools, under Chris Turner, were 23rd in the division when Watson arrived. By the end of the season they had made the play-offs “Even when the team was at the wrong end of the table, when I first arrived, we were in a false position,’’ he recalled.

“We went to Plymouth, who were top, lost 1-0 and we played them off the park, they caused us no problems at all.

“Next up was Hull at home on the Tuesday night and I was saying that if we played like we had at Plymouth we wouldn’t have any problems.

“I flew up on the Tuesday lunchtime from Southampton that day, met Chris and we went for some lunch, had a sleep and went out, scored a hat-trick and we beat Hull 4-0.

“It was a routine that worked and so I stuck with it.

Crowds were up and they were happy, the players were happy and some of the football we played was scary.

“We were entertaining people and that’s why they came to watch us. There was a real belief about the whole team and supporters.

“When I came to the club there were no leaders in the team, all nice lads, good footballers, but no leaders.

“Look at the team in the last few seasons, Sam Collins and Micky Nelson were leaders at the back, but you need them in midfield as well, and up front.’’ Watson was, among many things, a natural leader. As brash and confident on the field as he was off it, he helped pick the team up by the scruff of the neck.

Flash by name, flash by nature.

“I think they were third bottom when I arrived, I made my debut against Kidderminster,’’ he said.

“We were struggling but still playing nice football, we were creating chances, but Chris said we needed someone on the end of them and someone to keep the team together, to spark them up a bit.

“It was a chance for me to start playing football again, I’d been training for 18 months without playing.

“I enjoyed it and then, when I came back for pre-season the next summer, I was able to get a full pre-season under my belt and I was flying.

“We won at Carlisle on the opening day, I think I’d scored five in seven games, and noone was getting anywhere near us.

“There was a carnival atmosphere every time we went out to play.

“We were scoring goals and attacking for fun, I remember being two or three goals up against Swansea at home and shouting around the team that we wanted more – they were looking at us wondering what was going on.

“Darrell Clarke got a hattrick that day and we ended up with seven and got in the play-offs on goal difference.’’ Watson had played at the top level before injury – an horrific broken leg while playing for Bradford against Huddersfield that led to legal action against the offender.

Moving to Pools was a chance to prove to others he could still play, and still score goals. Self-doubt is not something associated with Watson.

In his autobiography, former Southampton teammate Matt Le Tissier said Watson arrived at the team hotel on the Friday night as a newly-signed forward, sat down as the team was playing cards and declared ‘Call me Flash’.

“I think we had a team of underachievers, in terms of their careers, but put them all together and what a team we had,’’ he said.

“We could, and should, have got higher and progressed more.

“We had players like Paul Smith, who had a great left foot and crossing ability, Ritchie Humphreys had played in the Premier League with Sheffield Wedensday, Mark Tinkler had been up there with Leeds, I’d played there, Adam Boyd was a great talent learning his trade, Eifion Williams worked hard and could score goals, Chris Westwood at the back was a great defender at that level.

“As long as I was there, I can’t recall anyone rolling us over in the manner we used to do it to others.’’ After setting the standards, Watson’s season, and ultimately his time at the club, came to a shuddering halt in September, 2002.

While leading 3-1 against Darlington, a tackle by Quakers’ defender Matt Clarke on the touchline felled the Victoria Park talisman.

He had suffered another broken leg, not returning until March.

But by then things had drastically changed.

Turner had left to take over Sheffield Wednesday and Pools had a new manager.

Mike Newell never took to Watson; Watson never took to Newell.

The returning striker made ten appearances at the end of the campaign, as Pools went from being runaway leaders to title-chasers in second spot.

The swagger in Watson’s game – and Pools’ – wasn’t there.

He left after a hamstring injury put paid to his final outing, the title decider at Rushden on May 7, 2003.

“It’s a shame to me, but my time at Hartlepool ended on a bit of a damp squib because of injury and Mike Newell coming in as manager,’’ he said.

“Breaking my leg against Darlington wasn’t good. We were in front and I and the team were probably expecting to score more, but the incident was a complete accident.

“I was laid out on the pitch and Neil Maddison was standing, looking over me, and he asked the referee to bring me a bacardi and coke – but I knew I had broken my leg.

“I’d suffered a broken leg before and, at the time when I did this one, I didn’t expect it would take so long to get back, but there were a number of different factors to take into consideration.

“I was pegged back a lot and maybe I can question my own professionalism – the manager and I never hit it off.’’ He recalled the relationship got off to a sticky start and never improved.

“He got the job as manager and in the afternoon all the players had to be at the ground to meet him,’’ said Watson. “I had to go home and had a flight to get back to Southampton, for me that was the most important thing, at that moment, to get home to see my family.

“When Chris left, I said that this bus drove itself, we all had our jobs and we all knew what we were doing as a team and as a group of players.

“And the bus did drive itself, until someone came in and started messing about with it and dismantling it – nuts and bolts and all.

“We were flying and had a lot of momentum built up, but that was all down to the work of Chris Turner and Colin West.

“It started to go wrong and the manager didn’t know what to do to get it back on track and turn things around.

“We were, at one point, 14 points clear at the top, and we ended up getting caught.

Something needed doing to put it right and he didn’t do it.

On the last day of the season we were at Rushden and, if we hadn’t drawn the game, we could have ended up third.’’ He admitted: “It was pretty much unchartered territory for Hartlepool. At the start of the season I wrote on the changing room door at the training ground ‘third division champions 2002/3’ – everyone would see it every day when they came in and it was a reminder of our aim.

“Saying that, I don’t think the staff at Houghall College were too pleased, they thought it was graffiti!’’ On leaving Pools, Watson did raise the possibility of a return as manager.

“I may come back at a later date,’’ he said at the time. “I want to be a manager when I’m older and I would definitely like to be back here.

“I’ve got a great start haven’t I? I’ve got the fans on my side.’’ With Pools looking for a new boss now following Turner’s exit, is the second coming a possibility?

“I’ve had the chance a couple of times to become assistant manager, but the idea wasn’t right for me at the time,’’ he revealed. “I’m 39 and who is to say in the next couple of years I won’t move into that.

“When I left Hartlepool I said at the time I would like the chance to come back to the club as a coach or manager. Mike Newell rang me up and said I was out of order for saying it.

“I don’t believe I was, he was the manager and I wasn’t saying I was after his job, I spoke about coming back one day, in the future.’’ Whether that day arrives remains to be seen. It won’t be in the coming weeks however, but Watson recalled: “Being at Hartlepool I felt like a hitman.

I came in, scored, did my job, and went home again – I didn’t do anything else!

“I enjoyed my time there so much, I took to the place, I really did. Great times.’’ ■ Watson will be speaking at the Rovers Quoit Club in Hartlepool next Thursday alongside comedian Mike Farrell, at en evening hosted by Paul Gough, of Goffy Media.

Tickets are £15, including supper, and available from Alan Robinson on 01429 276982 or the Rovers Quoit Club (01429 272158).