Its 25.3 miles between the Stadium of Light and Hartlepool’s Victoria Park, and there are currently two professional football leagues that stand in-between us - although I hasten to add that distance may be getting shorter and shorter as time goes on.
But as Hartlepool United find themselves stricken with a back breaking financial black hole and challenging ownership obstacles that could in theory end their 110 year history, we as neighbours and footballing cousins can clearly see there are many more parallels to be drawn between us than there are differences that divide us.
It’s those parallels that should stand as both a warning light to Sunderland fans that our own plight is as precarious as it has ever been, and also as a signal of a renewed sense of shared regional and footballing brotherhood and heritage that is worth our efforts to preserve.
Only on Tuesday evening a public supporter’s meeting was held in Hartlepool, organised and attended by a panel of well-known and influential Hartlepool fans (the Friends of Hartlepool United) desperate to hear the latest developments of their club’s struggle, not to avoid relegation but to avoid extinction.
Organiser Mike Lewis gave the grim prediction that this weekend’s game could be the last ever for United if the much needed cash injection is not found and found now. This grim prophesy comes on the back of a meeting between the Friends of Hartlepool United and Pools chairwoman Pam Duxbury.
Although, some Pools fans - and perhaps quite rightly - have an issue of trust with the club hierarchy and claim such talk of liquidation serves malevolent purposes; it prompts others to do the hard yards of saving the club, allowing the ownership to do what they have done for a considerable amount of time - sit on their hands and do precious little.
However you carve the blame up, the end result is the same. Hartlepool are on a knife edge when it comes to their existence as a footballing entity.
‘We are in the last chance saloon now,’ continues Lewis. ‘If we don’t get these funds in, then we won’t have a football club.’
Some Sunderland fans may argue we have enough of our own problems to even worry about Hartlepool United’s cash flow crisis and take the hard line view, fuelled by local tribalism, that Pools’ problems are simply that - their problem.
But the lines are blurred in this instance - there are a significant amount of Sunderland fans who attend Pools games and another good amount of Hartlepudlians who jump on coaches every Saturday to support Sunderland. Shared interests and a communal industrial heritage should be enough to garner some extra support from a sympathetic city a few miles down the A19.
When I speak of parallels, I genuinely mean it. Yes, they’re in the National League, yes perhaps in terms of finances we’re oceans apart even in the dire circumstances we find ourselves in now - look at the Rodwell scenario. Three weeks of his wages could give Hartlepool the life-line they require to buy the time they desperately need to survive.
But just because in terms of size or status there may be differing challenges the clubs face, the genuine Poolies are going through the mixer right now and, like Sunderland fans, their emotions have been splattered all over the East Durham coastline - smashed to smithereens by the heavy mallet of mismanagement; kicked in the teeth by the steel capped toe of failed ownership.
There are startling similarities. It’s been refreshing and intriguing to see the progress of the recently formed Red and White Army, a fan group born from the frustration and desperation of our times. Their senior voices have recently met with Sunderland CEO Martin Bain and such meetings of minds must take place for transparency and hope to remain. The Friends of Hartlepool and the Hartlepool Supporters Trust are engaged in the same battle. Sunderland supporters for a long period of time have rightly developed an issue of trust when it comes to our club hierarchy and who can blame us? Hartlepool’s Friends group have done likewise in an effort to build bridges of course, but on a much more rudimentary level to analyse just what the hell is going on with the club they love.
We Sunderland supporters have - and quite publicly - been led down more blind alleys and dead ends than most. We understandably feel that the characteristics of bitterness and anger are our emotions to own and that we may as well patent the empathetic relatives of rage and disillusionment.
Like Hartlepool, we know our owner in real terms has given up the club, whatever his remaining financial ties to the business may be. Like our regional neighbours, we are sinking fast and the end-point of this fall is frighteningly debatable. Last weekend, perhaps our last shining light in many ways - Chris Coleman - described our need to strengthen a squad that would find the rigours of League one an almighty challenge.
When talking about the furious and imperative need to sign strikers this week he said:
We HAVE to.
There was so much desperation and reality in this short response. It’s raw, brutal and honest, like failure is not an option.
Sadly for Chris he’s relatively new to Sunderland, but I’m sure in time he will come to the realisation that failure very much is an option - if not a pre-requisite right of passage. Pools have the same gallows humour after years of foolish, sometimes well meaning, but ultimately irresponsible leadership and management.
So we are not alone. While our own fans form new groups to tackle the challenges we face and seek for clarity and guidance from a hierarchy that has long ignored us and in whom we have lost all faith, Hartlepool find themselves in similar waters, yet with many more sharks than we face. We are sinking down a hole but we don’t face a winding up order just yet.
The Friends of Hartlepool United don’t particularly (and quite ironically) trust the Supporters Trust to any great degree. At a time when greater unity is required above all, there are understandable resentments and accusations of shady agendas and underhanded motives.
These issues are natural when the stakes are so high and perilous that the sensitive trough of emotions involved can often stretch their cancerous routes into the hearts of supporters who in nine cases out of ten want the same thing. Some accuse the Hartlepool Supporters Trust of delusions of grandeur - busy bodies who won’t be happy until Pools are in the Northern League, so they can finally run it all to themselves on a scale whereby they can keep control. Of course, there are counter arguments about best interests and the love of the club, but all in all and no matter how you view it, all of this unrest will not pay the outstanding laundry invoice or ensure the final demands for the electricity bill will be paid.
I caught up with an influential Hartlepool lifer and colleague this week and sought his views. He’d prefer not to be named as he is well known in the town and wishes to appear impartial as has ties to neither the Trust or the Friends, both of which have as many critics as supporters. But, he is one of the key organisers of the Pools away firm that have become synonymous with the now nationally recognised end of season fancy dress parade where hundreds of Pools away supporters enjoy the last away game of the season by partying around the country dressed as Smurfs, Thunderbirds, Penguins or whatever their imaginations come up with.
My colleague has more to lose than just his habitual way of spending Saturday afternoons should Hartlepool go bust. His wife has worked at the club for many, many years. She has no idea if she’s getting paid this month or if she has a job next month. Many others who have faithfully served the club in employment have already been given their redundancy notices.
The Friends of Hartlepool definitely have their hearts in the right place. They’re genuine people. But we have little time to sit around and plan a strategy. We could be bust by the time they’ve created a power point presentation.
He speaks emotionally of his love for the club, an institution that he and many others travel up and down the country for, spending their hard-earned money. He has long standing family ties with the club and his DNA is intrinsically linked to the life blood of Hartlepool United and the town where his late grandfather was Mayor. He has a soft spot for Sunderland too, after working there for several years and speaks warmly of his experiences on Wearside.
He continues with purpose:
Whatever money comes in must go to the club. Whatever you think of Pam (the chairwoman) bills need to be paid, so lets get the money from the Just Giving account set up by Rachel Cartwright and begin to slowly but surely pay off the bills. We can do this now. Arguing about who should get what money and when is fruitless. Giving money to the trust is pointless at this moment - the time to support them and their influence is when the club goes under and a phoenix club required. Bills need to be paid now before quite literally the lights go out.
I asked him about Sunderland and what a bigger clubs like us, Boro and Newcastle can do to help the Pools crisis.
Boro have been brilliant. Loads of fans remember the help we gave them in 1986 when their gates were locked just like ours might be. They’ve been donating money and coming to matches and spending more at the gate. We’ve always had a decent contingent of Pools lads who watch Sunderland and the Mags as well. They’ve been great. But think of it this way. Jack Rodwell in a month or Rafa Benitez in two weeks could solve our problems and buy us time. Yes, we need all fans from all the local clubs to donate money, attend our games, buy our merchandise, but the bigger regional clubs themselves or the wealthy players could do more.
A club whose finances have been seemingly ran by Trump University and whose corporate and commercial structure is not fit for purpose. Redundancies for good, honest people - a club with too many fat cat players on wages they can’t afford to pay, with money the players don’t even appreciate anyway. A weak manager out of his depth (excluding Coleman), a duplicitous owner that the fans can’t stand and don’t trust, false promises and new dawns that never appear. Managers consistently given assurances that are never kept and a club going backwards faster than the speed of light.
Sound familiar Sunderland supporters?
Our predicaments, our regional kinship, our neighbourly proximity and our shared passion for North Eastern football should be enough to spur us Sunderland fans to help our footballing cousins.
Forget tribalism for a moment. Yes, that’s important and in any other circumstances I’d be screaming at Pools fans like everyone else, but this is an issue that transcends football.
Real jobs are being lost, real mortgages will not be paid. A community will lose its centre piece, a generation will lose its club.
Another part of our region will be lost in the annuls of history while our Southern counterparts revel in their geographical fortune and attract investment that we cannot. If we don’t help Hartlepool, then what sympathy can we expect from anyone if we fall further down the tree of league football?
This is not just a footballing issue, it’s a family issue, a community issue, a regional issue. Give money online if you can, attend Hartlepool home games while they’re still on.
North East football, once a hot bed, is crumbling, but collectively we can stop the rot. If we don’t, no-one else will bother, but if we do, then hope will always remain.