Hartlepool United will return to the National League for the 2023/24 campaign, but in this article, TheRealEFL’s Callum will take a look at where their 2021 play-off final winning team and manager are now…
With Sutton United winning the 2020/21 National League title, Hartlepool United were forced to settle for a place in the play-offs after their 4th placed finish.
Beginning with their quarter-final match, Hartlepool hosted 7th place Bromley at Victoria Park in a five-goal thriller. However, in front of a crowd of 1,700 supporters, a brace from Rhys Oates as well as a Luke Armstrong goal sent the club into the semi-finals.
From there, the club faced a difficult match against a strong Stockport County side at Edgeley Park. Once again, Rhys Oates popped up with the only goal of the game to send the club into the play-off final, which was played out at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate stadium.
In the grand finale, Hartlepool faced 2nd place Torquay United in a truly spectacular final. Hartlepool took the lead after 38 minutes through Luke Armstrong and looked destined to win, until the 95th minute when Torquay goalkeeper Lucas Covolan scored an equaliser.
However, when it came to penalties both sides missed their opening two spot-kicks, before the next nine penalties were successfully converted. Unfortunately for Torquay, Matt Buse’s penalty was tipped onto the crossbar by the Hartlepool keeper to send the Pools into the football league.
Now, Hartlepool United will be preparing for life back in the National League after a two-season absence, but where is their promotion-winning team now?
Goalkeeper: Bradley James – Middlesbrough U21’s
First up we have goalkeeper Bradley James who saved the vital penalty in the shoot-out to send Hartlepool into League Two. The 23-year-old joined Hartlepool on loan in April 2021, for the remainder of the 2020/21 season.
He made six appearances for the club, keeping two clean sheets and will remain a popular name amongst the club’s fans. Since his loan spell concluded, James has remained with the Championship side and is still yet to make his professional debut for the club.
Right-Back: Jamie Sterry – Doncaster Rovers
One man that was certainly a popular figure at the club was full-back Jamie Sterry. The 27-year-old joined the club in December 2020 on a free transfer from fellow Non-League side South Shields and remained with the club for three years.
During his stay at Hartlepool, Sterry made over 100 appearances for the football club, ensuring their promotion as well as scoring one of the penalties in the shoot-out. However, following the club’s relegation last season, Sterry announced he was leaving the club and has since joined League Two side Doncaster Rovers on a free transfer.
Centre-Back: Timi Odusina – Bradford City
Continuing the defence we have Bradford City’s Timi Odusina, who featured for the entire final, before being substituted for a penalty taker in the 120th minute. The 23-year-old joined the club at the start of the 2020/21 season from Norwich City, following an impressive loan spell.
He made over 80 appearances for the club, before joining Bradford on a permanent deal in July 2022. Last season he made just seven appearances under Mark Hughes, in what was a frustrating campaign for the defender and his future currently remains unclear.
Centre-Back: Gary Liddle – South Shields
Taking the middle position in the back five, defender Gary Liddle played the full length of the game but wasn’t required to take a penalty. Liddle made the permanent switch to the club in the summer of 2020, following an impressive loan move from Walsall.
The 37-year-old remained with Hartlepool United until June 2022, ending his spell at the club with over 350 appearances for the club. Upon the expiry of his contract, Liddle joined Non-League side South Shields on a free transfer and helped the side to promotion into the National League North last season and remains there today.
Centre-Back: Ryan Johnson – AFC Wimbledon
One player that left Hartlepool almost immediately after the play-off final was defender Ryan Johnson. He scored five goals in 37 games since arriving from Kidderminster Harriers, but after the season concluded, he joined Port Vale.
He spent six months at the club, before joining Stockport County in January 2022 on a free transfer. Last season, Johnson made 32 appearances for the club, as they heartbreakingly missed out on a League One spot in the play-off final. However, following the expiry of his contract, Johnson will sign for fellow League Two side AFC Wimbledon.
Left-Back: David Ferguson – Hartlepool United
Finishing the defence, we have one of the very few players that are still with Hartlepool today and that is left-back David Ferguson. The 29-year-old joined the club from York City in August 2020, signing on a free transfer.
Ferguson played 76 minutes in the final, making him unable to take a penalty. He made 49 appearances in all competitions for the club last season, scoring once and assisting a further five goals for the club and is expected to remain with the side ahead of the new season.
Central Midfield: Mark Shelton – Oldham Athletic
Beginning the midfield we had 26-year-old Mark Shelton, who had been with the football club since August 2020, when he made his loan move permanent. Shelton played the entirety of the game for the club and scored the club’s third penalty after they missed the first two.
In total, Shelton made over 100 appearances for the club before leaving in January 2023. This was because he opted to sign for National League side Oldham Athletic on a free transfer, in an attempt to help them push for the top half, which they successfully achieved.
Central Midfield: Nicky Featherstone – Hartlepool United
Up next we have the second member of the play-off final squad, who still remains with the club to this day. Featherstone captained the side to promotion in the final, but he was also the club’s first penalty taker and he missed.
However, Featherstone has since continued to captain the side, upon their promotion into the EFL and at 34, he is still likely to play a significant role next season. Since arriving in 2014, he has made over 350 first-team appearances for the club.
Central Midfield: Gavan Holohan – Grimsby Town
To complete the midfield, we have Irishman Gavan Holohan who played 92 minutes, before being substituted in the dying moments of the second-half. He had been with the club since February 2019, when he made the switch from Irish football.
Holohan made over 100 appearances for the football club, before confirming his exit in May 2022, to sign for Grimsby Town ahead of the 2021/22 play-off campaign. The 31-year-old played a starring role as Grimsby reached the final and beat Solihull Moors in extra time and remains with the club at the time of writing.
Striker: Luke Armstrong – Harrogate Town
Moving into the striking department, we begin with forward Luke Armstrong. The 26-year-old scored Hartlepool’s goal in the final, before stepping up and missing his penalty in the shoot-out.
The play-off final was Armstrong’s final match for the club, following the conclusion of his loan spell from Salford City. Instead of a permanent switch, Armstrong opted to stay in the EFL, signing for Harrogate Town where he’s contributed to over 40 goals in 101 appearances.
Striker: Rhys Oates – Mansfield Town
Completing the starting eleven we have striker Rhys Oates who scored three goals in the club’s play-off campaign, including the goal that sent Hartlepool into the final. In the final, Oates played 72 minutes before being substituted.
Like Armstrong, the play-off final was also his final game for the club, before leaving to sign for fellow League Two side Mansfield Town. The 28-year-old remains with Mansfield to this day, making over 70 appearances for the club.
Sub 1: Ben Killip – Free Agent
Beginning with the substitutes, goalkeeper Ben Killip was the only member of the squad that didn’t feature in the play-off final, being an unused substitute. However, in the next campaign (2021/22), Killip became Hartlepool’s number one and helped them to survival in their first season.
Last season, the 27-year-old made 35 appearances in all competitions, but saw his league appearances drop from 42 to 29. Killip was out-of-contract with Hartlepool United this summer and has opted against extending his stay with the National League-bound side, becoming a free agent.
Sub 2: Zaine Francis-Angol – Free agent
Up next we have full-back Zaine Francis-Angol, who was a second-half substitute in the final, replacing David Ferguson. Francis-Angol didn’t manage to take a penalty in the shoot-out either.
Francis-Angol joined the club weeks before the final and remained with the side until March 2022 before signing for Stockport on loan before being released. He then signed for Oldham Athletic, but left following the expiry of his contract and is now a free agent.
Sub 3: Ryan Donaldson – Morpeth Town
Midfielder Ryan Donaldson is next on the list, coming on in the 92nd minute to replace Gavan Holohan. However, this decision proved to be a stroke of genius as Donaldson scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out to confirm the club’s promotion into the EFL.
However, his winning penalty proved to be his final act as a Hartlepool United player, as he signed for Non-League side Morpeth Town one-month later. The 32-year-old has since become a vital part of the club’s side and remains there ahead of the 2023/24 season.
Sub 4: Luke Molyneux – Doncaster Rovers
One of the stars of the Hartlepool United side was midfielder Luke Molyneux, but he featured for one-minute in the final as he was brought on specifically for the shoot-out. Fortunately, Molyneux stepped up and scored his spot-kick to make it 3-3 at the time.
The 25-year-old remained with Hartlepool United in the next season, playing a key role as the club confirmed their safety for another season. However, upon the expiry of his contract, the midfielder signed for Doncaster Rovers and remains there to this day.
Sub 5: Danny Elliott – Scunthorpe United
The final member of the squad is experienced forward Danny Elliott. The striker was a second-half substitute, replacing star man Rhys Oates and scored his spot-kick in the shoot-out to make it 4-4.
The final was the 27-year-old’s final game for the club, before he signed for National League North side Boston United. He has since had spells with Boreham Wood and Gateshead before signing for Scunthorpe United in February 2023 and despite their relegation, he remains with the club ahead of the new season.
Manager: Dave Challinor – Stockport County
The final member of the squad was the club’s manager Dave Challinor, who led by example in taking the side into the EFL once again. However, the 47-year-old left Hartlepool in November 2021 to become manager of then-National League side Stockport County.
With the club, Challinor guided them to the National League title, before reaching the League Two play-off final in his second season in charge. He has won 52 of his 92 games as Stockport manager, averaging 1.88 points per game and will be hopeful of guiding the club to promotion from the fourth tier this season.