In Appreciation: Billy Horner
July 4 2003
It's not official - or at least not yet - but it looks likely that Billy Horner will be leaving Hartlepool United. Here's a look at some of the the things that he's done for us: arguably, we might not exist if it wasn't for the man, so it's well overdue, even if he isn't going!
Horner's playing career saw him turn out for Middlesbrough and Darlington, and he even had a brief spell in charge at Feethams in the early 70s. He joined the Pools coaching staff shortly after leaving the Loids, and when Ken Hale left in 1976, he became the manager: a position that he was to hold for the best part of ten years, off and on.
These were difficult times at Hartlepool. Money was always short, and Horner was often trying to "make do and mend" while some of the better players were sold from beneath him to pay the bills. Names like Malcolm Poskett came, saw, conquered and left again, leaving Horner to try and do the best he could on meagre resources.
One of the best things he did at this point was to develop the Youth System at Pools: if he hadn't, it's debatable whether the club would still exist. Players such as Keith Houchen came through the ranks to provide the occasional bright spark before being sold to cover the latest crisis.
It's often been said in the past that the job of Hartlepool United Manager was the hardest in football; in Horner's day it was true. The players threatened a strike at one point due to lateness in paying wages; and with turmoil seeming to surround the club attendances were at their lowest in the history of Hartlepool, including a number of games that failed to attract even 1000 paying customers. Winding up petitions, wrangles over the ownership of the ground, threats from Chairman Vince Barker to move the club out of the town.... and in the midst of this Horner had to try and create silk purses from the sows ears that were the few players still willing to join the club.
His first season saw us finish in 22nd and seek re-election; the next a slight improvement to 21st, before we then managed to avoid the dreaded re-election zone four years on the spin with finishes of 13th, 19th, 9th and 14th respectively. We had even flirted with promotion in 1980/1, being in the top five until February before fading to 9th. Again, you can argue that without this run the club may not exist in it's current form; a number of clubs failed to win re-election during the 1970s and early 80s, and had we been in the bottom four there's every chance we would have gone the same way as the likes of Workington, Barrow and Southport.
The 1982/3 season didn't go so well however, and towards the end of the season he was demoted to a coaching position as John Duncan came in as manager - too late to stop Pools applying for re-election though. Duncan infamously lasted just nine weeks before leaving for Chesterfield, and Mick Docherty came in. We'd have done better with his dad; and by December Docherty Jr was out on his ear, making way for.... Billy Horner again. As Ed Law points out in his excellent (and sadly out of print) history of the club, Hartlepool United had had four managers in eight months - and two of them were Billy Horner.
By the end of that season Pools were once again applying for re-election - this time in 23rd - for what would prove to be the last time. A marginal improvement to 19th followed, and then Pools had their best season since winning promotion in 1968, finishing 7th and being in the promotion hunt for much of the season. That squad included names that were to go on to greater things, with Pools and elsewhere: Brian Honour and Keith Nobbs would eventually win promotion at Pools, while David Linighan and Paul Proudlock moved onwards and upwards. With others such as Nigel Walker, Alan Shoulder and Kevin Dixon having good seasons, Horner saw his team, playing his preferred Sweeper system, just miss out. He added the likes of Rob McKinnon to the squad for the following season, but departed after a terrible start that saw us go ten games without a win. It looked like the end for Billy, and his famous Blue Datsun provided by the club.
However, he returned to the club after a gap of a few years to work with the youngsters; and the success of our youth programme owes much to Billy. Thanks to him, players like Tommy Miller and Graeme Lee developed; Lee has recently told the Hartlepool Mail of how it was Horner that was influential in his move to the centre of defence. Not only that, he was always on hand to take over as manager - or to give the benefit of his advice - when a caretaker was needed. Most recently he had some input when Brian Honour and Paul Baker took over for a few games before Chris Turner arrived.
Now though it's reported that he's been offered redundancy terms by the club and looks set to take them. Presumably his role as Academy Director will fall under the wing of Ian McCall, the Director of Youth. But while he may not be the most successful manager we've ever had, Hartlepool United still owe a great deal to Billy Horner; and I'm sure I speak for many fans when I wish him good luck in whatever else he decides to do.