Hartlepool United manager Dave Challinor generously spoke to the EFL at short notice on Tuesday afternoon. Then again, the 45-year-old has been doing virtually everything at short notice this summer.
Pools only regained the Sky Bet EFL status they lost in 2016/17 less than seven weeks ago because of the delayed National League season.
On Saturday afternoon, they will open their first Sky Bet League campaign in five seasons at home to Crawley Town, whose players had already enjoyed 43 days off when Hartlepool won promotion in a dramatic penalty shoot-out Play-Off final victory over Torquay United on Sunday 20 June.
Challinor admits it has been a pre-season like no other in a career that took in 452 appearances for Tranmere, Stockport and Bury before managerial stops at Colwyn Bay, Fylde and now Hartlepool.
And yet, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Challinor said: “No, I’ve not had anything like this summer before. Absolutely not. It’s almost been like international football in terms of playing in a competition, then not having a summer break, but being back in training.
“It’s been really tough, probably tougher than what we thought, but it’s a consequence of really good circumstances in that we’re back in the Football League. We’re looking forward to it and we’d have taken any consequences to make sure that was the case.”
The logistical challenges for Challinor and his coaching team of Joe Parkinson and Tony Sweeney have ranged from having to rebuild a squad at haste, recruit new players and assimilate them into the team shape while not taxing those players who have had to forgo a summer and make up a pre-season fixture list as they went along.
On the day Hartlepool won promotion, only one pre-season game had been arranged. They haven’t faced EFL opposition in any game and have lost friendlies against National League North sides Blyth Spartans, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town.
“We couldn’t have arranged any fixtures against EFL Clubs without the risk of stitching them up,” added Challinor.
“Say we had approached Blackburn Rovers and asked for a friendly in early or mid-July. Because the National League season doesn’t start until August 21, had we lost against Torquay, we would have to phone Blackburn and say: ‘We can’t play on that date now because we won’t be back in training by then’.
“But the pre-season is not as important as being a Football League club, so we’ll take the pre-season schedule that we’ve had because we’re going to play against Crawley on Saturday in the club’s return to the Football League, which is a huge achievement.”
Not that COVID-19 restrictions would have allowed him to fly off to lie on a beach somewhere, but Challinor hasn’t had time anyway.
“Immediately after the Play-Off Final, I had a few days away in a cottage with my family, but the majority of my time there was spent on the phone.
“Quite a few players left, mostly squad players and some loan players who went back to their Clubs. We still have a core of players from the back end of last season. The area we’ve lost most in is in forward areas, which is always the most difficult to replace.
“From the supporters’ perspective, I suppose that’s where the panic is, but we have to be patient and know that there are more players out than there are starting places at Clubs, so players will become available.
“A club of our size doesn’t have a recruitment department or an analysis department. It falls on myself, Joe, Sweens and the rest of the staff. Our contacts are vital.
“We don’t have an Under-23 or a youth set-up, which provides different challenges, but that’s the nature of being a National League club last season. The important thing is we remain a Football League club in order to re-build that infrastructure to give us the best chance year on year.
“We are a little bit behind. We’d like to have a squad of up to 25 and we have 19 at the moment with hopefully a couple more coming in this week.
“But we’re ready enough for the first month. With the transfer window, the date we need to be absolutely ready is 31 August.”
To emphasise Challinor’s point, striker Mark Cullen and defender Jake Lawlor only signed for Hartlepool at the weekend.
The club hope that Saturday’s game against Crawley will see over 5,000 inside Victoria Park for what will also be Challinor’s first game as a manager in the Sky Bet EFL.
“It will be a huge re-connect with the fans, a special day for everyone. It’s not just about the supporters coming back to the ground for the first time in a couple of years, but coming back to the ground as a Football League team.
“It will be a great day for them, hopefully one that we can make special by the performance we put in and by picking up three points at the end of it.”
Did You Know?
Sky Sports Saturday afternoon presenter and Hartlepool fan Jeff Stelling has a cat called Challinor.