On Saturday I had two visitors from the continent. They'd already seen Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh Castle and Bath, so there seemed no other way to complete their tour of Britain's cultural highlights than to take them to the Victoria Ground to see Hartlepool play Sheffield Wednesday.
Looking at the away team in the programme shortly before kick-off, as the man behind us warmed up for an afternoon of hearty complaining with a few light moans about the number of old age pensioners he'd had to queue behind in Morrisons, my eyes alighted on a name from the past. "Neil Mellor," I exclaimed to my friends, "Hah! Neil Mellor. He came through the Liverpool youth system. He was supposed to be the next Robbie Fowler. The new Ian Rush. Hah!" I added for emphasis, because when you are a middle-aged bloke the collapse of a younger man's career is a source of delight that only the words "at this stage, I don't feel there's any need to carry out a full prostate examination" can really match.
My joy survived until five minutes into the game, by which time Mellor had already established such dominance over the home centre-backs he appeared to be twice as big as both of them put together. The on-loan striker brushed opponents aside like they were matchwood, surged forward as unstoppably as a tidal bore, set up one goal, blasted home another. He looked like some Hyborian Age-version of Emile Heskey: Conan the Targetman. The new Ian Rush be buggered, this was the new Hotshot Hamish.
We often hear commentators say they have "put the mockers" on a player by praising him, but what we had at the Victoria Ground was an equally common, though altogether less remarked upon, sporting phenomenon – the reverse mockers. Just as it happens that if you talk up a player you can be guaranteed that he will promptly display the first touch of a steam hammer and the balance of a Daily Mail editorial on asylum seekers, so if you talk a player down he will surely rise up to contradict you (unless he's playing for England, clearly).
I have to say that I am something of an expert in the field, having been schooled in the craft by my grandfather, a man whose snorting derision was so frequently confounded by subsequent events that if I'd been paid a pound every time he'd wisely observed "What's he doing? He'll never score from here" only to see the ball ballooning the back of the net a split second later, I'd be richer than a Sharjah bookmaker.
Down the years – or so it appears to me – dozens of sportsmen have revived their careers purely in order to spite me. The one who humiliated me most was winger Peter Beagrie, arguably the first player to do acrobatics as a goal celebration and thus a source of anguish to club physiotherapists and insurance brokers everywhere.
Back in the mid-90s I used to go to Roker Park with my old next-door neighbour and his son. I always enjoyed it because if Sunderland won my old neighbour bought us beer in the pub on the way home and if they lost, well, as a Middlesbrough fan, it cheered me up, obviously. One Saturday Sunderland had signed Beagrie on loan from Everton. When he made his debut, we were stood in the Fulwell end. "This lad played for the Boro, didn't he?" my next-door neighbour's son said. "What's he like then?"
"He's got a soul boy haircut and a thin moustache and generally looks like somebody who would give disco dancing demonstration in a home for the elderly," I said, "Bags of trickery, but there isn't an end-product," I continued wisely. "Flatters to deceive. You think he's brilliant, until you realise nothing ever comes of it all. It's physical blather. He's the Don King of ball control. His talent is like an elaborate toupee – an artifice that works hard to conceal nothing and ultimately fools nobody."
After such a trashing there was clearly only one way things could go. And they did. Five minutes into the game Beagrie zipped past the full-back and whipped in a cross that Don Goodman headed into the net. Ten minutes later he blasted a shot against a post from 25 yards. Midway through the second half he banged a volley straight into the top corner from even farther out.
As the ball zipped down the netting my next-door neighbour and his son turned to me with raised eyebrows. "No end-product," they said. "Nothing ever comes of it …"
"Oh yes," I said, "he's doing it now, but that's only to make me look a total idiot. Wait till I'm at Ayresome Park and you're here on your own. See what he does then." Beagrie was back at Goodison inside three months, but the damage had been done.
At least at the Victoria Ground on Saturday the unfamiliarity of their surroundings had disoriented my friends sufficiently to get away with it. "Which is the forward you said is so hopeless he couldn't find the ground if you pushed him out of a tree?" one of them asked as Mellor romped into the penalty area once again. "Sadly," I replied, "he appears not to be playing." Which was true in some ways, at least.