On the 5th December 1999 football lost one of its great characters when the death of Leo Harden was announced.
Leo was special, he played at a time when footballers lived on the same planet as the folk who adored them, he became a hero and indeed a legend with the supporters of Hartlepool United.
As well as banging in 52 goals in 180 games for the “monkey hangers”, Harden served the people of Hartlepool as a dustbin man! His decision to stay as a part-time footballer stemmed from his belief that the game could not keep him fully occupied.
Not that football gave him much time for anything else. When Harden first joined Hartlepool, he would often play for the local team Railway Athletic on a Saturday morning, before turning out for the Victoria ground outfit’s second string that afternoon. None of your “big-time Charlie- I play too many games” for this particular hero!
Leo made his first team debut for Hartlepool in August 1946 along with 10 others in the clubs first football league fixture after the second world war. He gave the home crowd a taste of things to come by bagging Hartlepool’s goal in a 1-1 draw with Barrow. He gained a wonderful nick-name “The flying dustman”, during a ten year career with the club he became a firm favourite with the crowd who would jovially shout “Rubbish Harden!” to which he would threaten to leave the supporters bins full.
In October 1953 Harden was not selected for Hartlepool’s home match with Rochdale, however, with only minutes remaining before kick-off he was pulled from the local public house to fill in for an injured team mate. Still smelling of beer and perhaps a little on the jolly side, Leo Harden produced the performance of his life, scoring four and laying on two others as Hartlepool romped to a 6-0 victory!
Leo Harden played his final match for Hartlepool in April 1956. Not surprisingly he scored one of the home sides goals in a 3-1 win over Gateshead. Soon after, he was transferred to Thornley Colliery Welfare.
As well as football, Harden was a competent Cricketer. He also trained with the local rugby club, Hartlepool Rovers, to keep up his fitness.
Though I never saw Leo Harden play and indeed only discovered him through the pages of various books and old programmes, he has become a bit of a ghostly hero of mine, a bit like a working class Roy of the Rovers. I mean, could you envisage your own footballing favourite emptying the bins on the morning of a big match before scoring the winner that afternoon?