This year, the season tickets at Hartlepool have been inscribed with the vaguely inspirational message ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’. It makes clear that the aim is to be intelligent, to pull together and, through scouting, youth development and work on the training ground, be more than the sum of the individual parts. But the message does have the unfortunate implication that the club believe the playing staff don’t have that much individual flair.
Unfortunately, I’d say that is somewhat the case. The big problem for Hartlepool last season was a lack of cutting edge, creativity and incision. There were other problems, but that was the big one.
Most of the time the effort and application was there, and under John Hughes, organisation and structure was there as well, with Pools lined up in a pragmatic and solid 4-3-3. But there was little to be excited about, with several of the positive results ground out.
The addition of Jack Compton looks to be a step in the right direction, as does Nialle Rodney, who scored several times while on trial. There are others with the potential to offer more than last year – Luke James missed large sections of the season through injury, Andy Monkhouse displayed creativity and goals towards the end of the season that seemed to be locked in the winger’s past, and Jonathan Franks did pretty well considering that his first year dealing with the pressures of first team football coincided with a relegation battle.
During sections of last season, supporting Hartlepool was an embarrassment – there were four 5-0 or 6-1 defeats in the first twenty-one games. At other times the problem was extreme boredom – when Colchester and Portsmouth decided to sit deep and play for a point in relegation six-pointers at Victoria Park, each time the teams could literally have played until midnight and I’d have no real faith in Hartlepool being able to break them down.
If there are reasons to get excited at the Vic next season, it’s probably going to come from the youth. Jack Baldwin, a ball-playing centre half far tougher and more combative than you’d expect a player of his frame to be, should make a push for a permanent first team slot, while the raw but pacey and creative Luke James seemed, at the end of last season, to be maturing into a more consistent player.
Jordan Richards stepped up to the first team at right back for eleven games last season, replacing the consistent Neil Austin without there being a noticeable step down in quality; the lanky but technical Greg Rutherford looked impressive in spells, and 17 year old defensive midfielder Brad Walker has won rave reviews in pre-season, being compared in style to Yaya Toure by assistant manager Craig Hignett.
Aside from the teenagers, James Poole has displayed his flair in patches in recent years, while Franks should be able to build on a decent first year without the stress of a relegation battle.
Many neutrals will look at the form during February (five wins in a seven game unbeaten run) and think the foundations are there – that with a few additions, this would be a team capable of going back up. But the lack of flair – both in terms of dribblers and incisive passers – makes that run twice as remarkable as it first appears.
It was pretty rare last year to see a really clever through ball, or even a player dribble past his man. Unfortunately, I’m sceptical that enough’s been done to fix these problem, so I don’t think a title challenge is remotely plausible. But I’m hopeful of watching the development of a talented and hard-working squad, and, if they gel well, maybe even a play-off push.
The departure of John Hughes will have surprised many, considering that he took over a team more or less down by October, steadied the ship and, for five glorious weeks at the turn of the year, seemed to be leading Pools to a comeback greater than Lazarus.
But digging a little deeper, the sacking becomes understandable.
Reportedly Hughes wanted to keep all of the players in the squad that was relegated, including Nathan Luscombe, a chubby, combative lad with raw ability, but seemingly without the psychological skills to properly apply it. Rumours also say that the board and business staff were critical of his lack of contacts – a particular surprise given that he’d managed Hibs and played for Celtic along a much-travelled managerial and playing career.
Along with Hughes, the senior coaching staff was cleared out completely in a ruthless summer. Assistant manager Micky Barron, a former youth team boss as well as captain during two of Pools’ four promotion seasons ended an 18-year spell at the club, and player-coach Ritchie Humphreys, the club’s record appearance holder, was also released.
On the playing side, the release of Humphreys is a bit of a shame, as he’d had a minor Indian summer last year in a solid and steady midfield role, and his ability to hold the ball up front as well as fill in at left-back would have made him a decent option in a number of positions, if unspectacular in any one.
In both cases, it’s a real shame to see men who so clearly love the club and have given so much leave.
But, under a series of managers stretching back to before Danny Wilson’s departure in 2008 play has been jagged and disjointed, so a major change in the coaching staff is understandable.
The appointment of Colin Cooper seems a quietly impressive one. Previously assistant manager at Middlesbrough and Bradford, he was also a key component of a Middlesbrough youth academy that’s become one of the most consistent producers of young local talent in the country.
There seems to be a definite switch towards a philosophy of development, after two years of bringing in a relative ‘marquee’ name both ended in failure. Two summers ago Nobby Solano was signed, but frozen out after half a season when his legs couldn’t cope with new boss Neale Cooper’s high tempo demands, and Steve Howard scored only 3 goals last season, not really linking with his fellow forwards in the clever and combative way you’d hope from a man of his experience. Though both players have class and experience, they’ve shown the danger of investing too big of a portion of the wage bill in one individual.
Rumours abound that 3 signings were blocked on the last day of last year’s August transfer window because of the wage cap, while 2 trialists couldn’t be added to the permanent squad in January for the same reason.
There does seem to be a philosophical switch over the summer, towards pushing the standards of the team as a whole upward.
Alone we can do so little. Hopefully, together we can do so much.
Written by David Stringer, We Are Going Up’s Hartlepool United blogger
David tweets @Joe_Bloghead and writes a weekly Lower League Week column, covering Leagues One and Two, for Bornoffside.net