2012 was a summer of relative optimism – Neale Cooper was half a season into his second spell as manager, and while it hadn’t gone well up till that point, he would now have the chance to make his own signings, having identified a few key weaknesses.
Not quite ‘in Neale we trust’, but not far off.
The team that had finished 13th the previous year had been a team of battlers and grinders, rather than having anything spectacular, but, at the time of Mick Wadsworth’s sacking the previous December, Pools had one of the division’s best away records. The feeling was that Cooper would be able to add a little more class and invention.
The summer signings looked like good ones. Jonathan Franks would bring much needed pace to the wing; in pre-season Simon Walton looked both a good passer and a physical presence, while Steve Howard, returning to his first professional club, would give a focal point to the attacking play.
Howard had talked the talk in pre-season, comparing this side to the Derby side he helped take into the Premiership – maybe not the most talented, but full of application.
Since returning to League One 6 seasons previously, Pools have finished either in mid-table, or reaching almost certain safety, then dropping down the table in the final months. Given that this followed 8 successive seasons of either being relegated, promoted, or finishing in a playoff spot, it was a little hard to take the other extreme.
Pools, who’d lost 5-0 to Wycombe at the back end of last season, managed to lose by the same score this season against Crewe and Preston in the opening months of the season. Defeat to Bury in October, which took Pools bottom of the table, was the last straw, and saw Cooper walk.
The last time the Scot took over, he inherited a team on the back of promotion from League Two, who had finished in the playoffs for 3 successive seasons before that. Perhaps Cooper needed a foundation of strong self-belief to get the best out of players? Regardless, any other manager would probably have been sacked for so many big defeats.
Micky Barron, club captain during both of Hartlepool’s previous promotions and now on the coaching staff, took charge for the FA Cup match at Chesterfield. Morale was already so low among the fans that most expected to go out against the team a division lower, but few expected the 6-1 defeat that came.
John Hughes came in, talking the talk. Although most fans were accepting relegation at that early stage, Hughes has been constantly upbeat, talking about needing to keep fighting until there’s no hope left.
His first game, a tough home match against promotion-chasing Coventry went pretty well, being dogged and goalless at half time. But when the first goal went in, Pools collapsed once more, going on to lose 5-0. If Hartlepool’s season didn’t already sound to you like an impossibly rubbish team created for a melodramatic comedy, it must do by this point.
Slowly though, things improved. If nothing else, the team looked more organised, keeping possession for longer periods, retaining self-belief after going a goal down, and shambolic self-destruction, while still a constant possibility, became less common. When you’re desperate, you take solace in the small things.
And Pools had to look for solace in small things. Victory over Scunthorpe on September 1st (which saw Scunthorpe go bottom at the time) was the first win of the season, and the last win before a club record-breaking run of __ games winless. Bizarrely, the run was broken with victory at Sheffield United, one of the promotion challengers and the biggest crowd Hartlepool have ever won a league game in front of. Steve Howard scored twice in a 3-1 win, taking his tally for the half-season to 3.
In January, Hughes made a switch to 4-3-1-2, a move that didn’t start paying off until Howard and Tony Sweeney were injured, with Jack Baldwin a revelation as a classy central midfielder, and Charlie Wyke impressive as the focal point in a rotating front three.
But during the strong run that followed, Pools didn’t look all that different to before, still lacking a cutting edge, still with few players capable of dribbling past an opponent, and little belief that Pools could grab a goal. But daft errors became less common, and hard work meant that Hartlepool were doing ‘just enough’ to get the win on a number of occasions.
Even during the strong run, Pools have had a ludicrous lack of cutting edge. Portsmouth and Colchester sat deep at Victoria Park, and there’d have been no less chance of grabbing the winning goal if each of those visitors had constructed a brick wall across the goal.
It got so bad – and this is no joke – when chasing a goal late in the Colchester game, I remember thinking that our best chance of scoring would have been to send goalkeeper Scott Flinders up for a corner.
Despite the relative improvement, Pools have had absolutely no-one capable of playing an incisive through ball, and neither Howard or Wyke have been regularly getting on the end of some decent crosses into the area.
Franks is a capable dribbler, but it’s too early into his development to carry the responsibility alone.
Despite having a lack of incision, one player definitely capable of providing it, Luke James, has been held back, with Hughes speaking about the need to protect the 18-year old. Many fans (myself included) have disagreed strongly, to the extent that his name has been chanted when he wasn’t on the pitch, and Hughes’ decisions to bring other players on earlier have been met with chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.
Despite the downturn in form, things have still been okay in recent weeks, with Pools roughly competitive for the most part, and not rolling over as easily as near the start of the season.
Hughes still hasn’t, 6 months into his reign, been able to make his first signing. Given the form, income has been significantly lower than the club have hoped. A few signings – including teenagers released by Newcastle in January – have fallen through for this reason.
As a result, the squad’s been very thin. For a recent game at Stevenage, aside from Luke James, the 6 players on the bench, all aged 20 or younger, had 9 professional appearances between them, with goalkeeper Adam McHugh played 6 games on loan at Forfar. Pools had a handful of injuries at this point, but that underlines how little depth the squad has.
The whole season has been an embarrassment. Saturday’s televised game was a pleasant surprise – although Bradley Wright-Phillips was allowed a free run on goal in the first minute, the overall display was better than the norm, with Franks and James linking pretty well – a positive sign for the future.
The hard work and application is certainly there at Pools, but if there’s to be any chance of coming back up next season, the squad needs more class and invention.
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