After a comfortable 7 seasons playing in football’s third tier, life in Hartlepool’s historically favored division, League 2, has not been a smoothtransition so far. Relegation to League 2 considers a division containing, with no disrespect, the heights of Newport County, Torquay United and Morecambe. This serves as a bitter reminder of the contrast between League’s 1 and 2 and the sudden loss of being branded a “half decent” team to the vast majority of football supporters.
The relegation of Wolves and the promotion of Bradford City to League 1 leave much to be resented as seeing Hartlepool at previously premier league outfits is a fulfilling experience for a fan of a team that has been subject to criticisms of being rubbish. The past however determines that expectation should not be so high for Hartlepool. Following on from his red card against Oxford United and subsequent three match, The Pools form has increased somewhat. Should this be put down to a starting 11 without Steve Howard?
Despite the near promotion to the Championship in 2008 and intermittent play off forages the club it is a minor miracle the club exists. In 1993 Hartlepool was the subject of a HighCourt winding-up order, as debts of around £260,000 were unearthed. Hartlepool was on the brink of liquidation. The order was granted at a hearing for an unpaid bill of £7,000 for a pair of dugouts – but significantly supported by the taxman. Instead of the Football League, it was more likely to be the local North East division. Forget the FA Cup or Capital cup; the Sunderland Shipowners’ Cup was on the horizon. Despite being rooted to the mire for the majority of their history, supporters should remain thankful the club operates in the football league. Early season form suggested Hartlepool would be deadlocked in a relegation dogfight with a lack of investment cited as the root cause, but in the space of one week optimism has returned with 3 comprehensive away victories over Mansfield and Exeter alongside a toppling of League 1 Sheffield. Exeter manager Alan Knill admitted he had not seen his side so comprehensively beaten at home in a long time after witnessing a 3-0 reverse.
Colin Cooper has had to remove the deadwood from the starting line up before adding to his youthful outfit and appears to have found his best team in recent weeks. Player of the century Ritchie Humphreys MBE was the most notable outgoing, who joined Chesterfield after breaking numerous records at the club. In Jack Compton, signed on a free, the club have an old fashioned winger who has, in the past few weeks, added goalsto his spritely performances. At right back Cooper has acquired Michael Duckworth, signed on a free from non-league Bradford RA, who has dealt with this promotion with ease. In addition to this, an astute loan from former club Middlesbrough for man mountain Christian Burgess has confirmed ‘Pools as one of the best defensive outfits in the league. Offensively Hartlepool seem to have remedied a team that scored the least amount of goals in League football last season and went through a seven game barren run which ultimately relegated the team. Against Mansfield, on the back of a 3-1 reverse to Oxford, Luke James looked rejuvenated and, despite being up against the divisions tallest and most physical outfit, managed to link play up and bring others into the game. The omission of James in last season’s relegation campaign was a strong criticism during a respectable tenure for John Hughes and such persistencewith the 17 year old is reaping benefits. In Jack Baldwin, Luke James and Brad Walker, Pools certainly have a trio of stars destined for better things.
In addition to youth, veteran Andy Monkhouse is beginning to merit his contract extension and experienced Simon Walton, whose form has startedto pick up, is starting to dictate midfields. By the same token the retaining of goalkeeper Scott Flinders will prove pivotal should ‘Pools mount a serious challenge this season. Incidentally the red card to misfiring striker Steve Howard has proved to be the catalyst to an upturn in fortunes this season, a similar predicament to last season when Howard signed for Sheffield Wednesday on loan after a poor return. Howard used social media to criticize the club, a move that proved unpopular amongst fans, and sought a move from the club. The oldadage suggests you should never go back and Howard claimed on twitter that he had “rejoined the club too soon”.
Another returning hero in manager Neale Cooper, who signed Howard, will certainly feel his reputation has been slightly tainted by the “Hollywood signing”. Three managers have now tried and failed to instigate a goal rush from the experienced pro, to no avail, and Howard has been booed by his home support in a handful of games. Whilst this may seem counter productive the insistence of playing the 37 year old, who can appear to be disinterested for extended periods of the game, has grown tiresome. A move in the summer did not culminate stunting the club in any effort to spend money on new players due to the fact Howard remains the club’s highest earner. With such a bad rapport with fans Howard has continued to perform in what would appear a half-heartedly manner and his red card was rash and screaming of indecision. Howard has been largely branded the club’s “worst ever signing” on club forum websites and it is expected that he will not return to the squad when his suspension runs out. Leading up to Saturday’s clash with Plymouth Argyle the club remains confident with Colin Cooper admitting he is “chuffed” by the way his team has taken to a change in formation.
With a 4-5-1 spear headed by James and a high line with James Poole as a playmaker behind the frontman, ‘Pools seem to have crafted a solid system that works. Integral to this system is youngster Jack Baldwin who is League 2’s answer to Roy Keane in the tackling department. Competition for places is high with 18-year-old Brad Walker, ex Middlesbrough youngster Jonathan Franks and captain Tony Sweeney expected to miss out again. Rumors have circulated that striker Steve Howard used his suspension break to administer a holiday to Magaluf. This has not been confirmed. Supporters would hope he extends his sunshine break until further notice with two winnable home games coming up giving Pools the chance to move further up the League 2 table.