In December 2011, with Hartlepool solidly in midtable, the board made the decision to remove Mick Wadsworth as manager, reappointing club legend Neale Cooper.
Despite signs of promise – a battling 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday and a 4-0 home victory over a decent Carlisle side, Cooper’s Pools never really clicked into place, winning two of the last thirteen games. Despite some awful results – a 5-0 defeat against relegation battlers Wycombe among them – fans had faith that Cooper could build a promotion-worthy Hartlepool side. After all, we knew he was capable of it, and the passion for the club and the job was clearly still there.
The general feeling over the summer was that the essence of a good team was already in place. All that was needed was a defensive midfielder to replace Gary Liddle; a right-winger, preferably with a bit of pace; a centre-forward and a goal poacher.
Simon Walton ran the centre of midfield in pre-season, looking physical, skilful and composed – if anything an improvement on Gary Liddle. Jonathan Franks came in from Middlesbrough with a strong reputation, and Steve Howard, returning to his first professional club, has been one of the Football League’s best target men in recent years.
Granted, there was no-one with a proven goal record among the signings. But the transfer window was still open – Ryan Noble, who’d spent time on loan with Pools at the end of last season, was linked with another temporary move, and there was the possibility of uncovering the final piece of the jigsaw somewhere else.
All of that came crashing down on the opening day of the season, with a 5-0 cup defeat to newly promoted Crewe.
It’s amazing in retrospect that it wasn’t immediately obvious to the fans that Pools were in trouble. Maybe it was because of the faith Cooper had earned from his first spell, or because his style of play was an in your face, hearts on sleeves type of football, which even in his first spell meant a few big defeats when things didn’t quite go right.
Former Hibs boss John Hughes was appointed as Cooper’s successor in November, a 5-0 defeat at home to Coventry in his first game in charge the fifth time in 2012 Pools lost by five goals. Though Hughes has constantly been positive, talking about the possibility of survival, fans were in agreement that the remaining two-thirds of the season were all about preparing for promotion from League Two next year.
Given that, on Boxing Day, the club record run of games without victory was extended to 22 games, most fans would have accepted respectable defeats with a few goals between then and the end of the season.
Victory at Sheffield United at the end of the year is difficult to explain as anything other than an aberration, or maybe just that it took place at a time when the pressure of needing to go up was getting to the Blades.
The more recent turnaround in results has come about because of a change in tactics that was partially Hughes’ innovation, partially enforced. To Hughes’ credit, he switched to a 4-3-1-2 that few were calling for, with Franks in a free role behind the front men and stalwart Ritchie Humphreys recalled to the midfield.
But the current run (four wins and two draws from six) overlaps with two injuries. Charlie Wyke replaced Steve Howard as the target man, and James Poole came in as his partner, giving the front three more pace and energy. And when Tony Sweeney limped off against Bournemouth, Jack Baldwin, a classy and versatile young defensive player, took Sweeney’s role as the box-to-box midfielder. The change in personnel overlapped precisely with the current unbeaten streak (though in fairness it also coincided with a confidence building visit to Portsmouth).
Recent performances indicate that confidence has been a major problem earlier in the season. Earlier in the season Walton showed his skills, but separately, rather than as a whole. His tackling was committed, but often late; his passing ambitious, but inappropriate. Similarly, James Poole has had a recent resurgence – his goal against Notts County was a skilful takedown and calm finish under pressure; against Scunthorpe, as well as scoring he had the confidence to attempt a volley from 25 yards, which struck the crossbar. Poole had a run of spectacular goals when he first arrived at the club in the summer of 2011 but he’s currently trying things he didn’t even try for a long time.
That’s not to say things have totally turned around – confidence and/or creativity is still an issue. At home to Portsmouth, despite pushing the opposition back for large sections of the match, when Pompey sat deep and tight, there was never really a sense that Pools would be able to find a way through, the game ending 0-0.
And there is still a fair bit of tension in the players and on the terraces – the passing style of play Hughes is trying to encourage seems more successful away from Victoria Park, and players rushed and nervous at times. In the come from behind victory against Scunthorpe, Hughes’ decision to remove Walton rather than Humphreys from the centre of midfield was greeted with cries of “You don’t know what you’re doing” and, with Jonathan Franks having a flat game, there were cries for Luke James to be introduced long before he was.
Perhaps the reason Hughes is currently succeeding where Cooper failed is his ability to build a fighting spirit in the players. In Cooper’s first spell, he inherited a team that had finished in either the playoffs or automatic promotion places in what’s now League Two for four years in a row, and pushed them to higher standards. Recent games have seen skill, invention, and stunning late turnarounds. But while the creative renaissance of Walton and Poole in particular is to be applauded, it’s the renewed battling spirit that’s been the consistent key to recent results.
At the time of writing, Hartlepool United are still second bottom, eight points adrift of safety. But the gap is closing – Pools might actually be in this relegation battle…
Written by David Stringer, We Are Going Up’s Hartlepool United blogger
David tweets @Joe_Bloghead