There’s a short distance between nervous excitement and fear, and the space in between has become the typical position for Hartlepool United fans to experience pre-season.
Ever since the summer of 2006 – with relegation coming a year after the League One playoff final defeat – pre-season has been neither a clear sign of either hope nor despair, with signals being tortuously mixed. Even in 2012, a summer leading into a season when Pools lost by five goals on four separate occasions and spent 35 games in the relegation zone, there were hopes that the good times would be coming back.
This year, there are certainly reasons to be cheerful. Pools have an experienced spine in Scott Flinders, Sam Collins and Marlon Harewood, balanced by the exciting youth of Brad Walker and Luke James. Last season James was the second youngest Hartlepool player to reach double figures since World War Two, with his final total of sixteen being bettered by a Hartlepool player only once since 2005.
But the only major summer additions so far have been experienced right-back/centre midfielder Stuart Parnaby and Matty Bates, a ball-playing centre half who Middlesbrough fans speak highly of but whose injury problems are lamented, and who Bradford fans acknowledge managed to reach the pitch. Former favourite Tommy Miller and one-time multi-million pound prospect Michael Woods are the last of five trialists to remain at Victoria Park – Jonathan Greening stopped by for three days before leaving to help Blackpool’s effort to field an entire team of uncontracted players. Colin Cooper has spoken repeatedly about working to strengthen the squad, either with permanent signings or loans from the big three neighbours, but so far that work hasn’t borne fruit. Given the release of senior players Simon Walton, Andy Monkhouse and Tony Sweeney, the January sale of Jack Baldwin and the fact that loanee Christian Burgess was a key player last year, the current side is looking worryingly thin – even in comparison to the team which was still in danger of a second successive relegation until the penultimate game.
Pre-season has been mixed – a 9-0 win over Northern League Billingham Town; a pedestrian 1-0 victory over Conference North Bradford Park Avenue; a 3-0 defeat against Sunderland in which Pools held out until fresh legs made the difference in the last twenty minutes; a 2-1 at Whitby with a weakened team; rounded off when a full strength side lost 2-0 to Middlesbrough and drew 1-1 at League One Bradford City. Results and performances have acted as a Rorschach Test for fans, more a reflection of pre-existing attitudes than tangible proof of anything. Are Jonathan Franks’ goals a sign that he’s going to push on and make the most of his ability, or just flat-track bullying? Is it heartening that Pools held out for so long against Sunderland, or embarrassing to be torn apart by kids? Is the continued presence of Miller and Woods on trial a sign that Cooper is wisely keeping his options open, or potentially fatal indecision? You could get a dozen subtly different answers to those questions depending on which Hartlepool fan you ask.
Opinion is equally divided on Cooper. He has a reputation as a strong coach at Bradford City and at various levels within Middlesbrough. He was a Premier League assistant manager at the latter, and twice narrowly missed out at the top job for the former. But Pools blew hot and cold throughout last season, ending far short of the promotion push that seemed a reasonable aim at the season’s start. There’s also a feeling that Cooper’s heart may still be at the Riverside – while it’s irrational as a criticism, it partially explains why some sections of the crowd haven’t taken to him as deeply as his predecessors John Hughes and Neale Cooper. He’s returned to Middlesbrough regularly for players, and his first assistant manager, Craig Hignett, was allowed to take up the same position at Middlesbrough before a replacement was lined up. This meant that Cooper ended up coaching the first team alone for the last quarter of the season. The fact that Pools fell away from having an outside shot of the playoffs when Hignett left (14 points from 24 before his departure, 4 from 27 immediately after) reflects badly on Cooper – was he blinded by sentimentality and loyalty to his friend, or was it an honest mistake that he found it harder than expected to replace the jovial Scouser?
For what it’s worth, I think Cooper’s shown enough in his first season as a club manager to earn a little faith. He’s handled youth well: Brad Walker and Luke James both had standout seasons, the latter winning both Player and Player’s Player of the Year, while Jordan Richards, Darren Holden, and Jack Baldwin all played significant parts despite being 21 or younger. A number of injuries and Baldwin’s departure meant that seven different defenders reached double figure appearances, (with only Christian Burgess playing more than 36 of Pools’ 53 games) but the defence always looked well organised with none of the communication difficulties that could be expected. And the squad Cooper inherited wasn’t best suited to his preferred style of play. Despite his muscularity, Simon Walton’s lack of pace was often a weakness in the pressing game, and Tony Sweeney didn’t fit into the 4-2-3-1 system, lacking the defensive nous for the deeper areas and the tricks and flicks for the more pure flair positions.
If those senior players are replaced with players of equal quality, but more suited to Cooper’s preferred style, there should be a more than decent chance of a playoff challenge. Unfortunately, it’s still unclear whether this will be the case, and the non-use of the Baldwin transfer fee seems to fit in to a longer term pattern of stinginess.
There’s a short distance between nervous excitement and fear. But the majority of the psyches of Hartlepool United fans – mine included – are ricocheting around in the space between.
David Stringer is a writer for several football websites, including BornOffside.net and tweets at @Scififootball