The summer and season ahead for Hartlepool United

Nottingham Forest v Hartlepool United - Capital One Cup First Round

Hartlepool defender Steve Howard

It wasn’t a very good time to be a Hartlepool United fan last season, with the club finishing 23rd in League One after a terrible campaign which led to Pools being relegated to the newly branded SkyBet League Two. But now, as a Hartlepool fan myself, I’m very optimistic about the upcoming campaign in League Two.

It was a summer of disappointment for myself and other Hartlepool fans after John Hughes was relieved of his managerial duties at Victoria Park. He was a man who was very much liked in the North-East, winning over fans after he was appointed on the 13th of November in last year following Neale Cooper’s resignation.

When the retained list was revealed, there were some surprises, with prized asset Evan Horwood being one of the names who didn’t have his contract extended, but liabilities like Sam Collins and Andy Monkhouse managed to earn contracts. This decision didn’t go down too well with the fans as Horwood put in better performances last season than Collins and Monkh0use.

Another name who was released was club legend Ritchie Humphreys, who has since signed for Chesterfield after an emotional departure from the club he’s been at since 2001. Many felt, including myself, that it was time for Ritchie to go as it was clear he was past his best. But what was assured was the club was losing a great servant, a player who would play anywhere just to help his team and a guy who loved his football with a passion.

Then, at the end of May following strong speculation, Middlesbrough youth team manager Colin Cooper was named as the new Hartlepool United manager and named Craig Hignett as his assistant manager. They offered a new style of play and promised to use their contacts in the game to full advantage. Cooper’s first signing was winger Jack Compton, who he worked with at Bradford. Compton has looked promising throughout pre-season and looks to be a key player in Cooper’s squad this season.

Another who impressed during pre-season was Billingham born Pools youth midfielder Bradley Walker (who is the double of Cristiano Ronaldo, by the way!). Walker earned a professional contract at the end of pre-season and he really caught my eye in the games against Middlesbrough and Preston, and Pools look to have a real gem on their hands if Brad continues his first-team development.

Then came the arrival of striker Nialle Rodney, who also worked with Cooper at Bradford. Rodney signed following a successful trial and will look to kickstart his career this season after largely unsuccessful times at his previous clubs including Nottingham Forest and AFC Telford United. Pools’ only other signing was Christian Burgess, a 21-year-old defender who joined Pools on loan from Middlesbrough and one who Colin Cooper rates very highly.

Rochdale AFC vs Hartepool United

Hartlepool United

Hartlepool players warming up at Rochdale

So, onto this season. Well, it didn’t start very well. I traveled to Rochdale to watch our opening game in League Two and it wasn’t the best. Actually, it was a nightmare. The formation and starting XI raised eyebrows in Spotland Stadium after Cooper opted to start without a striker on his full-time managerial debut.

He started with winger Andy Monkhouse up front, a decision that didn’t impress many of the 603 Pools fans who made the journey to Rochdale. It all went downhill from there. Poor defensive work from Sam Collins and Christian Burgess led to Rochdale striker Scott Hogan skipping past both of them and slotting past Scott Flinders in the opening 15 minutes of the game. Then, Pools created many chances but as per usual, couldn’t find the net. The score was 1-0 at half-time but we were still optimistic that we could turn the game around.

Then the second half started, and nothing changed. Rochdale passed the ball around the beautiful surface at Spotland like Barcelona do at Camp Nou. It must have been brilliant to watch from a Rochdale fan’s point of view. Rochdale worked the ball into the box and Christian Burgess fouled Rochdale’s Matty Lund in the area, allowing George Donnelly to convert from the penalty spot for 2-0.

Pools fans were disappointed, but it didn’t end there. Pools then brought on striker Luke James for Brad Walker, a substitution that raised eyebrows as there were players who deserved to go off before Brad Walker, such as Jon Franks and Andy Monkhouse. Pools looked a weaker side from the first half and the performance dipped, showing signs of last season’s bad run. Our defence was nothing but woeful.

Star defender Peter Hartley was out of position, Sam Collins lacked quality and Christian Burgess lacked experience and it showed when Ian Henderson latched onto a through ball and stroked the ball passed Scott Flinders. It was a nightmare. I’d never felt more angry or disappointed in my life at a single football game. But seeing as it is early days in the season, my overall optimism remained.

Nottingham Forest vs Hartepool United

Then came the League Cup, or as it’s officially named – The Capital One Cup. We had been drawn against Nottingham Forest in June, seeing Colin Cooper return to the club where he made 200 appearances. After the game against Rochdale, we weren’t very optimistic.

The game ended 3-1. Pools went 1-0 down through Polish international Radosław Majewski in the 33rd minute, and it finished that way at half-time. Still, there was time for Pools to get into the match. We wondered what Colin Cooper was going to pull out his bag after deciding to put a striker on the pitch from the start, which pleased many, especially with the form of young teenage sensation Luke James. We soon got our answer. Scott Flinders was taken off due to an injury, which allowed substitute goalkeeper Andy Rafferty to prove his worth.

Forest looked comfortable all game. They attacked and attacked and after coming close in the first half, Greg Halford got a goal from a corner in the 65th minute. The goal was always coming after Pools constantly failed to deal with his tall, physical presence and he eventually headed the ball into the top corner of the onion bag, Neil Austin failing to keep it out. Immediately after that, Andy Reid pinged a ball into the top end of the box for Matt Derbyshire (remember him) to head past Andy Rafferty. 3-0 Forest, game over.

Pools then got a chance of their own. A throw in from Darren Holden was launched into the box which Forest failed to clear, it fell perfectly for Neil Austin to head past Dorus de Vries in the Forest goal. A goal which didn’t mean much, merely a small consolation and a collectors item for an unlikely source of goals in full-back Neil Austin.

The game ended 3-1, knocking Pools out of the Capital One Cup in the first round. It was almost inevitable that we’d lose to a top end Championship side with bags of quality and tipped for promotion to the Premier League. Forest would be up for it….and were! But, I saw it as a blessing in disguise. This enables Pools to focus on bigger and more important priorities, such as the league. So I hoped for a win on Saturday at home to Southend United in League Two.

Hartlepool at Nottingham Forest

Hartlepool at Nottingham Forest

Hartepool United vs Southend

The first home game of the season at Victoria Park,  a tie against former ‘Poolie’ Phil Brown and his Southend United side. Southend came off the back of a 1-0 win over Plymouth Argyle and a 1-0 defeat to Yeovil in the League Cup the previous week. I arrived in the ground somewhat optimistic and also nervous – I noticed I was also a lot more superstitious than I normally am on matchdays, which was quite weird. Watching where I was stepping and everything along those lines felt weird, I’m rarely like that.

I arrived at a filling Victoria Park with hope. I took the atmosphere in with every breath, returning ‘home’ and loving every moment of it. The pitch was in it’s usual pristine condition as I walked down the stand, watching the players train under assistant manager Craig Hignett’s demand. My friends and I arrived to our usual position in the ground, in the Niramax Stand to the right of the away supporters and just a few feet off the halfway line. I couldn’t wait for kick-off.

The game didn’t get off to the best of starts for Hartlepool. After just five minutes, Freddie Eastwood scored the goal from a piece of play which resulted from a poor and inexperienced clearance from young left-back Darren Holden. My heart was in my mouth. It was the first time I felt like walking out of the ground before full-time in years. I couldn’t see it getting any better – and I was right.

Moments after this, Pools captain Tony Sweeney was taken off due to an injury and replaced by Simon Walton – Neil Austin took the armband. Pools tried and tried but were forcing it too much, instead of being patient and working our way into the box, we tried to force the ball in there and it just didn’t work. James Poole, who had a good first-half, came the closest to scoring after his half volley came close to catching out the Southend g0alkeeper Daniel Bentley.

There was a very entertaining event just before half-time, where Neil Austin was involved in a scrap with a Southend player. An obstructive bit of play from Southend left three players on the ground kicking the same ball, with viciousness sure to result in someone getting hurt. Austin and the Southend player ended up kicking each other furiously and caused everyone of the outfielders to sprint over to the touchline just a few feet away from the technical area and a massive brawl took place.

Just afterwards, when things seemed to have calmed down, Neil Austin and Jack Baldwin were seeing the ball out for the goalkeeper to collect when Southend striker Barry Corr went in with a shove on Jack Baldwin. He received his marching orders, a spicy end to the half and we seemed sure of an entertaining second period.

It was the same old story for Pools in the second half, lacking that end product despite efforts from Luke James, Simon Walton, Steve Howard and James Poole. Pools dominated the second half but lacked that finishing touch. James Poole was my personal man of the match and he was a great positive in the game. Another frustrating afternoon for myself and other Poolies, Hartlepool remain bottom of the league via goal difference (-4) and Southend are currently placed in 4th, just shy of the automatic promotion places in Sky Bet League Two.

Expectations from the season

Well, after a worrying start, I’d now take a top half finish. We lack that finishing touch which Rochdale and Southend had, so I’m hoping this week that with the funds from the sale of Peter Hartley (who completed a move to League One Stevenage FC for an undisclosed five figure fee on Wednesday), we can bring in some firepower and we’ll be firing on all cylinders for next Saturday’s derby game away to York City.

We do have quality in our ranks. Players such as Scott Flinders, Jack Baldwin, James Poole and Luke James are players who can drive Hartlepool to success this season. I expect them to thrive in our current difficult situation and help us climb the table because Hartlepool United being bottom of League Two is unheard of in recent years. We do have players, who, when playing at the best of their ability, can be game winners.

Steve Howard, Jon Franks and Jack Compton can all help win games by themselves when on top form, so hopefully these two (league) games have been a blip and we’re back to our usual self  next Saturday, because this start is really concerning.  It’s worrying, I don’t know what to think after last season.

What do we need? Experience. We have many players under the age of 23 – Luke James, Nialle Rodney, Brad Walker, Christian Burgess, Darren Holden, Jack Baldwin and Jordan Richards are just a handful of names, so maybe in the transfer market Cooper and Hignett can look for experienced players who can help the young team progress up the table.

Players such as Matty Bates, who was been training with Pools following his release from Bristol City due to injury, I would welcome him with open arms. A fully fit Matty Bates would be Championship standard at least, so I would love it if we used our money from Hartley’s sale to sign him.

Where do I think we’ll finish? Well, I’m hoping we’ll achieve a play-off finish. But at the moment, I just want to see my team climbing League Two because I’m very worried about how we’re currently doing, so hopefully by Christmas, we can see where we are and reassess our aims for the season.

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