One step forward and three steps back. That is the story of the week so far for Hartlepool United.
Pools followed an outstanding win over high-fliers Wycombe on Saturday by being outclassed at another promotion contender, Accrington.
You all know the old joke from the 1980s milk TV ad: “Accrington Stanley? Who are they?”
This season, League Two knows how good John Coleman’s side really are.
They scored three last night, two exquisite Shay McCartan finishes, and a cracking Adam Buxton free-kick, and it could have been more but for the brilliance of Trevor Carson.
Stanley are as good a footballing side as this reporter has seen
A 3-1 defeat at the Crown Ground to a team of Accrington’s calibre is not anything to be ashamed about.
But the way Pools played, in the first half especially, was quite alarming.
They were out-thought, out-played and out-worked.
Yes, Stanley’s midfield of Seamus Conneely, ex-Pools loanee Matt Crooks, Piero Mingoia and Sean McConville played some exquisite stuff and linked expertly with advanced men McCartan and Billy Kee.
However, Pools rarely got near any of them and they had a soft centre at the Crown Ground, with Saturday’s heroes, Adam Jackson and Scott Harrison struggling to contain the hosts.
Luck was not with Ronnie Moore’s side – debutant Ellis Harrison hit the post when it was 1-0 and impressive sub Rakish Bingham was denied a stonewall penalty after being fouled by Joe Wright.
It was 3-1 at that point with six minutes left on the clock.
Had Darren Drysdale pointed to the spot instead of waving away the appeals and Pools converted the spot-kick, who knows?
Would Stanley, playing their first home game since November 14, have wobbled?
We will never know now, but what we do know is that Pools cannot repeat this showing at Cambridge this Saturday.
Will Moore revert to a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-1-1 he operated against Wycombe?
The manager went 4-4-2 last night, bringing in Harrison alongside Scott Fenwick but they hardly saw the ball as Pools were given a first-half masterclass.
Crooks forced a brilliant save from Carson in the 14th minute, taking the ball on his right before transferring it to his left with the keeper diving to his right to keep it out.
McConville should have done better three minutes later after a McCartan run but Carson got down well to save.
But a Stanley goal was inevitable and it came in the 24th minute.
Pools conceded a free-kick just outside the box, which Buxton lifted over the ball over the wall to beat Carson diving to his right.
However, Pools were unfortunate not to level when Richards put the delivery in from the right which Ellis Harrison made a good connection with only to see his header come back off Jason Mooney’s right-hand post.
Seven minutes later, it was Accrington’s turn to be denied by the woodwork from a corner, Matty Pearson’s header hitting Carson’s left-hand stick.
Pools looked like restricting Stanley to a 1-0 interval lead, which would have been some effort given the home side’s superiority.
But the visitors switched off and Stanley doubled their advantage in the opening seconds of added time.
Crooks was the provider, slipping in the gifted McCartan who made a good run and a finish to match, beating Carson to his left.
Carson was called into action to keep out a Kee shot but he was powerless to prevent Stanley’s third goal in the 58th minute.
Scott Harrison failed to deal with a long home ball and it fell to McCartan who placed his left-foot shot from just outside the area neatly into Carson’s right corner.
That was the cue for Moore to ring the changes.
Fenwick, Nathan Thomas and Woods all came off with Bingham, Lewis Hawkins and Jake Gray coming on.
Bingham made an early impression, finding Hawkins, whose shot was comfortably saved by Mooney.
Pools kept on top, and Bingham reduced the arrears, unleashing a powerful right-foot shot which rocketed into Mooney’s left corner.
Bingham was at it again in the 84th minute when he broke through, only to be tripped by Wright.
Referee Darren Drysdale must have been the only man in the Crown Ground not to have seen it.
It was hard luck on the striker and Pools. But there could be no argument about the full-time result – Pools must play for 90 minutes this Saturday.