OUT with the old and in with the new, Neale Cooper has begun his Hartlepool United renovation job.
After five players were shown the door last week, the manager has moved to secure his first signing of the summer with Jonathan Franks yesterday joining on a free transfer from Middlesbrough.
Here, CRAIG HOPE gives his verdict on those who were released and outlines what Cooper will be hoping to bring in before the new campaign gets underway.
Rewind 10 months to July and Boyd - handed a new contract in May - was making all of the right noises - talking of the chance to resurrect his career after a season in which he’d been frozen out of the first-team picture. Allied to his words, however, was a summer of gruelling fitness work and a new mental resolve to seize his opportunity. Seven games in and Boyd had scored four and Pools were unbeaten. All was going according to plan – Boyd was back. But then, sadly, came what many observers would deem the inevitable – a loss of form and fitness and demotion to the bench. The 29-year-old would make just three more starts for his hometown club, a sorry end to the Pools career of arguably the most gifted player to don the blue and white in recent years.
VERDICT: Boyd was no longer contributing and just one goal since October tells its own story. Leaves lots of happy memories, however, and it’s a shame that early-season promise faded so badly.
Like Boyd, Brown was thrown a lifeline this time last year after a campaign in which he’d figured all too fleetingly. And, again in parallel with Boyd, this season’s stats paint their own picture – just 10 starts and one goal. There were signs of a revival under Cooper and the manager made the usual soundings of Brown’s “undoubted ability”. That, we all agree, has never been in question, but his power to demonstrate that on the football pitch has, and that is what has ultimately cost him his place at Victoria Park.
VERDICT: There are only so many times you can pin your hopes on the fitness of Brown, despite his relatively tender years of 25, but the time has come to look elsewhere.
Mr Reliable earned his moniker for good reason and you have to say he’s never let Pools down. His appearance under Cooper has been sparse, however, and with a raft of young talent stepping up to the senior group from next season, the Scot saw it time to invest in their development rather than rely on the back up of Haslam.
VERDICT: Has been a good servant over past three years but Pools need to look to the future if they’re going to bridge the gap to the play-off candidates.
Larkin’s release would have been a no-brainer for Cooper – for the Irishman hasn’t kicked a ball since last August. Two knee operations raise serious questions marks over his fitness going forward and a striker who doesn’t play, let alone score goals, is an asset the manager can ill afford to carry.
VERDICT: Larkin has just one more goal (four) than the number of years he’s been at the Vic (three) and this would arguably have been the manager’s easiest decision.
Hassan, on paper, has all the attributes – pace, strength, height. Sadly, as the adage goes, the game isn’t played on paper and the striker struggled to make best use of his assets on the pitch. He made just one first-team appearance – at Exeter City in January – and passed up a glorious chance to score on that occasion.
VERDICT: Youth-team promise failed to mature in his first year as a pro and his release was expected.
SO WHO’S COMING IN?
Cooper makes no secret that his number-one target is a centre-forward – a man who must hit double figures as a minimum requirement. Goals, goals, goals – or rather, no goals, no goals, no goals is all the boss has talked about since it dawned on him just how blunt Pools’ attacking edge actually was. Former loanee Ryan Noble remains a very real possibility, but a muscular target man is also high on his wish list and a move for ex-Pools striker Steve Howard could be in the offing.
VERDICT: This is the one signing Cooper must get right. Mick Wadsworth was making similar noises last summer and he failed to sign a goalscorer – it cost him his job. Noble plus a powerhouse focal point would be a dream outcome.
Well, with Jonathan Franks on board it appears this problem position has been solved, at least in theory. With Nobby Solano frozen out since January, Antony Sweeney, Andy Monkhouse, Luke James and Gary Liddle have all been deployed on the right-hand side of midfield – but none of that quartet excelled in the position. Franks, though, is in the mould of the “exciting” jinky winger which Cooper craves and a lot is expected of him.
VERDICT: Franks is a player whose quality on the ball belies his League One status, but marrying craft to graft on a consistent basis is the challenge for the former Boro boy. It’s potentially an excellent signing and something of a coup for Cooper given the competition.
Andy Monkhouse might have something to say about it but Cooper remains keen to bring in a “natural” left-winger. Assists and goals have been too few in supply from the wide areas and the manager knows it. Franks could still switch flanks and James Poole can operate in a left-hand role, but another wide addition is expected.
VERDICT: Will probably be the position which is bottom of Cooper’s priorities now Franks is secured, but it would be nice to start the season with two new wingers who get at full-backs and excite supporters.
One of the best lines Cooper has delivered in recent weeks was “we need someone in our midfield like Mark Tinkler. In fact, I saw him the other day and if it hadn’t been for the grey hair I might have tried to re-sign him!”. Joking aside, Pools are craving a man in the middle of the park who can dictate the tempo of the team. Paul Murray and Gary Liddle are too similar and neither guarantees goals or assists on a regular basis. Tommy Miller? Michael Brown? Now there’s two old boys who could be available and will no doubt be on Cooper’s radar.
VERDICT: Arguably just as important as the acquisition of a goalscoring centre-forward. A lack of guile from the centre of the park has been a major frustration and needs to be rectified.