With the revamped Checkatrade Trophy branded an experiment by the Football League, there is perhaps no surprise that Craig Hignett used the tie against Sunderland to experiment with his Hartlepool United side.
Hignett has always been keen to use the competition to give young players an opportunity and this North East derby was no different as he rang the changes, making no fewer than eight while handing opportunities to the likes of James Martin, Ben Pollock, Tom Heardman and Brad Fewster, in an untested line-up.
When Pools were able to get forward, they lacked conviction in the final third.
His experiment paid off, in part. While the result wasn’t what Hignett would have wanted, he will certainly have been encouraged by some of his players’ performances against Sunderland’s blend of talented youngsters and fringe first team members.
Having lost to Notts County in their opening game of this competition, a win was a near necessity for Pools if they wanted to advance in the competition.
But they started slowly, with stopper Adam Bartlett doing well to parry efforts from Sunderland duo Billy Jones and George Honeyman in the opening exchanges.
The hosts were forced to defend for large parts of the first half with the pace and energy of Sunderland’s attacking trio taking a while to get to grips with.
Youngster Martin did well, however, to deal with the threat down Sunderland’s right hand side while fellow debutant Pollock looked comfortable on the ball alongside the more experience Scott Harrison.
When Pools were able to get forward, they lacked conviction in the final third. The final ball was often rushed or misplaced with the hosts guilty of squandering possession in dangerous positions on several occasions.
Substitute Brad Walker, who replaced the injured Lewis Hawkins after only seven minutes, had the best of Pools’ first half efforts as he took aim from distance on two occasions in quick succession - one flying over the bar with the other a routine stop for Sunderland debutant Mika Dominguez.
There was a scare for the hosts in the dying minutes of the half as Josh Maja, who looked a threat throughout, slid home at the far post after a fine overlapping run and cross from Jones. The only thing saving Pools on this occasion was the linesman’s flag.
Maja then again had the ball in the back of the net just after the break as he tapped home Tommy Robson’s drilled cross, but again there was the same outcome with the raised flag bringing a premature end to the striker’s celebrations.
Pools were still creating though, and arguably had two of the better chances to take the lead. Jordan Richards’ drilled cross was just ahead of substitute Jake Orrell, with Tom Heardman then ballooning his effort over the bar at the far post.
Heardman was guilty of squandering another golden chance for the hosts moments later too when Josh Laurent picked him out with an inch-perfect cross, with the Newcastle United loanee failing to connect properly with his delivery as he was left unmarked in the area.
And how costly this miss proved as Sunderland deservingly took the lead just past the hour mark.
It was no surprise that tormentor-in-chief Maja played his part as he picked out the galloping run of Donald Love who took the ball in his stride before slotting past Bartlett from inside the area.
For all Pools huffed and puffed as the game drew to a close, they struggled to create any meaningful chances. A combination of resilient defending and poor decision making in and around the area prevented any equaliser, with Sunderland happy to try and hit the hosts on the break in search of a second goal.
Now Pools are left with a dead rubber tie next month - with Rochdale already through and the North East side unable to progress.
While this is undoubtedly a hindrance, it does give Hignett an opportunity to have another look at some of his fringe players, many of who impressed against their Premier League opponents.
So while the result wasn’t what the Pools boss would have wanted, he now finds himself in a position where he knows the likes of Martin and Pollock are able to perform at a good level.
Will they be able to replicate such performances against a League Two breed of attacker?
Only time will tell, but Hignett can be sure that they certainly won’t look massively out of their depth if needed to be called upon.