Hartlepool United 0 Leyton Orient 1

Ryan Donaldson sets off on a run. Picture by FRANK REID
Ryan Donaldson sets off on a run. Picture by FRANK REID
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NOT many managers slam their fist into a desk with a broad smile etched across their face.

That’s exactly what Mick Wadsworth did last night when sitting down to his post-match press briefing.

Paul Murray runs at the Orient defence. Picture by FRANK REID

Paul Murray runs at the Orient defence. Picture by FRANK REID

The fist and the face told two contrasting stories.

First, the clenched fist – an opportunity missed, play-off hopes all but extinguished.

But the grin? Dignity in defeat, relegation fears long forgotten.

If Pools were going to mount a late promotion push then Leyton Orient, their immediate adversaries – just one place and three points better off – had to be sent packing back to Olympic land with their flame doused.

As it is, the East Londoners’ torch is burning brighter than ever – this a club record 14th straight league game without loss.

And you have to say promotion is not beyond Russell Slade’s men, albeit with a League One bronze medal.

But the manner in which they toyed with Pools during the opening period was worthy of a gold in mockery.

Gary Liddle felt like he’d ran a marathon by half-time, admitting afterwards Pools were “chasing shadows” in the first 45 minutes.

Jimmy Smith delivered what proved to be the winning blow just before the half-hour, sweeping home a crisp volley after Dean Cox had been afforded too much time and space to locate his team-mate.

Failing to extend their lead didn’t tally with the possession stats, for very occasionally in the first half did Orient loan the ball to their breathless opponents.

But Wadsworth it too wily an operator to allow such a run-around to persist and so, during the interval, the baton was passed.

Teenage striker Ryan Donaldson was the man very unluckily sacrificed, for he had been the chief attacking threat, twice carving out openings for strike partner James Brown, who had by this point retired with an ankle injury.

Joe Gamble was brought into the midfield and the hosts went toe to toe with their visitors’ 4-5-1 system.

The response was probably better than Wadsworth had anticipated.

Leg-weary Liddle discovered the energy reserves of a long-distance runner, Leon McSweeney buzzed about like a 100-metre sprinter, while Colin Larkin hurdled defensive obstacles in his bid to unsettle the backline.

The best chances to level, however, fell to the brow of Andy Monkhouse, Pools’ very own high jumper.

First, he looped over the crossbar from eight yards, then keeper Jamie Jones diverted a goal-bound nod around the post, before finally he headed onto the woodwork with nine minutes remaining – the Orient goal was leading something of a charmed life.

And you just knew Pools were going to finish outside a points-rewarding podium position when, in the final minute, midfielder Matt Spring haplessly hooked an attempted clearance onto his own bar, only for the ball to bounce to safety.

There was still time for Liddle to lash a volley narrowly over Jones’ goal. But Orient clung on, leaving Wadsworth to reflect in bittersweet fashion.

He knows that the play-off talk he’d quite happily entertained in recent weeks has now been reduced to a whisper.

Even with a draw against Orient, or perhaps even victory, it would have been a big ask to trouble the top six, especially now that sidelined top scorer Antony Sweeney will have Brown for company in the Maiden Castle treatment room.

But there are still nine games left of this campaign, and surely a “best of the rest” finish is the aim for Wadsworth and his side.

That would mean maintaining their current lofty standing of eighth, an incredible achievement for a team previously tipped for demotion.

Wadsworth, as his fist relaxed and smile widened, went on to talk about the “core” of his squad – a group of players the south side of 25 years old who he sees as the long-term future of the club.

But what about his own future? He is, after all, still “caretaker” manager.

Interestingly, there was a Channel 4 television crew at Victoria Park last night, filming for the reality series “Fairyjob Mother” – a show in which out-of-work people are helped into employment.

There was a teenager guesting as half-time announcer, while others manned the turnstiles and car parks.

Maybe, though, someone should have pointed them in the direction of chairman Ken Hodcroft’s office, for surely the time has come for Wadsworth to be rewarded with permanent status and a lengthy contract.

Match statistics:

Flinders 6 – Little chance with goal

Haslam 6 – Did okay

Collins 6 – Rarely troubled

Hartley 6 – Like his skipper, not really flustered

Horwood 6 – Deliveries dangerous in second half

McSweeney 7 – Had a real good go after break

Murray 5 – Distribution not as accurate as we expect

Liddle 6 – Much better as game wore on

Monkhouse 6 – Credit for getting on end of three crosses

Brown 5 – Let’s hope injury isn’t serious

Donaldson 6 – Very unlucky at half-time hook

Subs: Larkin 5 – Did his best to cause problems

Gamble 5 – Tries to do things right but needs games

Boyd 5 – Hardly got a kick

Pools: Flinders, Haslam, Collins, Hartley, Horwood, McSweeney, Liddle, Murray (Boyd 77), Monkhouse, Donaldson (Gamble 46), Brown (Larkin 27)

Subs n/u: Rafferty, Humphreys, Yantorno, Bjornsson.

Leyton Orient: Jones, Omuzusi, Whing, Dawson (Chambers 49), Cox, Revell (McGleish 82), Daniels, Spring, Smith, M’Poku (Kane 70), Barrett.

Subs n/u: Forbes, McGleish, Butcher, Tehoue, Carroll.

Goals: Pools: None. Orient: Smith 28

Bookings: Pools: Gamble, Hartley.

Orient: Revell.

Attendance: 2,313 (98)

Referee: John Moss (Leeds)