Hartlepool United 0 Scunthorpe 1: Pools boss Craig Hignett’s hardest job

Billy Paynter in action against Scunthorpe
Billy Paynter in action against Scunthorpe
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Craig Hignett is facing the biggest test of his managerial career.

Before you say it, yes, he’s only been at it since February, but please bear with me.

Pools do not look the same when Thomas is not on the park.

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You may think turning around last season’s strugglers into a competitive League Two force might have been his hardest job and you’d have a point.

But now, Hignett has the tricky task of filling the 11 blue jerseys against Colchester United this Saturday.

After taking over from Ronnie Moore last February, the team pretty much picked itself.

The defensive fab four of Carl Magnay, Matthew Bates, Adam Jackson and Jake Carroll were excellent in front of player of the year Trevor Carson, while the midfield trio of Nicky Featherstone, Lewis Hawkins and Jake Gray were highly effective with Michael Woods also in the frame.

And up front, Nathan Thomas was torturing defences down the left, with Luke James working his socks off to the right of top scorer Billy Paynter.

It would be a tad of an exaggeration to say Hignett currently possesses an embarrassment of riches, but he certainly has a number of posers.

That’s posers, not poseurs!

Looking at the rear, so to speak, Carson will be the first name on the team sheet while the back four looks just as predictable with three of last season’s unit, Magnay, Bates and Carroll, being joined by summer signing Toto Nsiala.

Rob Jones filled in for the ill Matthew Bates on Saturday in the 1-0 defeat to Scunthorpe United and performed well, as you would expect, but Bates would start against the U’s.

However, it’s now it begins to get interesting.

Nicky Featherstone missed the final pre-season friendly with a tight groin but it’s inconceivable for Hignett NOT to start with the ‘League Two Xavi’.

Woods and Hawkins have both stood out, the latter especially laying down markers in the last couple of pre-season matches.

However, Josh Laurent has also caught the eye of his manager, who signed a goal-getting midfielder in the summer Nicky Deverdics.

So Hignett faces the sum of getting five into three slots.

Assuming he will go with 4-3-3, though you should never always assume with Hignett, he has a similar mathematical problem of squeezing four into three up top.

Six days ago, Paynter, Padraig Amond and Lewis Alessandra looked to have laid claim to the advanced roles.

They were picked again against Scunthorpe, Paynter and Amond being supported by Alessandra, who has looked lively.

But what of Thomas, who made such a telling difference against the Iron after coming on for the final 26 minutes at Victoria Park.

Pools simply do not look the same when he’s not on the park.

True, Pools knocked the ball around nicely in the first hour against a good League One team, Hignett will have been pleased with the possession play .

Time and again, Pools racked up the passes but there was nothing at the end of it as they chased an equaliser to Kevin van Veen’s 10th-minute goal.

Graham Alexander’s team had shown how it should be done, Josh Morris getting space on the left to deliver the perfect low ball into the six-yard box where van Veen could not miss from a few yards.

Until the entrance of Thomas, Pools had not got in behind a strong away defence, which featured Great Escape defender, David Mirfin.

The one opening had come via a stray 62nd-minute backpass but keeper Luke Daniels saved superbly from Paynter.

But Thomas would provide a spark with Woods having a 67th-minute shot blocked, Carroll firing the rebound against the crossbar, before Thomas headed wide of the target.

And Thomas had a glorious chance when he clipped the keeper’s right post after a neat free-kick move.

Alessandra could then only find the side-netting from a narrow angle 11 minutes from the end.

Pools could not find the leveller their play deserved but they earned a round of applause from a decent crowd at ref Ross Joyce’s full-time whistle.

There was more in the encouragement column than discouragement but for Hignett, his biggest test starts now.

Pools: Carson, Magnay (Richards 73), Nsiala, Jones (Harrison 85), Carroll, Woods (Donnelly 77), Deverdics (Laurent 64), Hawkins, Alessandra (Oates 86), Amond (Thomas 64), Paynter. 

Unused sub: Bartlett

Scunthorpe: Daniels, Clarke, (Goode 60) Mirfin, Townsend, Adelakun (Williams 62), Bishop, Dawson, Morris, Hopper (Holmes 83), Van Veen

Goal: van Veen 10

Referee: Ross Joyce

Att: 1,136 (away 56)