CHRISTMAS came early for Hartlepool United’s players on Saturday but sadly Santa Claus’ famous red sack didn’t include three points.
While the Pools squad enjoyed their well deserved, albeit slightly early, festive celebrations on the evening, supporters were left to reflect on what might have been following the goalless draw with Portsmouth.
It has been a long time since supporters headed to The Vic expecting, rather than hoping, for a win.
But that was the case on Saturday and it shows just how far the side has come recently under the management team of Colin Cooper and Craig Hignett.
Prior to kick-off, Pools had won their previous four Sky Bet League Two matches at home, a run not witnessed since the 2006-07 promotion winning season and expectations were high to make it five.
Managerless Portsmouth, meanwhile, were looking to put an end to a five-game losing streak and they were buoyed by almost 600 vocal supporters from the south coast.
Despite lying 18th at the start of the day, and without a manager following the sacking of Guy Whittingham, Pompey were no mugs and caretaker Andy Awford had them well-drilled and snuffed out the threat of dangerman –James Poole – in particular by man marking him.
While both sides did create chances, neither really looked like breaking the deadlock and a draw, albeit frustrating, was a fair result.
That was partly down to both keepers, Pompey’s Trevor Carson and Scott Flinders for Pools in his 200th competitive appearance.
Remarkably, Saturday’s clean sheet was his 55th overall and 49th in the Football League meaning the 6ft 4” stopper keeps the ball out of the net in a quarter of matches he plays in.
No other keeper in the club’s history has ever kept more league clean sheets and, like his proud manager said afterwards, it is an outstanding achievement.
But the result meant 13th-placed Pools lost more ground on the play-offs, the gap increasing to seven points.
Time, though, is still on Pools’ side and the current gap between seveth and top spot is just two points so anything is still possible this season.
But one area of concern is the lack of back-up options to Poole and top scorer Luke James.
With Steve Howard leaving, Cooper has just one other recognised striker in the first team – Nialle Rodney – and while he is in no rush to add any reinforcements before January he will also be crossing his fingers nothing happens to his first choice pairing.
Andy Monkhouse – back from suspension – can play up front but is more influential on the wing cutting inside, so, there is plenty for Cooper to ponder no doubt over the coming weeks.
On Saturday, it was Poole that first tested Carson with a powerful shot in the second minute but the former Sunderland keeper was equal to it.
Pools had started brightly for once and James was released down the left-hand flank moments later but his cross towards the onrushing Jack Compton was cleared before the former Pompey winger could connect.
The game’s best chance came in the 15th minute, Portsmouth’s Jed Wallace with a crisp shot tipped onto the left post by a fully outstretched Flinders, the ball spinning back across the goal before being eventually cleared.
The former Crystal Palace stopper was again called into action in the 27th minute, showing strong hands to deny Pompey forward Ryan Bird after he had wriggled free from Jack Baldwin.
Cooper’s men created their best chance five minutes before the break, Monkhouse’s 20-yard shot deflected narrowly past the post for a corner.
Meanwhile, moments later Wallace was grounded and appealed for a penalty but it was a well-timed tackle from Simon Walton and the referee waved it away.
Former Pools goalkeeper and ex-Crawley assistant manger Anthony Williams was watching the game, which came as no surprise given ex-Crawley manager and Pools striker Richard Barker is among the favourites to succeed Whittingham.
While Williams made notes from the stands, his potential future players made a bright start to the second half, Flinders again forced into a great diving save to deny Sonny Bradley’s strong header from a corner.
On the touchline, Cooper looked increasingly frustrated with his players, who seemed lacking in ideas and too often reverted to a long aimless punt upfield.
But roared on by the home crowd, storming right-back Michael ‘Jack’ Duckworth dribbled his way into the box and forced Carson into a fumbling save just past the hour mark.
Duckworth has proved a big success and he was once again proving a useful outlet down the right flank as Pools attempted to build some pressure.
But Pompey hit back and Andy Barcham tested Flinders with 20 minutes left, while Bird threatened to get the better of defender Christian Burgess inside the area in the 74th minute but the on-loan Boro defender was quick to nick the ball away.
Pools’ best effort came from James who ran onto a flick-on before blasting a low 20-yard shot towards goal, which Carson just about managed to get enough of his body behind.
The Northern Irishman then tipped Matty Dolan’s 25-yard strike over the bar as the game finished goalless.
The Pools players held their Christmas do with the full backing of their manager, who said afterwards he “will never be a killjoy”.
He added: “I want them to go and enjoy themselves as they have worked really hard for me and Higgs and the rest of the staff.”
Can’t argue with that but now the party season is over, the focus turns to Coventry City in the FA Cup before Cheltenham Town away in the league. And Cooper will be hoping Pools get back to winning ways quickly to reignite their promotion push.