NEALE Cooper admits he is becoming more and more excited with the progression of his new-look Hartlepool United.
The Scot saw his side claim a deserved 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough at Victoria Park last night, just four days on from their 1-0 disposal of Premier League Sunderland.
Cooper has implemented a fresh 4-4-2 system over the summer and has brought in three new faces to aid his evolution.
He has also sought to revamp the style of play with more emphasis now on the wide areas and serving balls into the box for Steve Howard, one of those brought in during the close-season, to attack.
And, with just 10 days to go until the campaign curtain-raiser at Crewe Alexandra in the League Cup, Cooper is seeing more reason for optimism with every passing pre-season outing.
“I’ve been more and more encouraged as the games have gone on,” he told SportMail today.
“I feel this is my strongest team at the moment, but there are still boys pushing to get in.
“We can’t keep chopping and changing because we need to give people playing time.
“I’ve done that over two games now by keeping the same XI and I want to do that so the lads can get their sharpness.
“Because sometimes, with some of the big lads such as we’ve got, it takes time.
“Big Steve (Howard) and Sam (Collins), I was the same myself, and it takes games to get your fitness levels up.
“But they are looking good now and so are all of the boys.”
Cooper went on: “It’ll take a little time to get used to this new shape, from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2.
“But once they get into those habits of where we should be, with and without the ball, then it will only get better.
“I think this new system suits the boys and they seem to like it.
“We even had them in yesterday morning working on it and I think that showed last night.”
Indeed, Pools made it two unbeaten on home soil thanks to Sam Collins’ towering header from a Jonathan Franks corner 10 minutes from time.
That was after Tony Sweeney’s early opener had been reversed by a quick-fire double from Scott McDonald and Adam Reach.
And Cooper reflected: “It was a different type of game and I thought Middlesbrough were really good. “But we created some good chances in that first half.
“The goal was a great header from Antony after good work from Luke (James).
“But again a couple of mistakes have cost us, they were preventable goals and that’s frustrating.
“The first one Neil (Austin) should have cleared it and the second there were too many non-tackles and it allowed them to score.
“We started the second half looking a bit tired but then came back into it and it was nice to get the equaliser.
“Jon put in a great ball and Sam has done fantastically to get free of his man and win it – it was some header.”
Meanwhile, a Pools XI will take on Bishop Auckland at Heritage Park tonight (kick off 7.30pm).
The side will feature none of the starters from last night’s draw with Boro but the likes of James Poole, Colin Nish, Ritchie Humphreys and Jack Baldwin are expected to feature.
And Pools received a welcome boost when they were yesterday given a bye in the first round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.