Football is a cruel game, isn’t it?
It was more a statement than a question and was delivered by Ronnie Moore in the aftermath of Saturday’s last-gasp defeat at Exeter City.
The only criticism you could level at Pools was another hint of naiveity.
The Hartlepool United boss is always good value for a quote, but those six words – or seven if you class isn’t as two – said it all and more.
Moore had demanded Pools show they could grind out a draw and they were seconds from carrying out his orders to the letter.
The level of character, performance and, most importantly, defensive solidity were of the highest order. There was no soft centre at St James Park
There were a couple of anxious moments here and there, which you would expect against an in-form side who had thumped leaders Leyton Orient 4-0 the previous Saturday.
But aside from the goal, a tremendous tackle by Dan Jones on Clinton Morrison and a smart save from Adam Bartlett, Pools were never unduly stretched.
Moore wanted Bartlett to be less busy and the players in front of him ensured there was a solid wall.
Don’t get me wrong, he still had to be on his toes, but he was not required to bail out his team-mates which he’s had to do on previous occasions. This was not an Alamo.
Pools. with a new back four, were much tighter while in front of them, Matthew Bates took the Carl Magnay role to great effect with midfield comrades Michael Woods and captain Nicky Featherstone at the heart of all the best attacking plays.
Rakish Bingham was a threat and should have had at least one goal, as should Rhys Oates, who is proving a real gem going forward.
There was more to admire than cause angst.
The only criticism you could level at Pools was another hint of naiveity. Right at the start of added time, Exeter lost possession deep in the away half.
Pools broke and their only thought should have been getting the ball into the home corner and as far away from their own goal as possible. And while they were there, sticking the kettle on.
Instead there was ambition where pragmatism was required. They lost possession, allowing the Grecians a last chuck of the dice.
Pools initially defended well but Exeter got the ball in the box where Clinton Morrison used all his nous to put a backheel in the direction of Christian Ribeiro. The right-back showed great footwork to buy himself time and room to shoot and hethreaded a shot through a bit of a crowd and beyond Bartlett’s dive to his right.
Pools threw everyone forward incuding both centre-halves and won two corners in a matter of seconds, though they could benefit from neither.
The match opened in a similar fashion, two corners, though the execution was not good.
But Pools warmed into the game and were more than a match for the Grecians, who had gone into the match having not conceded a goal at St James Park for over four hours.
Pools set out to end their miserly run. Woods played in Bingham in he 31st minute but the forward screwed his attempt narrowly wide of Bobby Olejnik’s right-post.
There was a better opening to come. Oates produced some neat play to find Woods who set up Featherstone in the home box. But the skipper was robbed by a great tackle by Jordan Tillson just as he looked set to pull the trigger.
If only the chance had fallen to a more clinical foot.
Exeter, to their credit, tried to play it around but, apart from some beautiful footwork and cross by Ryan Harley, which no red and white player could get on the end of, there were no real frights to the away net.
The second half was a similar story, Pools looking good going forward and, largely, untroubled at the rear.Featherstone was excellent at St James Park, neat in attack and he put Bingham into the box in the 50th minute. The striker did superbly to beat a defender and cross low for Oates who somehow scooped his attempt over the bar.
It’s a simple game sat on your backside in the pressbox, but it was one of those where it looked easier to score than miss.
Scott Harrison had a shot blocked from a 59th-minute corner before Exeter threatened when Bartlett beat out a 25-yard Harley free-kick.
Jones then produced a tackle and a half when Morrison looked favourite to score and at that stage, it appeared it could be Pools day, especially when they went upfield to win a penalty.
After some good Pools play, Woods (who else?) found Featherstone in the box. Just before the midfielder could shoot, he was tripped by Exeter skipper Matt Oakley.
Just 12 days earlier, Bingham was a super-cool customer to score in the penalty shoot-out against Sheffield United . He looked the perfect man for the job, but his effort was tame and too close to the keeper. Olejnik got down to his left and collected the spot-kick with ease.
Bartlett got down low to his right to save a Jamie McAllister header nine minutes from time but, otherwise, there was plenty from Pools going forward, Featherstone and Woods both having shots blocked.
A draw though looked certain, until that cruel ending.