Out, but not down.
That’s the mood today at Victoria Park after Hartlepool United’s interest in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy ended after just 90-odd minutes.
Pools were playing a very good team and could be happy with their performance.
Pools lost 4-3 on penalties to Sheffield United after a gripping first-round tie finished 1-1 at the end of full-time.
Alas, the two Scotts, Harrison and Fenwick, saw their attempts saved by keeper George Long at the Town End.
Adam Bartlett gave Pools hope by saving the fourth away spot-kick, diving full-stretch to his left to beat out Martyn Woolford’s effort, and Nicky Featherstone scored the last of the regulation five to tie the scoreline at 3-3.
Sadly, Bartlett could not repeat his heroics from James McEveley’s crack from 12 yards and Pools were out.
End of the JPT? Yes. End of the world? No.
Following three defeats in eight days and nine goals conceded, it was vital Pools stopped the rot. After a shaky start last night, they achieved that.
While Nigel Adkins only started with two of the side which won at Swindon Town on Saturday, his Sheffield United squad are very warm favourites for the League One title.
Pools were playing a very good team and could be happy with their performance, especially given the fact they were missing a number of key players of their own – three of the star turns so far this season were all absent, Billy Paynter, Michael Woods and Carl Magnay.
But Pools competed well against the Blades with Lewis Hawkins and Dan Jones, after uncertain starts, producing good displays, Hawkins especially doing his prospects of League Two action no harm in the midfield.
Rhys Oates, who played down the right, also shone while the combination of Fenwick and Rakish Bingham showed some promise should Paynter not shake off a hamstring problem for the League Two trip to Wycombe on Saturday.
After a disappointing end to August, September looked like starting in the same fashion last night.
Seven days after being given the runaround by Bournemouth, there was a distinct feeling of deja-vu last night.
It was like watching a re-run of the Capital One Cup tie, with Sheffield United leading Pools a merry dance.
Pools could simply not get anywhere near the Blades. It was painful to watch as the frontline of Marc McNulty and Michael Higdon, allied by the movement and speed – of thought and deed – from the midfield of Woolford, Kieron Wallace, Chris Basham and Ryan Flynn, tore open the hosts time after time.
But for Bartlett, outstanding again, the tie could have been dead and buried inside the first 13 minutes.
McNulty put a goal on a plate for Woolford inside five minutes only for the brilliant Bartlett to touch it wide for a corner.
But the Blades went ahead in the seventh minute. Jones, making his first start, indvertently set up an away attack when his tackle released Higdon. Bartlett made a great save low to his left to keep out McNulty but Flynn was on the spot to put the loose ball into the empty net.
It needed another superb save in the 13th minute from Bartlett to deny Woolford and Pools looked destined for a hiding.
But boss Ronnie Moore changed the formation from a bold 3-4-3 with Jones, Harry Worley and Harrison the struggling three at the back to a 4-4-2. It worked and the tortured defence looked stronger and the midfield had a better balance.
Midway through the first half, there was cause for celebration after Pools put five passes together in away territory.
There was a late header from Jake Carroll and a fine run and shot from Michael Duckworth which flashed just wide of Long’s right-hand post and Pools were looking like a team.
It continued after the break and Pools were level in the 51st minute. Bingham broke forward and played a delightful short pass to Fenwick on the left of the box.
The striker steadied himself, took aim, and his superb right-foot shot beat Long to his left.
It brought an extra spark to Pools but it still required a tremendous Duckworth tackle on 62 minutes to foil Woolford, who had been put through on goal.
Unfortunately, the defender then limped off with a hamstring strain.
But Pools had another sight at goal 20 minutes from time when Carroll burst forward, his left-foot screamer going wide of Long’s left stick.
Woolford passed up a gilt-edged chance to clinch it from just eight yards, but seemed to have too much time to pick his spot and Bartlett saved with his feet.
Pools applied some late pressure but it came down to nerve and execution.
Bingham and Oates, for Pools, found the net with ice-cool finishes matched by Higdon and Billy Sharp for the Blades.
Harrison opted against power and his shot up the middle hit the legs of Long, who then went down to his left to keep out Fenwick.
Sandwiching those misses, McNulty netted for the visitors to give them a 3-2 lead and while Bartlett and Featherstone took it down to the last attempt, McEveley had the last word, sending the Pools keeper the wrong way.