MATCH REPORT Bristol Rovers 0 Hartlepool Utd 0

Evan Horwood sets off on a 2nd half run at the Bristol Rovers defence. Picture by FRANK REID
Evan Horwood sets off on a 2nd half run at the Bristol Rovers defence. Picture by FRANK REID
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ONE point gained or two points dropped?

That was the question put to both manager Mick Wadsworth and stand-in skipper Neil Austin following this West Country deadlock.

In truly diplomatic fashion the pair preferred to talk of positives – indeed, they were aplenty.

But there is no getting away from it – this was an opportunity missed and a chance to clamber clear of the mid-table mire and regain a single-figure league position – instead Pools climb two places to 12th.

Yes, it did stop a rot of three straight defeats. And, if the prime objective was to arrest a slide which could have plunged Pools back among those murky, relegation-threatened waters, then again it’s a case of job done.

But what happened to those New Year playoff aspirations? What happened to talk of lower-placed teams being disposed of in the same ruthless manner as high-fliers such as Brighton, Bournemouth and Huddersfield? What happened to scoring goals?

This was a fine display of territorial dominance, infused with energy and commitment.

Yet it failed to yield a goal – for the third league game in a row, in fact – that’s nearly five hours for anyone who’s counting.

Indeed, Rovers’ on-loan rookie goalkeeper Luke Daniels was not once forced into a save of note.

And therein lies the problem – with Andy Monkhouse deployed as a lone frontman should we have expected anything else?

Now, this wasn’t the fault of Monkhouse, not at all - if anything he performed better in this unfamiliar role.

But, for all their domination, Pools never truly looked like scoring.

It was in fact the hosts who came closest to breaking the deadlock on their rare forays upfield.

And had it not been for a patched-up Neil Austin, still carrying a slight calf knock, we could have been talking about a repeat of Saturday’s late defeat against Dagenham – Rovers’ sole attacking threat Jo Kuffour thwarted in the second minute of stoppage time when the defender hurled his body in the way of the striker’s goal-bound shot.

A mention, too, must go to makeshift centre-back Armann Bjornsson who denied Kuffour in similar fashion in the first-half.

Those two chances were arguably the best of the game.

The closest Pools came was a superbly crafted move in the opening period which saw Monkhouse pick out Gary Liddle, unmarked eight yards from goal.

The finish, though, failed to match the approach play and the midfield stabbed tamely wide.

Liddle and Antony Sweeney were joined by Joe Gamble in the now customary central-midfield triumvirate after Paul Murray took ill on the morning of the game.

And you have to say Gamble was terrific – the Irishman winning and distributing the ball in a manner which went a long way to helping stamp his side’s authority over their disjointed hosts.

Compatriot Leon McSweeney was also instrumental in exerting Pools’ early dominance, although he faded after half-time.

And so that presents another question Pools supporters will no doubt be pondering – why wasn’t a substitution made until the 88th minute?

In mitigation, Wadsworth admitted afterwards that he was working with a four-man bench of outfield players.

James Brown must have eaten the same seafood as Murray, for he too was ill, while captain Sam Collins was never going to be introduced after feeling a slight reaction to his knee problem.

In the end it was Denis Behan, just back from a hamstring injury, who replaced Ritchie Humphreys, but by this point the game was drifting towards a frustrating conclusion and there was little scope for the Irish forward to make an impact.

Indeed, the chance to take a deserved three points had been spurned in the previous 88 minutes.

But it could have been a different story had referee Darren Sheldrake awarded a blatant ninth-minute penalty.

Home debutant David McCracken, on loan from Brentford, lifted a reflex arm when Sweeney nodded down Evan Horwood’s deep cross and prevented the ball taking its intended path to McSweeney.

The offence was clear from the press box 60 yards away and, judging by the reaction, it was clear from the visiting dugout 80 yards away.

But it wasn’t clear to referee Sheldrake and assistant Neil Radford, both considerably better placed than the media men and the Pools coaching team.

Kuffour was blocked by Bjornsson soon after and the Rovers’ frontman inadvertently cleared from the Pools’ goal-line when James Tunnicliffe forced Stuart Campbell’s corner on target.

Liddle then passed up his opportunity to score at the other end before Pools survived a scare on the stroke of half-time, Peter Hartley recovering to hack from the line after Jake Kean’s save from Kuffour had rebounded unfortunately off the legs of Bjornsson and bounced towards the gaping goal.

Chances were at a premium after half-time and Sweeney was denied by Daniels and Monkhouse fired into the legs of McCracken when presented with a good opening on the edge of the area.

Last-gasp heartache was, of course, averted thanks to Austin’s brave block from Kuffour, but the full-time whistle was met with regret and not relief.

No doubt about it, this was two points dropped.

Match statistics:

Bristol Rovers: Daniels, Regan (Reece 67), Tunnicliffe, McCracken, Anthony, Sawyer, Campbell, Lines, Swallow (Richards 88), Kuffour, Hoskins

Subs not used: Green, Brown, Blizzard, Bolger, Pell

Pools: Kean 6, Austin 7, Bjornsson 8, Hartley 7, Horwood 7, McSweeney 7, Liddle 6, Gamble 8, Sweeney 6, Monkhouse 6, Humphreys 6 (Behan 88; 5)

Subs not used: Flinders, Collins, Boyd, Yantorno, Brown, Haslam

Goals: none

Bookings: Rovers: Sawyer, Campbell. Pools: Horwood, Austin

Referee: Darren Sheldrake

Attendance: 5, 285