Match report Hartlepool Utd 4 Oldham 2

Neil Austin scores from the penalty mark against Oldham Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID
Neil Austin scores from the penalty mark against Oldham Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID

NEW Year, old habits – winning ones, thankfully.

This fourth straight league victory jettisoned Pools away from the mid-table mangle of also-rans and, momentarily on Saturday at least, put them among the play-off places.

Results elsewhere, however, conspired to nudge them back down to seventh. But with just two points the negligible chasm between themselves and an automatic promotion berth, not to mention the game in hand, it’s easy to see why 2011 promises to be a happy one for the Pools faithful.

And how they maintained that faith on Saturday after a slipshod opening more akin to some of those early-season horror shows.

But Pools are made of sterner stuff these days and, as was the case in the recent FA Cup tie against Yeovil, a visiting goal merely served as a wakener for the previously slumbering hosts.

Thereafter they played some of their best football of the season, culminating in the picture-perfect third goal.

By this point that sloppy start was all but a distant memory, thanks in no small part to the level-headed presence of Steve Haslam.

The 32-year-old was thrown into the action for the injured skipper Sam Collins after 10 minutes.

And when Oldham scored just moments later you feared Pools’ good run was about to come to a shuddering halt.

But Haslam used every ounce of his experience to steady the blue-and-white ship and deservedly won post-match praise from management, team-mates and supporters alike.

The injury to Collins, feared to be medial knee ligament damage, will no doubt induce an entry into the January transfer market.

But with Haslam in this sort of form Mick Wadsworth could well look for cover as opposed to a starter.

The Pools boss anticipates little business over the next four weeks, Collins replacement apart, and has ruled out a move for attacking re-enforcements.

It’s long been suggested that, with the unearthing of a 20-goal striker, Pools would have a realistic chance of mounting a promotion challenge.

But with another four goals plundered here, each courtesy of a different source, it’s easy to see why Wadsworth is content with his offensive options.

And it was his attacking triumvirate of Ritchie Humphreys, James Brown and Leon McSweeney who combined to devastating effect to deliver Pools’ all-important third.

The trio had been rotated in the first-half in a bid to liven the home side’s attacking threat, with Humphreys shifted from the left to a central role.

And, in the 58th minute, evidence as to the reason behind Wadsworth’s reshuffle was rolled out to perfection.

Brown drifted down the right flank before stepping inside his full-back and levering a cross to the far post.

McSweeney defied his 5ft 9ins and strained every sinew of neck muscle to head back across goal.

And there was Humphreys to apply the close-range finish and set up the two-goal buffer which ultimately proved decisive.

It could have been a different story, though, after Oldham garnered an 18th-minute lead through midfielder Dale Stephens when he steered a 20-yard strike into the bottom corner.

Paul Dickov’s men were very much in the ascendancy at this point and Chris Taylor lashed a volley inches wide not long after.

But it was a moment of stupidity from on-loan Sunderland defender Jean-Yves M’voto which allowed Pools back in the game.

The Frenchman handled in the area on 26 minutes presenting Neil Austin with the chance to tuck home from the penalty spot for his second of the season.

There was a collective sigh of relief around The Vic following that goal given the nervy start which had gone before.

Another French Sunderland loanee, Oumare Tounkara, sought to make amends for his compatriot’s error at the other end but headed straight at Jake Kean from Taylor’s centre.

And that was the last telling contribution of Kean as Pools took control from there on in.

They had a chance to edge ahead three minutes before the break but McSweeney blazed high and wide having been picked out by the ever-industrious Paul Murray.

But, where McSweeney snatched at his opening, Peter Hartley showed his team-mate how it should be done and on the cusp of half-time the defender strode upfield to connect with Evan Horwood’s free-kick and volley Pools into the lead.

From this point you always believed Pools would extend their winning sequence and when that delightful third arrived the points were all but theirs.

Former Pools man Ritchie Jones was then introduced in an effort to add some creativity to Oldham’s search for a response, but he ended playing a bigger part in the home side’s fourth.

The midfielder was booked for a needless trip on Brown midway inside the visiting half and, from Haslam’s clipped set-play, it was Brown who nodded into the path of Antony Sweeney who swivelled to send a ninth of the season beyond Dean Brill on 69 minutes.

There was still time for M’voto to loop an 81st-minute header over a helpless Kean but it was scant consolation for The Latics and Pools played out what was an inexplicable six minutes added time to claim a deserved victory.

It was the start to 2011 we’d all been hoping for and rendered pointless talk of New Year resolutions. In this sort of form it’s a case of more of the same, please.