MATCH REPORT: Indefensible Pools surrender in survival showdown

Antony Sweeney shouts at his fellow players against Oldham Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID
Antony Sweeney shouts at his fellow players against Oldham Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID
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FOR a man who has offered admirable defence of his players in the most trying of circumstance, even this was beyond protection.

John Hughes did not coat his words in kindness.

Yes, he was measured, but it was a calculated criticism, amplified by its rarity.

Every stinging word he delivered was correct.

It was an honest assessment of a dishonest performance.

For Pools had cheated themselves, the supporters and their manager.

Given the stakes – livelihoods several players have labelled it – to go down without so much as a suggestion of resistance was unforgivable.

And going down they may well be.

A glance towards the numbers does not make for comfortable reading this morning.

There are 21 points to play for and Pools still need eight before they can even hope of escaping the drop zone.

In reality, they will require at least double that amount given the games in hand of those around them.

Sixteen points from seven matches? An impossible ask when you consider the depressing demise of the attacking unit, for it is now seven-and-a-half hours without a goal.

Inevitably, the rot has spread.

Lethargy and uncertainty have permeated a team which, until the arrival of March, had exuded great desire and a belief in their survival cause.

And now? A bunch of strangers resigned to life in League Two.

And that’s if they’re lucky, for Hughes made a not-so-subtle hint that several will not figure in his long-term thinking.

The Scot felt let down last night.

Perhaps his most telling piece of censure was this - “This was our cup final and we’ve played like it was a first-round tie”.

And that – the supposed enormity of the fixture – was what rankled most.

This was the survival showdown for which they had worked so hard to make possible.

Five victories from seven, Manager and Player of the Month honours, all of it geared towards this, a “relegation six-pointer” knowing victory would elevate them to within one match of safety.

They failed to show for the contest.

Hughes could not even bring himself to applaud a decent start which had seen Nathan Luscombe fire wide and Peter Hartley denied on the goal-line having flashed a header on target.

For what followed was, in the manager’s own words, “men against boys”.

There were warning signs early on as twice the hosts sliced through the Pools backline with minimum protest before goalkeeper Scott Flinders bailed out his colleagues.

But the netminder was helpless on 17 minutes when Robbie Simpson peeled free of Hartley to apply the simplest of headed finishes to an incisive Jose Baxter centre.

From the same flank Baxter repeated the trick 10 minutes later, former Sunderland centre-back Jean-Yves M’Voto the beneficiary this time, his unmarked nod finding the top corner.

With heads now bowed it was little wonder Pools’ passing went astray.

As if each pass were dialling a ‘9’, Luscombe, Simon Walton and Hartley served up a comical trio of “hospital balls” with the upshot a hurried Flinders clearance which rebounded off Baxter and rolled wide of the gaping goal.

It was becoming embarrassing.

Baxter did get his goal midway through the second half when, afforded time and space to measure his dispatch, he swept a stunning half-volley into the bottom corner from 20 yards.

Again, though, Pools had stood and watched as their opponent exacted his punishment.

Not one player, save perhaps Flinders, emerged with any credit.

Luscombe, handed an apparent lifeline by Hughes in recent weeks, failed to seize his chance.

He was hardly aided by yet another playing surface more akin to a farmer’s field, but his midfield adversaries in blue shirts somehow made it look easy.

He was not the only guilty party, far from it.

His engine-room sidekicks, Antony Sweeney and Simon Walton, surrendered possession with alarming regularity, failing also to unsettle their opposite numbers.

Steve Howard had been recalled but struggled to impact, likewise Jonathan Franks, the forward whose slump in form has mirrored that of the team.

While at the back there were periods during the first half in which memories of autumn were painfully evoked.

In short, there was no way of defending this most sorry display.

Hughes did not even try.

And that says all you need to know.