MATCH REPORT: Luckless loss had inevitable feel

Hartlepool United V Bradford City Johnson Paint Trophy 2nd Round. Picture by FRANK REID

Hartlepool United V Bradford City Johnson Paint Trophy 2nd Round. Picture by FRANK REID

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INEVITABLE.

That is the word which best describes last night’s narrative.

If, before the game, you were asked to forecast a scenario in keeping with Pools’ desperate campaign thus far, then “goalless draw followed by penalty-shootout defeat” would probably have been it.

Neale Cooper’s side are down on quality, out of luck and, already, staring at a season-long struggle against relegation.

That is the harsh reality of it right now.

Forget about cup runs putting cash in the coffers, confidence in the camp is what they’re in desperate need of at this moment.

Victory, any victory, would do.

And last night, against lower-division opposition and on home soil, was supposed to be the morale-boosting triumph they so badly craved.

Except it doesn’t work like that with Pools at present.

Yes, their fortune is frail – three spot-kicks connected with the woodwork – but to blame ill fate would be too forgiving.

That it came to such an uncertain method of settlement was an indictment of Pools’ shortcomings during a somewhat uninspiring 90 minutes.

Only when the painfully sluggish Simon Walton was removed did they begin to truly threaten in the final third.

To lay all of the blame at his door, however, would again be unwise, but the midfielder who promised so much when he signed in the summer has, so far, delivered on little.

If he is still unfit following a minor lay-off then mitigation can perhaps be reasoned, but on this evidence he is danger of becoming a 24-year-old who could soon slip out of the professional game.

He has not looked anywhere near the physical shape demanded by his full-time profession – alarming given his relative tender years.

Speaking of tender years, if Cooper were searching for positives from another otherwise forgettable evening, then they could be found in the form of his three teenagers.

Much has already been said of Jack Baldwin – again faultless and in cruise control – and Darren Holden once more caught the eye at left-back, he’s positive and fearless.

But the performance of new Middlesbrough loanee Charlie Wyke offered most hope for the Scot.

With a a stature belying his 19 years, Wyke imposed himself from the off, never shying away from possession and assured when in it.

There is, at least, hope on that front.

It was Wyke who, with the visitors 3-1 ahead in the shootout, kept his nerve and kept Pools in the tie with a calm tuck into the bottom corner.

That threw down the gauntlet to Scott Flinders to play his part and the Pools keeper duly went airborne to palm clear Andrew Davies’ effort.

Evan Horwood had the chance to take it to sudden death but, like Jon Franks and Ryan Noble before him, his powerful blast was to hit the woodwork, this time via the out-stretched arm of Jon McLaughlin.

The ball did cannon down into the goalmouth and, for a good 10 seconds, confusion ensued.

Had it crossed the line?

We will probably never know, but referee Graham Salisbury belatedly deemed it had not and so Pools were out of another cup competition at the first hurdle (they received a bye in the first round).

What had transpired previously ultimately matters little, but it was a game of even chances.

Wyke was the first to test the impassable McLaughlin when, after swapping passes with strike partner Noble, his measured curler was clawed clear of its far-corner target.

Noble himself then tested the palms of the visiting netminder with a vicious blast and, after the interval, former Pools midfielder Ritchie Jones did exactly the same with Flinders at the other end.

The West Yorkshire outfit were enjoying a period of dominance and James Hanson should have scored when Alan Connell dropped a ball on his forehead at the far post, the striker’s effort instead flashing wide.

Wyke again found the gloves of McLaughlin when played in by Tony Sweeney, on for Walton, and the substitute went close himself when his volley was blocked in the six-yard area by former Middlesbrough defender Davies.

But it Phil Parkinson’s side who could, and perhaps should, have nicked it when skipper Ricky Ravenhill headed off the crossbar from another Connell centre four minutes from time.

And so to spot-kicks where, despite seizing an early advantage when Garry Thompson skied over and Neil Austin slotted home, the inevitable eventually occurred.

It’s Doncaster Rovers next up at Victoria Park on Saturday.

Pools need to change the course of what, sadly, appears to be a doomed destiny.

And they need to do it quick.