MATCH REPORT: Neale Cooper’s smiling again after Pools hold out for Swindon draw

Steve Howard gets in a header on goal only to see his shot rebound from the post. Picture by FRANK REID
Steve Howard gets in a header on goal only to see his shot rebound from the post. Picture by FRANK REID
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THAT Neale Cooper was able to joke about the concession of a penalty as well as an injury scare for his star defender, served to highlight the relief of the Scot.

Seven days earlier he had fumed in the wake of the 5-0 pounding at Crewe Alexandra, not even a hint of his trademark grin on that occasion.

But, on Saturday, the smiles and quips were back.

He likened the sight of Peter Hartley pulling up with cramp to a contestant on It’s A Knockout attempting to run with an elastic band tied around their waist.

While Hartley’s handball which led to Swindon’s second-half spot-kick was “like an Olympic beach volleyball player going for a spike”.

Cooper, however, admitted that neither incident would have drawn jovial reflection had Tommy Miller not blazed over from 12 yards or Hartley’s injury been more serious.

But Pools had emerged with a point, and a worthy one at that.

Even on this, the opening day of the league campaign, there was a fair amount of pressure on those in blue and white.

Cooper, in his post-Crewe rage, had threatened them with the exit door – shape up or ship out his message.

“Reaction” was the buzz word at Maiden Castle last week, and you have to say the players were good to their pledge.

Led by skipper Sam Collins and the likes of man-of-the-match Andy Monkhouse, Pools were an altogether different proposition to the one which surrendered so meekly at Gresty Road.

Back was the midfield bite and rearguard stubbornness, allied to a little more invention in the final third.

Monkhouse, in particular, was at the heart of everything good about Pools when they went forward, revelling in a right-sided role which appeared to inject new life into a player whose performance can often frustrate.

Collins, as well as defensive comrades Hartley, Neil Austin and Evan Horwood, responded to their Crewe nightmare with a resolute showing, while Simon Walton and Tony Sweeney got through much unheralded work.

But it wasn’t an afternoon without its scares.

Right from the off Swindon sought to inflict further pain to their wounded hosts and Scott Flinders was called into action twice inside the opening five minutes, saving from both Miller and Andy Williams after they had found the target from range.

Paul Benson then glanced inches wide from a Matt Ritchie free-kick and it looked as if Cooper was in for another long afternoon.

But Pools survived the early onslaught with their target intact and, perhaps buoyed by the sight of 3.15pm arriving without double concession as it had done a week earlier, they took the game to the promotion-fancied visitors.

Jonathan Franks was again the source of the majority of openings, and he located Monkhouse in an ocean of space at the far post.

The recipient, though, lost his footing with the trigger cocked and the chance was gone.

There were further sights at goal for James Poole, who headed over, and then Steve Howard, who hammered down the throat of Wes Foderingham from 20 yards.

They were interspersed by a fine, reflex save from Flinders after Ritchie had turned a point-blank header on goal.

But the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock was just shy of the hour mark, Howard flashing Horwood’s teasing free-kick on to Foderingham’s post with the beaten keeper gratefully receiving the rebound into his grasp.

Then came the moment which threatened to undo all of Pools’ earlier resolve.

Ritchie’s cross appeared to take a slight deflection, wrong-footing the falling Hartley who extended his arm to block – “no complaints” as Cooper later said of the decision.

But former Pools favourite Miller, on his league debut for The Robins, lashed over the crossbar.

In fairness, his effort was just inches away from being the perfect penalty.

Pools perhaps should have rallied in light of Miller’s miss, but a final push for a maximum return failed to materialise and it was Swindon who pressed for a late winner.

By this point Cooper’s boys were deeply entrenched and they held strong to see home a deserved point.

It’s a start but, perhaps more pertinently, it should signal the end of what many feared could be a ruinous run in the wake of the Crewe capitulation - now that would have been no laughing matter.

Cooper is smiling again, let’s hope it lasts.