MATCH REPORT Watford 4 Hartlepool Utd 0

James Brown attacks Watford down the Pools right. Picture by FRANK REID

James Brown attacks Watford down the Pools right. Picture by FRANK REID

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IN the space of just three second-half minutes Pools managed to plummet down the ITV FA Cup highlights running order.

It was always going to be an impossible task to wrestle number-one billing from Stevenage, the League Two conquerors of Premier League Newcastle United.

In the end, though, Pools had to settle for a near-midnight slot of 25 from the 27 third-round ties played on Saturday.

It was a day of FA Cup giant-killing and with a little more luck Mick Wadsworth’s boys could have been one of those lower-league clubs celebrating an upset.

The scoreline, though emphatic in its conclusion, fails to suggest that, for an hour at least, Pools were in relative control.

They had matched, even bettered, their Championship opponents in every department.

But football matches are played over 90 minutes and not 65.

However, it was a frenetic period of just 180 seconds which changed the course of this tie.

Had Joe Gamble managed to steer his shot either side of Watford goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin with the score at 1-0 then Pools would have no doubt joined the unlikely list of teams such as North East conquerors Notts County, Boston United and Stevenage in yesterday’s fourth-round draw.

But the midfielder’s strike was saved and proved the catalyst for a Hornets revival – within three minutes they were leading.

Thereafter, Pools were a beaten outfit, the sudden nature of the turnaround a shock to the system which proved too severe from which to recover.

But there was a lot inside that opening hour from which to take heart, albeit against a youthful Watford side.

Antony Sweeney, chalking up double figures for only the second time in his career, served a reminder, as if we needed one, as to his importance with another well-taken effort.

Evan Horwood was a constant threat down the left flank and his attacking endeavours deserved more reward. Indeed, he played a major part in the move which led to Gamble’s spurned opportunity.

Ritchie Humphreys left the field to a hero’s ovation on the hour mark after another valiant shift as a lone frontman and, at this point, Pools were cruising toward a deserved victory.

The famous old terrace tune of “We’re going to Wembley” could be heard emanating from the 800 travelling fans. The irony that Vicarage Road is probably as close as they’ll get to the new Wembley this season was, at this stage, unapparent.

But they dared to dream of progression to the next round and, for 65 minutes, they had every reason.

Having survived a couple of half-chances inside the opening exchanges Pools gained an early foothold.

But it wasn’t until 25 minutes in that Humphreys, with his penchant for the spectacular, was presented an opportunity which invited goal-of-the-season contenders.

The striker was some 30 yards out when confusion in the Watford backline saw the ball drop at his unmarked feet.

And, with keeper Gilmartin having vacated his goalmouth domain, Humphreys opted for the first-time lob.

However, what the effort boasted in audacity it lacked in accuracy and the hosts escaped as the ball drifted wide.

Wideman Andy Monkhouse then appeared in unfamiliar central territory and came within a whisker of breaking the deadlock.

His 20-yard shot, with his weaker right boot, certainly wouldn’t have burst the net but it nonetheless wrong- footed Gilmartin.

But, while the keeper was beaten, so too was the post and the ball bobbled agonisingly wide.

The breakthrough, though, did come in first-half injury time when Sweeney gratefully collected Lloyd Doyley’s mis-control before coolly slotting home from 10 yards.

Cue the second-half drama.

Horwood unlocked the Watford rearguard with a piercing run from the left before zipping a low cross into James Brown.

His touch in teeing up Gamble was exquisite and the former Cork City schemer was left with a 10-yard finish to book Pools place in the fourth round – or that should have been the case.

Gilmartin, though, had other ideas and the Dublin-born stopper thwarted his compatriot with a fine reflex save.

Within 60 seconds a short-corner routine, woefully defended by the visitors, allowed 19-year-old debutant Piero Mingoia to curl a delightful leveller beyond Kean.

And fellow academy product Marvin Sordell compounded Pools’ misery within moments of the restart as he danced by two blue-and-white shirts before steering into the bottom corner from 12 yards.

Sordell then capitalised upon indecision between Gary Liddle and Kean to poke home a gift-wrapped third eight minutes from the end and former Middlesbrough striker Danny Graham put some gloss on the scoreline with a fine solo effort for his 17th of the season in stoppage time.

It was an outcome which slightly flattered Malky Mackay’s side, but Pools can ill afford to dwell on their cup exit as it could yet prove a blessing, given the forthcoming fixture congestion.

They now have a full week, their last until February, in which to re-group ahead of Saturday’s league visit of Dagenham and Redbridge.

Perhaps this is a chance for Wadsworth to remind his players that a successful league campaign could yet eclipse the success and joy that any cup run could ever bring.