MATCH REPORT: We’ve been here before - slump in form comes as no surprise

Simon Walton in action against Walsall. Picture by FRANK REID
Simon Walton in action against Walsall. Picture by FRANK REID

BREAKING an unhealthy silence which has frustrated the club’s followers, chairman Ken Hodcroft likened recent efforts to those of early season.

“It’s all too reminiscent of the first half of the season,” he penned in his matchday programme notes.

He had hit upon a theme.

It is, however, one which stretches far beyond the disastrous opening to the current campaign.

Repetition. The same, sorry story. Weakness.

This group of players have been together for the best part of four seasons.

They have, on countless merry occasions, demonstrated their ability to compete with the best of the third tier.

Think the 3-1 victory over league leaders Brighton & Hove Albion two seasons back, the source of a winning run which would take Pools to the cusp of promotion territory.

Manager Mick Wadsworth and skipper Sam Collins were bestowed with the division’s monthly honours.

And then? A string of defensive aberrations which were to plunge Pools toward the region of relegation.

They survived and duly began the following season without loss in a club-record nine, flirting once more with promotion terrain.

And then?

Another club record, this time of the unwanted variety.

Nine home defeats on the spin, Wadsworth sacked.

And so to Neale Cooper – same players, new manager.

Swashbuckling victories over Carlisle United and Notts County and another unbeaten run reignite hope of a play-off tilt.

And then?

A six-hour barren spell in front of goal coupled with that familiar foe – the defensive collapse – and the season peters toward a flat conclusion.

And so to this campaign, an unmitigated calamity through anyone’s eyes.

A decent enough start – again – had Pools talking of a shot at the play-offs.

And then?

Another club record.

Twenty two matches without victory, Cooper long since exited and John Hughes installed.

We’re not finished yet.

And so to fantastic February, a month which climaxed with a fifth victory in seven matches and – once more – monthly accolades for Hughes and captain Peter Hartley.

How best to follow that up? The only manner in which this vintage knows how.

Nine hours without a goal, the worst run in 20 years.

Amid the sterility of that six-match malaise have come truly woeful performances at Doncaster Rovers and Oldham Athletic, the latter bordering on unforgivable.

Mr Hodcroft has a point, his only mistake was in limiting observation to this season alone.

It is sad that it will, in all likelihood, take relegation for this set of players to be disbanded, for they are a decent bunch, pleasant to deal with and genuinely frustrated by their shortcomings.

They have also been badly let down by the failure of successive managers to sign a goalscorer.

And never was that more apparent than on Saturday.

During the first half, with Evan Horwood, Andy Monkhouse, Jon Franks and Ritchie Humphreys the inspiration, Pools set up camp in Walsall territory.

Humphreys, in particular, was proving a class apart, first-time passes freeing front-running full-backs Horwood and Neil Austin.

They, in turn, carved headed openings for Tony Sweeney and Steve Howard, both efforts repelled by Manchester United loanee Sam Johnstone.

There were other half-chances, Howard failing to locate a clean connection from 12 yards after good work from Franks the most noteworthy, his scuff blocked inside the six-yard area.

And there ended the home domination, it had lasted barely 25 minutes.

The second half, admittedly played out in far-from-helpful gales, was a complete non-event.

Only the visitors threatened to break the deadlock, twice firing over the crossbar having fashioned positions of promise inside the area.

Hughes’ substitutions were either met with jeers, in the case of Franks who they wished had remained, or sarcastic applause in the case of Howard.

There were yet more boos on full-time, another game passed without score and League Two looming ever larger.

It was, on the whole, a poor performance.

But not one to which we haven’t previously bore witness.

Hughes must break what has become a ruinous cycle.

Sadly, he will have to set about that task in the bottom tier.