BACK in October Hartlepool United thumped Mansfield Town 4-1 away to finally kick-start their season.
Last night Colin Cooper’s men were looking to kick-start their play-off push against the same side but a crushing 4-2 defeat - both in terms of the result and injuries - has effectively put paid to any lingering hopes of a top seven finish.
Pools are now nine points adrift of York City, who won again, with just seven games left. It is more than likely you can now safely book your summer holidays.
While on the face of it, the management and players remain positive it is likely they know Pools are destined to fall short this season.
Cooper though will certainly want to finish well, to give them momentum over the summer months, if nothing else.
But he may have to do it with fewer players given the bruising nature of last night’s defeat.
Injures to Marlon Harewood, Jack Compton and Darren Holden saw the trio subbed in the space of three second-half minutes, but there was also injuries to captain Sam Collins and substitute Antony Sweeney, who looked to have picked up a nasty leg injury.
Replacing a defender, midfielder and striker at the same time knocked the formation and Mansfield took full advantage. But, while there was certainly mitigating factors the Pools fans were still rightly aggrieved by the manner of the second-half collapse.
Pools were 2-1 up after 52 minutes and on the back of a five-match unbeaten home run confidence was high but three goals in the final 20 minutes - all of which were sloppy and avoidable - left a galling taste.
The match was absorbing and pulsating and you couldn’t take your eyes off it, although Cooper may have wanted to as his defence collapsed, most unlike Pools at The Vic recently, it has to be said.
Afterwards fans were complaining it looked like men against boys at the end. It was, Pools finished with 20-year-old Jordan Richards and 19-year-old debutant Dan Jones in defence.
In midfield 17-year-old Brad Walker, Michael Duckworth, 21, and 19-year-old Jack Barmby, with 19-year-old Luke James up front.
There were of course experienced players alongside them but nevertheless Pools looked shellshocked by Mansfield’s physical and dominating second-half display.
A switch in formation also helped Paul Cox’s team take all three points, with the Stags adding pace and moving from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 formation.
It was a harsh lesson and one which the team must learn from quickly, if they are to avoid the rest of the campaign becoming a damp squib.
Pools, beaten by Oxford United 1-0 on Friday, made just one change with Michael Duckworth in for the suspended Simon Walton, serving a one-match ban and watching from the press box.
Jordan Richards kept his place at right-back, which meant Duckworth was given a more advanced role, wide right of a midfield diamond with Brad Walker protecting the back four.
Pools front three of Harewood, James and Barmby linked up well at times in the opening stages but it was the away side that took the lead in the 20th minute.
James Jennings coolly slotted the ball home from eight yards after a Lee Beevers cross was miscued by burly forward Matt Rhead, only to find Jennings free to take full advantage.
The home crowd was getting restless with Pools struggling to find any rhythm or tempo to their play, with Flinders seeing a lot of the ball under pressure from the Mansfield forwards.
But then Pools struck - Harewood with his third Pools goal and his third in front of the Town End.
Barmby’s quick-feet on the edge of the area helped create the chance, with the ball eventually falling to the 34-year-old who finished clinically from six yards.
The game again burst into life moments before half-time, with Mansfield’s Oliver Palmer claiming he had been fouled by Christian Burgess inside the area but referee Gary Sutton waved it away.
Then from the resulting break, Duckworth jinked into the box and was felled by Ritchie Sutton for a spot kick in the 44th minute.
When Walton isn’t playing Compton is usually the designated penalty taker but Harewood was adamant, sadly for the experienced forward, it was tame and Marriott dived to his left to palm the ball away.
Walker, who had scouts from Bournemouth and Celtic watching him, was one of the few players, along with James, to emerge with any credit.
And the pair linked up well in the 52nd minute to give Pools the lead, the 17-year-old midfielder played a defence-splitting pass which James took control of before sweeping home, off the post, past Marriott.
At this stage it was all looking rosy but Harewood had injured himself in the build-up and while he managed to play on he was eventually subbed in the 62nd minute, along with Compton who had tweaked a hamstring.
Then 90 seconds later Holden had to come off with a back spasm to be replaced by Jones. The injuries were a devastating blow and ultimately turned the balance of the match.
In response to going behind, Mansfield made a double substitution, adding more pace and changing formation.
Substitute James Poole went close with a volley but then it all unravelled for Pools.
Burgess was booked for a dubious foul on Palmer in the 72nd minute and from the resulting free-kick Jennings scored his second of the match to pull Mansfield level.
The defender slipped as he took it but the flight of the ball caught out Flinders who could only watch it sail into the top corner.
2-2 with 20 minutes to play.
Mansfield upped the pressure, hitting the crossbar, and it was an exhilarating game set for a grandstand finish.
Sadly not in Pools’ favour.
Sweeney had a goal rightly ruled out for a foul before Beevers’ deep cross up the other end found the head of Rhead who got above Collins to score in the 80th minute, despite claims Palmer was in an offside position the goal stood.
Six minutes were added and Mansfield’s Jamie McGuire made it 4-2 with a deflected goal in the 92nd minute to bring an end to Pools five-match unbeaten run at home.
Plenty of lessons to be learned and they need to be learned quickly.
Pools (4-4-2): Flinders, Richards, Collins (C), Burgess, Holden (Jones, 64), Walker, Duckworth, Compton (Poole, 62), Barmby, James, Harewood (Sweeney, 62).
Subs Not Used: Rafferty, Rowbotham, Hawkins, Franks.
Booking: Duckworth, Burgess, Walker,
Goals: Harewood (28), James, (52)
Mansfield (3-5-2): Marriott, Jennings, Howell (Clucas, 58), Murray (C), Dempster (Meikle, 58), Riley, Beevers, McGuire, Rhead, Sutton, Palmer (Speight, 82).
Subs Not Used: Clements, Westlake, Daniel, Stevenson.
Booked: Dempster, Jennings
Goals: Jennings (20, 72), Rhead (80) McGuire (90)
Referee: Gary Sutton (Lincolnshire)
Attendance: 2,976 (Mansfield 128)
Scott Flinders: 6. A busy night for Flinders but didn’t always look comfortable coming out for crosses. The free-kick evaded him to give Mansfield the lead.
Jordan Richards: 6. Kept his place at right-back despite the return to the team of Duckworth. Was steady enough but the defence conceded four sloppy goals.
Sam Collins: 6. Commanding first half but will be disappointed with the second, was beaten in the air for their third goal. Came off the field with a nasty knock to his head.
Christian Burgess: 6. Was booked for the 9th time this season for the foul which led to the free-kick for their equaliser.
Darren Holden: 6. Bright enough first-half but went off injured in the second-half.
Brad Walker: 7. MOM. Played in a deeper role to cover for the suspended Simon Walton and did well. Disciplined performance.
Jack Compton: 7. Compton looked the most dangerous player at times but was hauled off after 62 minutes.
Michael Duckworth: 6. Playing in a more advanced position, wide right and was quiet for large periods of the match, understandable given it was his first game back from injury.
Jack Barmby: 6. Played well in patches but doesn’t do enough without the ball. Loan move is now up as well.
Luke James: 7. Scored his 15th goal of the season and put in his usual tireless shift.
Marlon Harewood: 6. Scored a clinical goal to equalise but then missed a penalty, which Compton was set to take. Went off injured with an ankle knock.
Antony Sweeney: 6. Suffered a nasty looking injury which will be a devastating blow for the club captain who could have been set for a return to the first team.
Dan Jones: 6. Debut for Jones who came on at a crucial time in the game. Coped reasonably well but Mansfield scored three after Cooper made his third substitution.
James Poole: 6. Had a couple of efforts narrowly wide of the post but struggled to get any rhythm.
Gavin Hall @GavinHall1977
@FrankRHMail @RMennearHMail #terracetweets game was there for the taking. Some cracking football at times. We blew it big style
Jordan Richardson @JRich97_
@RMennearHMail @HPoolMail #TerraceTweets Taking @ComptonJ11 off was a bad decision - he was our MOTM. Poor result but cracking game!
Michael Lewis @pooliemike07
@HPoolMail #terracetweets disappointing end to season, to many kids, to reliant on loans, not enough experience, invest IOR, a back cooper
Steven Liddell @slidds
@HPoolMail disaster of a game,to many kids. No shape when marlon went off. lets just get to 52pts and plan for next season! #terracetweets
Neil Pearson @hpoolneil
#terracetweets key decisions cost us, penalty miss, their offside goal and inept/dire officials. Boys against thugs#experienceneeded