WHEN Neil Austin stole a late consolation during the League Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest in early August, assistant boss Craig Hignett quipped, “I hope he’s not still our top scorer next month”.
It drew a smile, but the Scouser’s trademark wit had straddled the fence which divides fun and fear.
So here we arrive in September.
Austin, with one, remains the master marksman.
Pools, with none, remain the only Football League club without a goal.
There is little scope for jokes at present, the famine having left supporters without netted nourishment for a staggering seven-and-a-half hours.
Today’s transfer deadline will almost certainly pass without striking salvation.
A statement which, if made at the onset of the summer, would have seemed barely believable.
This observer penned at the end of last year’s disaster of a campaign that close-season priorities one, two and three were a goalscorer, a goalscorer and a goalscorer.
For this team will not score goals – Saturday was simply the latest entry in a depressing dossier of evidence which supports this not-so-startling claim.
Colin Cooper has, in fairness, strengthened.
But such improvement has merely brought about goalless draws rather than defeats to nil.
Last season, at this juncture, two points would probably have read none.
At Torquay, though, Pools were fortunate to escape with a draw, a result which doubles their points tally.
Home fans were left in a state of bewilderment that their side had passed up the invitation to maximum points.
For victory was theirs for the taking, a combination of profligacy and some last-ditch defending preventing such an outcome.
Pools’ shambolic start was akin to a batsman arriving at the crease without a bat and proceeding to protect his wicket with every legal limb possible.
From the kick off Jack Baldwin missed a routine header and David Ball centred from the left. Christian Burgess miscued his clearance and Jordan Chapell, arriving just 10 yards from goal, was denied a 14th-second opener when Neil Austin, hurling forward his frame, spared his team-mates’ blushes.
But the siege had only just begun – and Pools were helpless to repel the opposition advances.
Chappel tested Scott Flinders and Karl Hawley went close with a pair of headers.
The stadium clock read three minutes played.
It promised to be a long afternoon, and so it proved.
Pools, though, could count themselves unfortunate to see out the first half against 11 men, centre-back Krystian Pearce leaving stud marks on the knee of Matty Dolan while Aaron Downes left Steve Howard stemming the claret from a two-inch gash beneath his eye, a stray arm the cause.
It was enough to prevent his second-half involvement and the arrival of Luke James at least injected a turn of foot and an air of unpredictability to a previously static frontline.
It was the substitute who recorded his side’s sole effort on target, Dolan’s wedge having sent him scampering clear but a hesitant finish allowed goalkeeper Martin Rice to divert wide the striker’s volley.
Thereafter, with Simon Walton the chief culprit, Pools repeatedly squandered possession.
From one such moment of generosity the hosts broke and scored only for a linesman’s offside flag to save Walton’s embarrassment.
There were other chances, too, Ball skying from close range and Austin again providing a goalmouth block, this time from Billy Bodin.
Brad Walker did have a late opening to nick what would have been a scarcely-deserved victory but the teenager poked wide.
Hartlepool United nil – it is becoming a tedious trend, especially when the 89 travelling fans factor in what was a 13-hour round trip.
Pools face Bradford City tomorrow night in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – a repeat of last season’s tie.
That game ended goalless.
On current viewing, that is probably the best Pools can hope for 12 months on.