First impressions of Hartlepool's new boys and triallists
Whether in football or life, first impressions count for a lot.
For footballers, a debut can prove key to their future success at a club – especially if they’re bidding for a starting place on the opening day of the season.
There were seven new Hartlepool United signings in that boat at Billingham Town on Saturday, and it’s fair to say they made a good early impression.
On the face of things, the 1-1 draw secured by Pools may not represent the ideal start to a pre-season campaign.
But if you delve a little deeper, there were plenty of positives to take and some key first impressions made.
It also has to be considered that, in the first half at least, Pools were playing an entirely new system.
Matthew Bates, in his first game since taking permanent charge of the club, was keen to experiment with playing three at the back.
And it looked to suit Pools, who were keen to play out from defence whenever possible. The three centre-backs - Andrew Davies, Louis Laing and youth player Brook Miller - combined well and looked comfortable in possession while also restricting Billingham’s chances.
Davies, captaining Pools in the first half, was certainly one of those who made a good first impression.
His distribution from the back was flawless and he showed a defensive nous that United lacked last season - cleverly winning throw-ins and nipping in to steal the ball unnoticed.
Utilising three central defenders allowed Pools’ wing-backs - Lewis Hawkins and new signing Peter Kioso - to push forward.
Indeed, the best openings in the first half came via the wide pair.
First, Hawkins saw a curling effort held by the Billingham stopper before Kioso’s cross was fired just wide by Conor Newton.
It was an impressive performance from young Kioso, especially considering that the ink had barely dried on his deal at Victoria Park.
The former MK Dons man was happy to get forward and, unlike many modern day full-backs, resisted the temptation to drift inside ensuring he offered Pools plenty of width. He was another who made that vital first impression.
Bates changed his entire squad in the second half and handed his other five summer signings the opportunity to impress Pools’ supporters.
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Paddy McLaughlin, however, was forced to withdraw early on in the second period after noting a tight chest. Boss Bates is hopeful that he will return to training this week.
And things didn’t get off to the best start for his colleagues as they fell behind to Craig Hutchinson’s deflected effort only moments after the restart.
But the visitors rallied - thanks in part to a fine performance from Liam Noble whose aggression helped stifle a buoyant Billingham and push Pools up the pitch.
Noble did a fine job of shielding the back four while also showcasing his attacking abilities with a number of efforts - although none troubled the home stopper.
At the back, Myles Anderson looked happy to play the ball on the deck and was used as an outlet at set-plays.
To the left of him, fellow new addition Mark Kitching pushed extremely high up the pitch and stretched the opposition - performing a similar role to that of Kioso in the first half and executing it equally well.
However, arguably the standout performer in the second period was Niko Muir – the striker plucked from Hendon Town by Bates this summer.
The 25-year-old proved a tricky customer and exhibited plenty of pace and power during a fine display. Again, he made a strong impression in his first outing for the club.
Muir was unlucky not to net a leveller with a glancing header well-saved as Pools ramped up the pressure in search of an elusive goal.
They did find a breakthrough eventually – trialist Harry Middleton netting from distance to salvage a draw. But while the result may not live long in the memory, the performances of Bates’ new signings certainly will.
As mentioned before, first impressions are key – and Pools’ latest additions certainly made good ones.
And a word too for the manager. Bates has shown he isn’t afraid to experiment with new systems and, in Saturday’s first half at least, the change seemed to pay dividends.
While it’s not exactly a ‘first’ impression for the boss, it’s certainly a promising sign ahead of his debut campaign in permanent charge of the club.
First impressions can be changed - of course - but here’s hoping that those made by the club’s latest recruits are built upon in the weeks leading up to the new National League season.
Pools first half XI: Loach, Miller, Davies, Laing, Middleton, Kioso, Newton, Woods, Hawkins, Cassidy, Higgins
Second half XI: Catterick, Richardson, Magnay, Anderson, Donaldson, Noble, Featherstone, Kitching, McLaughlin (Middleton 55), Hawkes, Muir