Hartlepool United leave it late to snatch pre-season draw at Billingham
Hartlepool United were indebted to trialist Harry Middleton as they kicked-off pre-season with a draw at neighbours Billingham Town.
The midfielder salvaged a draw for Pools with a late strike after Craig Hutchinson's deflected effort looked to have handed Billingham a surprise win.
In what was Matthew Bates' first game as permanent manager of Pools, experimentation was the order of the day - as is often the case during pre-season.
The new boss opted to start with three centre-backs and handed an opportunity to youngster Brook Miller in the process.
There was also a place for two trialists during the first-half, as the United cast their eye over goalscorer Middleton and attacker Connor Higgins.
Higgins, who looked lively in the opening half, threatened again moments later through a header as Pools ramped up the pressure.
Chances continued to come with Lewis Hawkins, playing in an unfamiliar left wing-back role, sending a curling effort into the hands of the Billingham stopper.
While a first-half breakthrough proved elusive, Pools came exceptionally close through Conor Newton.
After new signing Peter Kioso picked the midfielder out in the area, Newton saw his acrobatic strike trickle agonisingly wide of the far post.
A raft of changes followed at the break as Bates named and entirely different side in order to assess his full squad.
But the new-look Pools line-up found themselves behind after 52 minutes as Hutchinson's shot took a deflection which saw it loop upwards, leaving stopper Ryan Catterick powerless.
Pools continued to push forward but found it hard to unlock a resolute Billingham defence - Josh Hawkes guilty of fluffing his lines in the box while Myles Anderson could only steer a header narrowly over.
Deubtant Niko Muir also came close as his header stung the palms of the impressive home goalkeeper - before a well-deserved leveller eventually came with only 15 minutes remaining.
And it was all thanks to a moment of brilliance from trialist Middleton who, having found some space on the edge of the box, unleashed an unstoppable effort which flew into the top corner.
New signings Mark Kitching and Liam Noble both had opportunities to seal the win but failed to find the target as Pools' dominance was left unrewarded.
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
Goals: Middleton (75)