Liam Kennedy analysis: Festive goodwill looks to have helped Hartlepool turn the corner
Take one look at the League Two table and the landscape Hartlepool United find themselves in doesn't appear to be too much different.
Prior to the trip to Portsmouth, they were 19th in the fourth tier.
Come 5pm on Saturday night, after a battling draw at Fratton Park, they jumped up just one place to 18th.
They are still just two points above the dreaded drop zone headed into Christmas.
A second or even third glance at the table still won’t reveal the distinct shift in mood and mentality that has taken place at the Northern Gas & Power Stadium over the last week.
But change there has been, of that there is no doubt. And it is not something that can be measured by points gained, goals scored or league positions.
The change has taken place in the dressing room at Pools. Behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of an increasingly frustrated and justifiably critical fanbase.
Week after week, month after month, Pools’ season has been defined by defensive capitulations.
All too often this campaign Craig Hignett’s men have dropped points when nailed on to get something in games.
On a number of occasions they have not only lost goals and dropped points, they have collapsed, forcing many to call into question the very make-up and character of those within the Pools ranks.
Have they got the stomach for the fight? Is the manager up to the job? Are the players even up to playing at this level? Just some of the question marks raised in what has been a difficult season, and a particularly dark fortnight.
But some festivities, in a time of difficulty, seems to have had the galvanising effect on the camp.
When many a manager is cancelling Christmas dos, and forcing players into harder and harder regimes on the training pitch in a bid to turn around fortunes, some festive goodwill from Hignett, may well have just done the trick.
The Pools boss allowed his players, as they do every year, to enjoy a night out. A chance for the squad to let their hair down, unwind and have a drink, like many of us do at this time of year, no matter how badly, or how well we have performed at our work.
Now many say they did not deserve it. The online posts remain for all to see.
But Hignett is a canny operator. He was a player of some distinction himself. He knows just what makes players tick.
While few were happy campers on their Christmas night, some feuds were dealt with, situations discussed and bread broken among the Pools players.
From that moment on, according to goalkeeper Trevor Carson, one of the stand outs of the Pompey stalemate, a line was drawn in the sand.
Circumstances on and off the field might not be suited to every man. One or two players might see their futures elsewhere. But whatever the situation, every single member of the Pools squad, while wearing the badge, must give their all.
What happened against Cambridge United, which was summed up by the five-goal second half surrender, must never be allowed to happen again.
On Saturday Pools may have rode their luck at times. There may have been moments where, on any other given day, they’d have conceded. Last ditch tackles were needed, bodies on the line required and commitment from one to 11 a must, to get absolutely anything from what is, on paper, one of the trickiest trips on the League Two calendar.
But even with the backdrop of financial difficulties off the pitch and even bigger struggles on it, Pools’ players stuck to their word - they made sure that line in the sand was not crossed.
So while a point was valuable for the cause overall, the clean sheet and commitment shown in the process, did even more for morale.
It proved to the players that if they leave nothing in the changing room, they can compete with any team at this level, not just in terms of ability, but also in terms of grit, determination and fight.
Even bigger than that, it showed to Pools fans that this set of players are not lambs to the slaughter, they will not simply lie down and accept their fate.
For 100 minutes - due to referee inexplicably adding 10 and a half minutes on at the end of the encounter - Pools laid themselves bare on the south coast. They gave their all for the cause.
That is all that any fan can ask.
Scott Harrison was like a colossus at the back. Matthew Bates was the leader every one knows he can be. Carson underlined his title as one of the best the division has to offer. Liam Donnelly and Jake Carroll, after difficult starts, showed composure and poise as the balls rained in late on. Nicky Featherstone was a calming influence. Lewis Hawkins did the jobs others may shy away from, he did the dirty work in the midfield engine-room. Despite enjoying little success with the ball Josh Laurent put the hard yards in off it. Rhys Oates and Lewis Alessandra tracked every Pompey runner from deep. And Billy Paynter was the strong, solid targetman this XI has been crying out for.
Whether this is just a one off is the next question mark that hangs over Pools. Well, only time, and next Monday’s performance against Blackpool, will determine that.
But having witnessed a side totally transformed from the demoralised outfit who embarrassed themselves, their manager, club and fans a week previous, I find it difficult to imagine them taking that step backwards. Let’s hope they don’t prove me wrong.