Liam Kennedy's Hartlepool United analysis: Hierarchy and fans' fragile confidence in Matthew Bates broken by on and off field failings

Stability is often seen as a cornerstone to success in football - but stability only works if you think you've got the right man in charge.

Wednesday, 28th November 2018, 8:50 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th November 2018, 9:05 pm
Matthew Bates.
Matthew Bates.

The problem for Hartlepool United was always that it never felt like Matthew Bates was the perfect fit - and for that reason the 31-year-old seemed to be fighting a losing battle from the minute he sat in the dugout.

When assessing the Bates era at Pools, it seems only right to break it into three distinct categories. 1. Last season. 2. May to September. 3. Salford defeat (September 25) and beyond.

I'll explain. Stage one - last season.

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Bates, the second youngest manager in Pools' history behind the late, great Brian Clough, was not the Pools hierarchy's first choice to take the reins following the takeover, there are suggestions he was not even their second.

He was far from a fan favourite as a player, many Poolies became frustrated with Bates in his later days, especially when appearances went from few and far between to non-existent under predecessor Craig Harrison. In his defence knee operations took their toll.

As a result, Bates was not only fighting a prevailing wind when it comes to convincing the fans, that was also the case with the newly installed Pools board.

But convince them he did. He stepped up in Pools' hour of need, taking over a shell of a club with their foot locked on the accelerator, heading off a cliff to the National League North.

He was enthusiastic and, at times, aggressive in his approach. It got results on the training ground, and earned respect in press rooms up and down the country.

The former defender, a teammate of many of his new charges, did an unbelievable job stabling a sinking ship after Harrison. Bates got the players onside, brought some pride back and got enough results to steer Pools away from the abyss. Results like Barrow and Tranmere brought new hope.

Even at that final press conference of the season, pitchside at Prenton Park, it seemed more likely Bates was saying his farewells. The caretaker spoke like someone readying themselves to slide back out of the limelight. He had another thing coming.

Other managers had been spoken to, sounded out, but Bates deservedly won the race.

Handed the role on a permanent basis, the work started in earnest - and this takes us on to the second distinct period of Bates' rein - May to September.

Together with Craig Hignett he signed a raft of players, changed the training regime and tried to build a culture behind the scenes. He wanted the players to know their roles, and stick to a quite rigid way of playing. In general, morale was high, the players took to Bates' methods.

Many of Pools’ best performers still enjoyed playing under Bates to the last, including star man Ryan Donaldson.

As for Pools' business, it's fair to say it can be regarded as feather in the cap for Bates and Hignett.

Niko Muir, Liam Noble, Peter Kioso etc have been a roaring success. Andrew Davies and Luke Williams are yet to really prove their absolute worth but can be seen as statement signings, who might prove excellent additions in time. Luke James also deserves a notable mention.

Cutting the number of pre-season friendlies, and keeping them close to home, was a sign of things to come, as Bates stuck to a common sense approach.

The start to the season was patchy but then developed into a Noble and Muir-inspired success.

While goals were not forthcoming, Pools were solid. This was a team built to win 1-0. Their back three was outstanding. Carl Magnay looked like he'd played centre-half all his life, Kioso looked like the steal of the summer and, when fit, Poolie Davies was a class above the rest.

Having turned the corner at Braintree, after a Bates tactical tweak, they went on a nine-game unbeaten run. This run took them to within a whisker of the top of the table. At times it felt like they were all set to become a force. As we know, they didn't.

That takes us on to the start of stage three. And I chart the start of the downward trajectory to one game - Salford City away.

Pools went to the north west on a unusually warm Tuesday night in late September. Yes, they were playing the pre-season bookies' title favourites, who can afford to spend almost £8,000 per week on their strike force, but this was Hartlepool, Bates' Hartlepool, a team built to battle, fight and importantly, not concede.

Having ran out at Moor Lane as contenders, they ran off shell-shocked.

Yes, they'd performed. They'd given their all. But it was nowhere near good enough against a slick, clinical Salford. The game ended 3-0 to the hosts.

While Pools went on to get creditable results after that encounter - like at Leyton Orient, or home to Boreham Wood - they lost something that day.

The air of invincibility was gone. It has not even come close to returning. In fact, it's amazing to think it even existed, Pools are on such a poor run at present.

Six defeats on the bounce played a part in the end, undoubtedly the Noble debacle of Dover Athletic was a massive factor. The fact it leaked so freely to the gathered press was when things tipped over the edge. The nature of the accusations and the manner in which they were presented brought into question Pools’ professionalism under Bates.

This week, after the weekend that was on the south coast, the drift in crowds proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Results are one thing, but for a club that teetered on the financial brink not so long ago, losing their core fanbase was unthinkable. Something had to give.

This was no death by a thousand cuts. It was two or three really heavy incisions, straight to the heart, the core of what Bates had worked to build.

On a personal note, Bates was a likeable, chilled character as he eased into media duties.

Once he'd got over the rabbit in the headlights stage, he spoke like a manager, knew what to say and how to say it. He seemed like a natural, despite having little to no coaching experience, never mind as the main man in the dugout.

The additions of Ross Turnbull and Ged McNamee certainly helped with this transition. And it is no surprise, in the short term at least, to see both kept on board.

When Pools were at their best Bates had a swagger, a confidence in his work, an assurance in his ability. The makings of a very good young manager were apparent for all to see.

But unlike any managerial stint I've ever covered before, the cracks in the armour became cavernous at an alarming rate.

When results disappeared so too did the most fragile confidence in Bates at the Super 6 Stadium.

His achievements last season cannot be understated, but this campaign feels very much like the start of the last under Harrison. And that's why Raj Singh had to act.

As for the new boss search Pools have made noises about wanting a manager who can grow with the club, this would seemingly rule out the likes of Lee Clark, Ronnie Moore and Phil Brown. If they stick to their original plan, another young boss with a point to prove could be on the cards.

The pack may well have been shuffled, though, given recent events.