Liam Kennedy's match analysis: Wintery gloom lifted at the Vic as Hartlepool spark into life
Walking up to the Northern Gas & Power Stadium on Saturday, you could feel there was something in the air.
Speaking to fans, players, fellow members of the press, things just felt different.
The weather was grim - the depths of winter hit particularly hard on the terraces of the Vic. The icy North Sea wind didn’t seem to have its usual bite. Talk of relegation, a regular occurrence at annually dropzone-threatened Pools, had dissipated. Fears of financial ruin and on-the-park disasters gone. Despite the less than favourable January climate, there was a warmth about the place.
It’s amazing what a little bit of hope can do for a football club.
In the space of a week, a darkness has been swept away from Hartlepool United.
Just eight days ago, I was writing Craig Hignett’s Pools obituary. The Conference was a realistic topic and scepticism towards the club’s hierarchy, especially on social media, which gives a remarkably skewed view on general opinion, was rife.
Now, we are in the wake of a revolution.
It is not a revolution of the new kind - Pools’ new boss is not in the Ian Cathro, David Wagner, Paul Clement mould.
This is very much a revolution cooked up in the old school, and it feels, for the moment at least, just right for this football club.
Dave Jones was not in the dugout on Saturday. That task was left to caretaker Sam Collins.
Jones didn’t take training all week, preferring a watching brief in the final days before the weekend clash with Stevenage.
Instead, Jones took things in from the stand, sat alongside a suitably proud Mark Burrows and Gary Coxall, who both, somehow, managed to sell the manager, more akin with Hillsborough or Molineux, a Victoria Park dream.
The mere presence of Jones brought about immediate change.
Pools, in recent weeks, have looked a side devoid of ideas up front and questionable in a defensive sense.
Passing has been completed without purpose, particularly in the final third, while a lack of concentration has been costing vital points, seeing the club slip closer and closer to bottom two, and in doing so put a proud history of never having played outside the Football League at risk.
Collins should take a fair bit of credit for the transformation, but it is hard to imagine that seeing experienced Jones, who has managed the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Robbie Fowler and Aaron Ramsey, did not put a spring in the step of those in blue and white. It clearly did.
All of a sudden Pools had energy and purpose, something clearly lacking under Hignett.
Towards the end of his reign it looked like the team could play for days, weeks in fact, and still not truly look like threatening the opposition goal.
It had all become a bit too predictable. Those days, on Saturday’s evidence, look long gone.
The injection of youth was a major factor in Pools’ turnaround also, and this is something that Collins must take the credit for.
Rhys Oates was a livewire up top and, in the absence of club captain Billy Paynter, gave the side the physical presence they have so badly lacked.
Brad Walker, who netted Pools’ second on his return, was also a revelation.
The United midfield has been much of a muchness this campaign, but Walker’s clever ability to find space and angles gave an extra dimension alongside the back-to-form Nicky Featherstone, who netted Pools’ opener, energetic Lewis Hawkins and a rejuvenated Michael Woods.
Clean sheets have been hard to come by this campaign. You only have to take one look at the League Two table and the goals against column to see that Pools have had a dreadful 2016/17 so far in a defensive sense.
On paper though, I have no doubt there is the raw materials of a solid looking back four. Jones will no doubt have seen that at the weekend.
I think you will struggle to find a set of full-backs with more promise, at this level at least.
Liam Donnelly is a natural defender, so comfortable on the ball he slots into midfield with no fuss.
And Sean Kavanagh on the other side, impressive again against Stevenage, looks to be a lower league star in the making.
If there is one legacy that Hignett left at Pools it is the signing of those two alone.
In the centre there is promise, too, albeit of a slightly more long-in-the-tooth variety.
Scott Harrison may not have been around the block all that long, but he has played a lot of games and his physicality was second to none. If there was a ball to be won, he got there. A tackle to be made, he was in.
And alongside him Matthew Bates is just the kind of player who Jones can build a team around.
He has operated at the very highest level, much like Jones, but also saw his dreams cut short. Bates’ know-how and reading of the game was vital to keeping things clean.
All in all Pools showed us just how good they can be.
And it probably left Jones wondering what all the fuss has been about in terms of Pools’ struggles.
But little does he know just how big an impact he has had already at the club, both on and off the field.