Roy Kelly's match analysis: Plymouth Argyle 5 Hartlepool United 0
Just when you thought Hartlepool United were getting it right.
After weeks of promise and polish came a crushing fall – the heaviest defeat of the season and the worst since Pools leaked five at Northampton in the final days of the Colin Cooper reign.
What made it worse was the thumping occurred 387-miles away with 521 fans in the away end, the majority decked out in Stormtrooper costumes.
While the fancy-dress theme was Star Wars, there was no star quality and no fighting. There was no Force, only farce against a weakened Plymouth side with seven changes as Derek Adams rested his key men ahead of this week’s play-offs.
The only silver lining for Pools was that they retained 16th place, a remarkable achievement given the side looked on the edge of oblivion at the start of March.
Boss Craig Hignett baulked at this reporter’s post-match assessment that it was one game too far at the end of a long and arduous season, physically and mentally.
Pools, to a man, looked not just dead on their feet but totally lacking ‘upstairs’. There was nothing there.
The one exception was Jake Gray, who injected life into Pools as a second-half sub but he could not do it alone.
It wasn’t that Plymouth were brilliant and Pools were bad.
The boys in blue did not even reach that level while Argyle, hampered by a multitude of changes, were understandably slow out of the blocks.
It had begun promisingly as Pools forced several early corners and Adam Jackson even had a powerful header blocked. So far, so good, but it would go wrong, scarily wrong.
Tyler Harvey, making his first start of the season, took aim from close-on 30 yards in the sixth minute.
Yes, it was an accurate hit, but Trevor Carson will be cross to allow it in at his right-hand post.
He was beaten again in the 25th minute though he could not be criticised for this one.
Pools had operated a new formation, a so-called box-midfield.
It involved Pools pushing their full-backs forward to provide the team’s width with midfielders Lewis Hawkins and Nicky Featherstone acting as cover.
So when Pools lost possession, as they did on a regular basis, they looked exposed.
Greg Wylde, one of Argyle’s first-choice players galloped forward with Hawkins giving chase.
Lewis is a very good player, one of the few to emerge with credit, but he’s not blessed with lightning pace. Wylde took off past him , with Jackson leaving the middle to try to go across to try to block his delivery.
He did not make it and the delightful cross was put in by Harvey from six yards, with Featherstone the covering defender.
Pools rely heavily on the pace and skill of Nathan Thomas and the visit to Home Park was, predictably, no different.
The former Plymouth winger had a 33rd-minute shot strike the hand of Jordan Forster in the home box.
This hopeless left-back has conceded penalties for far less but referee Darren Deadman has clearly not controlled a match in the Hudsons Taxis League and ruled no penalty.
Thomas was then at it again down the right, making a terrific run with his 21-yard shot saved smartly by second-choice keeper Vincent Dorel down to his right.
It has to be said that Pools were not aided by the half-time re-shuffle in the back four caused by injuries to Rob Jones and Carl Magnay.
Dan Jones was switched to centre-half with Hawkins taking the right-back slot and Richards operating at left-back
It must also be noted that no blame can be attached to Richards or Hawkins in their ‘wrong’ positions.
The change-around had one benefit, the introduction of Gray.
If one player, and there were no real candidates, emerged with their reputation enhanced, it was the 21-year-old.
The Crystal Palace man burst forward in the 55th minute and his super shot from outside box brought an equally smart stop by Dorel low to his left.
It gave Pools hope, alas it was to be short-lived.
Thomas coughed up possession cheaply allowing Kelvin Mellor to pump the ball forward and the goal which followed was out of this world.
Louis Rooney, another to be handed a start following a season on the bench, let fly Jamie Vardy-style with a volley from the right-side of the box which rocketed past Carson.
Rooney’s reward may be a trip to Wembley. It was a stunning strike.
This writer was just about to Tweet that this was in danger of turning into a rout when the fourth went in on the hour.
It was on the comical side, though Hignett and Curtis Fleming will not have found it funny.
Harvey swung over a corner. It was hardly in the David Beckham class but three Pools players, Dan Jones, Billy Paynter and Jackson got no-where near it and home skipper Curtis Nelson put it in at the far post from close range.
Gray, bless him, fought a lone battle, having another shot saved by Dorel while a good effort did beat the keeper but hit the side-netting.
Paynter had a shot blocked by Gary Sawyer after good work by Michael Woods and seconds later James had a powerful drive beaten away by Dorel at his near post.
The on-loan forward, making his final appearance in a Pools jersey before returning to Peterborough, tried to sign off with a goal when he cut in from the left and got off his shot with his right. It did not trouble Dorel.
The scoring was ended by Rooney eight minutes from time when he headed in from close range after benefiting from Harvey’s shot looping up off sub Graham Carey kindly into his path.
It should have been six in added time when Carey danced his way through, only to put his shot the wrong side of Carson’s left-stick.