Six of the worst for dire Hartlepool at Stevenage
Will the real Hartlepool United please show themselves.
Two Saturdays ago, Pools were down to 10 men before some players had even touched the ball, yet received a standing ovation after earning a point in a 2-2 draw with Newport County.
The boys in blue deserved every clap, every decibel of sound from the stands and terraces of the Northern Gas & Power Stadium.
Despite playing short-handed they performed with such passion and intensity they were unfortunate not to collect all three points.
Fast forward seven days to Broadhall Way, or the Lamex Stadium if we are following the new name procedures, and the players were told in no uncertain terms what the supporters thought of their efforts.
This reporter uses the final word of the last sentence loosely, because there was little evidence of it as Pools seeped into the grass so meekly at Stevenage.
Pools did not just lose to a team who had started the day in 22nd place and had leaked 12 goals in three games, they got battered, with a large B.
However, let’s not get too downbeat, it’s only September 5 and there is the not-so-small matter of there being 120 points still to play for.
If there are many more repeats of Saturday then there will be an anxious scramble, again, for enough points to stay in the Football League.
But, there’s always a but, isn’t there, I’m going to pop back to March 1, when Pools were taken to the cleaners by Bristol Rovers.
Before you say “Stevenage are no Bristol Rovers”, I know, but that evening proved a watershed for Pools.
Craig Hignett laid into his players in the Memorial Stadium dressing room and the response was dramatic.
Pools reeled off a seven-match unbeaten run - highlighted by exciting wins against several promotion hopefuls - including four clean sheets.
Can they do it again? That is the challenge facing the players, starting with a visit to another side at the wrong end of the table, Yeovil.
The strange thing was, you got the impression Saturday could, and should, have been so much better.
Stevenage gifted Pools the proverbial dream start and after their recent woes, you suspected they may fold.
Such suspicions were wide of the mark.
When Pools were dominating possession, Boro simply dug in and ran that little bit further and tried harder - and when they got the ball they got it forward.
Stevenage were no fancy dans nor were they old-style Wimbledon.
They applied pressure, made use of the set-pieces - and there were many of them - and they played a bit of football too.
Boro could have won by more but for a few good saves by Adam Bartlett. Yes, the afternoon could have been even more harrowing.
The moment that summed it up for me was a slick nine-pass move by Pools in the second half when the score was 2-1.
Here is in player order: Lewis Alessandra, Nicky Deverdics, Jake Carroll, Michael Woods, Carl Magnay, Padraig Amond, Woods, Alessandra, Woods.
The ball was lost and a couple of passes later, Stevenage were in the away box.
Now, this reporter is not advocating route one - Hignett has a style of football and it has to be persevered with - but when Pools do NOT have the ball, that is when they have to be better. Much better.
Every time Stevenage had a corner, long throw or counter-attack, the away side looked susceptible. No-one was prepared to stand up to it or to lead.
Remarkably, given the carnage, it had began so beautifully.
Scott Harrison picked out Jordan Richards with a scorching crossfield 60-yard pass and the right-back made the most of it with a great cross into the box.
Michael Tonge and keeper Jamie Jones made a real mess of dealing with it and the ball was there for Nathan Thomas to put into the empty net.
Pools, who left Billy Paynter on the bench and went with a 4-3-3 formation, stroked the ball around and while they were not ripping Boro to shreds, it was nice to watch.
And they came close to doubling the lead in the 26th minute, Jones atoning for his earlier foul-up by flying to his left to keep out Alessandra’s free-kick.
It proved a turning point as a minute later, Carroll lost the ball to Tom Pett who released Matt Godden on the now unguarded right side.
Godden returned the favour by rolling a loss cross which Pett finished past Bartlett.
Bartlett kept things level with a good save from Andrew Fox and then appeared to make a better one as he dived full length to his right to tip around a Tyler Walker shot only for the officials to award a goal-kick.
But Pools had struggled throughout the first half with defending corners and were finally undone in the 44th minute.
Harrison could not head clear and Walker’s overhead kick from six yards put Boro in front.
It got worse as Pools collapsed after conceding two goals in the space of five minutes.
They could not defend their six-yard box from a Tonge corner as Dean Wells headed against the post and was then first to the rebound to nod home.
It was 4-1 in the 57th minute, when Pett released Fox down the left and his low cross was met by Walker who stroked his shot past Bartlett’s left. No Pools player got near any of the protagonists.
Pools brought on Paynter and loan signing Bradley Fewster and they had their moments, the skipper’s header saved by Jones and the Middlesbrough forward shooting just wide.
But Stevenage added a fifth in the 69th minute when Tonge beat Bartlett from the spot after Magnay, inexplicably, fouled Pett.
It should have been six seconds later when Walker was clean through but the on-loan Nottingham Forest forward shot straight at Bartlett who then pulled off a stunning save to keep out sub Henry Cowans.
Sadly, Bartlett finally succumbed to the blunder bug in the 78th minute when he came racing out of his box to deal with a Boro hoof from the back and got no-where near it.
Godden deserved a goal and he nodded into an empty net from 25 yards.
There was time for more but, thankfully, Stevenage ‘retired’ at six. Pools had long since retired, 4.50pm the previous Saturday.