'A significant result' - The key takeaways from Hartlepool United's spirited draw with Mansfield Town
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Keith Curle, in just his second official game in interim charge, has managed to generate something of a stir among the Hartlepool squad, and fanbase, after they came from behind to snatch a point from Mansfield.
For large parts it seemed like Pools would succumb.
The Stags enjoyed the lion's share of the possession and opportunities in the first half at the One Call Stadium, with a breakthrough seemingly inevitable.
And that breakthrough came early in the second half when Kellan Gordon’s sweeping cross from the right found an unmarked George Lapslie who made no mistake from 10-yards.
And it was a lead which would soon be doubled when Pools failed to clear their lines from a recycled corner routine as Riley Harbottle was on hand to convert from close range.
But Curle turned to his bench and brought on Josh Umerah, a surprise omission from the starting XI, and the 25-year-old came up trumps for his manager, scoring twice in the final 30 minutes to rescue an unlikely point.
And here are some of the key takeaways from a dramatic encounter in Mansfield.
There’s nowhere else we can start other than by addressing Curle’s decision to leave Umerah out of his starting line-up.
Whilst it may have stood at just three goals, it was a tally which saw Umerah as Hartlepool’s top scorer heading into the game - add in that he has consistently been ‘something’ in the final third for Pools and his omission from the starting line-up was all the more peculiar.
Instead, Curle went with Mikael Ndjoli to lead the line, with his intention to then unleash a ‘frustrated’ Umerah on a tiring Mansfield back-line in the final 30 minutes.
“The thinking is from the beginning of the game their three centre-backs would have got the measure of Josh and they would have enjoyed that physical confrontation,” Curle explained.
“After an hour they don’t want an angry, frustrated, disappointed Josh Umerah going on there with a point to prove.”
And it was a decision supported by the player himself.
“He spoke to me and said ‘you’re going to get half an hour, go and effect the game. Mika will run his socks off, as he usually does, and you come on and do what you have to do,’ and the game plan worked,” Umerah told The Mail.
It was bold, to say the least, to leave Umerah out, even more so not to call upon him at half-time when making a double change and playing out 15 minutes of the second half without a recognised striker having withdrawn Ndjoli.
But, in the end, it worked out for Curle as Umerah came on and delivered the perfect impact with two goals to salvage a point.
Was this just a bit of a reality check for Umerah? Was this a case of Curle just reminding Umerah he is not immune from being dropped?
Either way, he got the ideal reaction from his player and Pools now have a striker with real momentum and swagger heading into a crucial double-header at the Suit Direct Stadium.
It may not have been the intended scenario but, in a roundabout way, Curle was able to justify his decision in leaving Umerah out.
Something tells me he may be back in the starting XI against Doncaster Rovers, however.
Curle was coy over the fitness of full-back Jamie Sterry in the build up to the trip to Mansfield.
The former Newcastle United man missed the draw against Gillingham with a reported back injury before Curle would confess to the 26-year-old requiring a scan, with the hope being he would only be sidelined for a short period of time.
In his absence, Curle turned to midfielder Mouhmed Niang to plug the gap at right-back against Gillingham - a ploy which would last until midway through the second half until he was forced off with a head injury.
And it was an injury which kept Niang out of the trip to Mansfield, with Curle this time deploying Euan Murray at right-back, with Sterry still missing.
Murray’s tendency to edge inside towards a more natural centre-back position meant Stephen McLaughlin was able to enjoy plenty of success down the left of Mansfield’s attack.
Sterry’s absence, however, leaves Curle with a dilemma it seems given that he has overlooked Reghan Tumilty at right-back, with the Scotsman twice now being preferred in a more advanced role, with more of a square peg occupying a round hole instead.
Murray can do a job there, similar to Niang’s endeavours against Gillingham, but if Sterry is to remain out of action for a longer period of time it is an area of concern for Curle.
And that can be highlighted by the bench available to Curle.
At Mansfield, five of the seven substitutes on Curle’s bench were attack-minded players with Brody Paterson, and Kyle Letheren, the defensive alternatives.
Paterson was brought on at half-time in a more advanced left wing role meaning any injuries or decisions against the four starting defenders would have given Curle a problem.
But as things stand, that is the way it’s going to be for Curle after Pools failed to bring in a further defender at the close of the transfer window.
Winless run extends but there is context
Hartlepool continue to own the longest run without a win in the EFL, with that tally now amassing 20 games, but there is context to be had here in that, simply, Mansfield are a good team.
Having missed out on promotion in the play-off final, Nigel Clough’s side have started the season well and look every bit as though they will be in the mix once again come May.
The Stags, heading into the meeting, had won 19 times this year - a run only bettered by Sheffield Wednesday in the EFL, with 11 of those coming from 14 home games.
Clough’s side have not gone back-to-back home league fixtures without scoring since October 2021, which meant they were unlikely to follow up their blank against Carlisle United last time out at the One Call Stadium against Pools, nor had they lost on home soil in the league since Easter weekend.
If ever there was a case of a ‘good draw,’ this was one of them.
Leaving with a spring in their step
For the most part this has been a difficult season for Hartlepool with very little to cheer about.
But although this did not end up in victory, this felt like a significant result for Curle and Pools.
Umerah’s late equaliser saw scenes in the away end, and among the players, we have missed for the most part of the last six months during a 20-game barren run.
With results elsewhere over the weekend, Pools’ draw lifts them off the foot of the table and offers hope there is something to build on heading into two key home fixtures where, you feel, they must claim their first three points of the season.