Aldershot Town 1-3 Hartlepool United verdict: Changes prove key as Dave Challinor's side secure top five finish
Normal business has resumed for Hartlepool United.
Saturday’s 3-1 win at Aldershot Town put any concern following consecutive National League defeats swiftly in the past as Dave Challinor’s side got back to their exuberant, and at times frustrating, best.
Second half goals from Luke Armstrong, Rhys Oates and Nicky Featherstone helped Pools get their top three push back on track with Mo Bettamer’s late penalty for Aldershot proving to be a consolation.
The Hampshire weather was as erratic as Pools’ defending last weekend – switching between pouring rain and bright sunshine throughout Saturday afternoon as Pools guaranteed a play-off place.
Changes were always certain following last weekend’s 4-2 defeat at home to Maidenhead United and Challinor made four at the EBB Stadium.
Gary Liddle and Luke Armstrong came straight back into the side after missing the Maidenhead match through suspension and a hamstring injury respectively. Harvey Saunders didn’t make the trip after suffering from a knee problem while Luke Molyneux dropped to the bench.
Lewis Cass also came back into the side as Pools reverted back to a five man defence. Timi Odusina dropped out entirely.
There was a slight surprise in between the sticks as Middlesbrough loanee Brad James was handed his Hartlepool debut against the club where he spent a brief spell on loan earlier in the season.
This was arguably the strongest outfield line-up Pools have available and likely the one that Challinor would choose to use in the play-offs.
Fortunately, they delivered.
Return of the King
The absence of Liddle last weekend was felt to a scary degree with his return to the starting line-up at Aldershot expected to bring back the calmness and organisation that has epitomised the majority of Pools’ performances in 2021.
Those expectations were met as the switch back to five defenders helped Hartlepool keep a lively Shots side at bay.
Alongside Liddle, Ryan Johnson put in a much improved display. The former Kidderminster Harriers man was dominant in the air and came close with two early headed chances.
Cass' return to the opposite side also proved to be just as important as Liddle’s. The Newcastle United loanee helped provide good balance defensively but showed the confidence and composure to get forward and help out with Pools’ attacks.
In goal, James was called into action after 22-minutes as he palmed Craig Tanner’s close range free-kick around the right post. It was the only real save the 21-year-old had to make over the course of the afternoon.
It gave Challinor some food for thought as to who starts between the sticks at Sutton next weekend.
Turning the screw
As the first half progressed, Pools created some big chances to take the lead.
Oates had an effort cleared off the line by Kodi Lyons-Foster which was then claimed by Aldershot goalkeeper Mitch Walker.
In the moments leading up to half-time, Oates was at the heart of another United attack as he played the ball across goal for Gavan Holohan to surely turn in from close range.
The Irish midfielder has been guilty of a shocking miss in recent weeks but he could do little about this one as George Fowler somehow got back on the line to heroically block the strike.
In first half stoppage time, Oates was brought down inside the penalty area but the referee only blew his whistle for half-time as the sides went in 0-0 at the break.
The heavens opened again for the start of the second half as the torrential conditions threatened to make things interesting.
Pools were showing more intent, getting bodies forward with crisper, cleaner passing moves and putting Aldershot under pressure.
The best strike partnership in the National League?
Another crucial return for Pools was that of Armstrong, who has formed a formidable strike partnership with Oates this season.
The pair weren’t at their all-firing best at Aldershot but their endeavour and goals proved crucial in securing victory for Pools.
After a couple of half-chances, Armstrong finally broke the deadlock just before the hour mark as he turned his man on the edge of the penalty area before blasting past Walker, who will feel he should have done better.
Credit to referee Elliott Swallow who opted to play advantage after Holohan was fouled before the ball fell to Armstrong.
With the lead, Pools were in the ascendancy as Holohan did well to release Oates down the right flank as the Pools forward put a low cross in for Armstrong inside the six yard box but the Pools number 29 couldn’t find the crucial touch.
The chances were coming thick and fast for Pools going into the closing stages as Oates curled wide and Holohan had another effort blocked on the line.
Hartlepool’s second goal finally came through Oates as he glanced in Featherstone’s free-kick from close range to effectively secure victory with 13-minutes remaining.
At this point the three points were wrapped up but Pools’ knack of keeping everyone on their toes continued as Johnson was penalised for handball with four minutes of normal time remaining.
"The penalty was the one disappointment from the game for me,” Challinor explained. “Johno hadn’t put a foot wrong and he’s made one mistake which has resulted in him hand balling it.”
Bettamer stepped up and sent James the wrong way to make it 2-1.
Pools still had the last laugh in stoppage time as Holohan, who had a hand in almost everything positive Pools did in the second half, was tripped inside the penalty area by Jamie Sendles-White. The referee pointed to the spot again.
Featherstone dispatched calmly for his fifth goal of the season – a career high.
And that was that. A comfortable 3-1 win and Pools’ route to Ashton Gate is back on track.
The result guarantees a top five finish for Pools, meaning Victoria Park will host a play-off match in June.
Whether it’s an eliminator or a semi-final remains to be seen.