Dominic Scurr's half season report on Hartlepool United 2019-20 campaign in the National League: What have we learned and what needs to improve?
Hartlepool United are now halfway through the 2019-20 campaign in the National League – what have we made of things so far?
Pools have now faced every National League side with the exception of Harrogate Town, who they will play three times over the next month in the league and FA Trophy.
What they will have learned from the 22 sides they’ve came up against so far is that there’s nothing to be feared in this league whatsoever and they are as good as anyone on their day.
An argument could be made that the majority of other teams in this league will feel the same way – in Hartlepool’s case it’s a frustrating lack of consistency that is proving to be their downfall as another season of mid table mediocrity in the fifth tier looms unless something is done about it.
Thankfully, those in charge have tried to address the issues quickly. The surprise sacking of Craig Hignett and subsequent appointment of Dave Challinor as manager will certainly be seen as a positive one on the whole following an unbeaten start which included impressive 4-1 and 5-1 wins away at Yeovil Town and Chesterfield respectively.
Hignett didn’t do an awful lot wrong in the opening 16 matches in charge this season and many viewed his dismissal as a harsh one. But there was always a very real sense of doubt that the side would struggle to push on and deliver which ultimately saw chairman Raj Singh make the difficult decision.
Typically, it’s the most consistent side rather than the ‘best’ side who gets out of the National League. On paper, Pools’ squad is one that would fill you with hope and expectation regardless of the opposition.
Bench included they have one of the strongest looking squads in the National League in terms of depth and certainly the best squad the club have had since they dropped out of the Football League in 2017.
But in execution, things have been quite different on the whole. The potential is there and perhaps that’s the most frustrating part – this team should be doing better, they have played a lot of teams off the park this season yet are still only flirting with the top half, why is that?
For all the good work they do off the ball and breaking on teams, it’s United’s conduct in both penalty areas that has seen them throw away points.
The majority of Pools’ defeats this season haven’t been because a team has completely played them off the park. The 3-1 defeat at Dagenham & Redbridge back in September is probably the only match this season where the side have been second best for almost the entirety of the game.
But even that game featured avoidable mistakes at the back which led to goals. It’s happened far too often this season, whether it be switching off at the back or standing off too much, Hartlepool have conceded too many goals that they shouldn’t have.
You can legislate and accept mistakes every so often but these are similar mistakes on a fairly regular basis.
At the other end, while this issue looks to have been addressed in recent weeks, there had been a distinct lack of conviction in the final third.
United have never had a problem creating chances so far this season – the stats show they are amongst the most creative sides in the division – but their failure to put such chances away has been the difference between challenging at the top and drifting around the middle of the division.
Thankfully, the goals have been more frequent in recent weeks with 13 goals in the last four matches though several gilt edged chances are still being missed and costing the side crucial points.
Hartlepool have gone on a couple of runs so far this season where they’ve won three in a row and things have seemed like they were clicking before the momentum quickly dissipated following a frustrating draw or defeat.
We’re now 23 games into the season, the table has taken shape but will still change a lot before the season is over. Have we seen enough from Pools to suggest this season will be any different to the previous two?
The pessimists (or realists) will say it’s the same old Pools who will flirt with potential success but never actually deliver it. But since the change in management with Antony Sweeney and now Dave Challinor, we’ve probably seen enough to suggest that something could click and finally come together.
The performances in the first half at Notts County and Ebbsfleet United, as well as the full matches against Barnet, Yeovil Town and Chesterfield, were a class above anything you’d usually see in the National League.
Pools were superb in all five of those games yet the fact of the matter is they only have eight points to show for it when they ought to have got 12, and that is perhaps indicative of their biggest problem.
They can completely dominate a side without ever truly putting them to the sword. Ultimately, you will take a scrappy 1-0 win at Notts County where you’re on the back foot for 90-minutes opposed to a 2-2 draw where you put in a first half performance worthy of the Football League.
On Tuesday night, for the first time this season, Pools were able to finally deliver a completely dominant performance and have the scoreline to match at Chesterfield. The final score was 5-1 though it could have quite easily been more.
We’ve seen the potential of this side, and they should progress as the season goes on. But if Hartlepool don’t achieve their goal of reaching the play-offs then this will be another season of what ifs.
What if they didn’t throw away those two goal leads against Fylde, Notts County and Ebbsfleet? What if Nicke Kabamba’s goal against Boreham Wood had been given? What if that penalty wasn’t awarded against Dover?
Good teams make their own luck, and Pools need to make sure they’re not asking those questions come May.