Dominic Scurr's verdict: Hartlepool United a class above as 1-0 win over Barnet makes it eight in a row at Victoria Park
Three months ago, Hartlepool United sat mid-table in the National League with just one home win all season – then Luke Armstrong arrived.
Since then, the side have charged up into title contention having picked up eight consecutive wins at Victoria Park for the first time since 2007.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over Barnet was far more dominant than the scoreline suggests as Armstrong’s ninth goal in 13 league matches proved to be the difference.
Armstrong himself has proven to be the difference in Pools’ season too. Eight goals in eight wins at The Vic, plus a goal at Notts County, make him the deadliest striker in the National League right now.
It’s a far cry from where Pools found themselves back in November when it looked as though a lack of goals in the side would cost them a shot at the play-offs once again.
Now they’ve been given a shot, and they look capable of taking it.
Dave Challinor made just one change to the side that drew at Wrexham in midweek with Rhys Oates coming in for Joe Grey.
Luke Molyneux also returned on the bench after almost a month on the sidelines following his red card suspension.
But there was no place for fit again Nicky Featherstone, who was left frustrated not to be involved.
Challinor admitted he wanted to play the influential midfielder but was persuaded that he ‘wasn’t worth the risk’.
And if anything sums up Pools’ cushy situation at the moment, it’s being able to leave out arguably the best midfielder in the division by choice and still win matches comfortably.
That’s more or less how things panned out on Saturday evening in front of the BT Sport cameras.
Barnet had won just three matches all season, sitting second bottom of the table with the worst defensive record in the league.
But the visitors started the game brightly and looked a far stronger opponent than their lowly position suggested.
Still, Pools gradually started to establish their dominance as the first half wore on.
Armstrong saw a front post effort well stopped by former Pools goalkeeper Scott Loach in what was the best chance of the opening half-hour.
Former Newcastle United striker JJ Hooper had an opportunity at the other end but Ben Killip reacted well to close down the angles and deny the Barnet striker.
Lewis Cass put in a dangerous ball from the right which narrowly evaded everyone shortly before Pools found a breakthrough.
Mark Shelton broke into the penalty area and played a smart pass to Armstrong at the front post. The newly anointed Lord Commander of the six-yard box couldn’t miss as he blasted the ball past Loach to give Pools a deserved lead.
The influential Shelton was at it again just moments later with a cut-back for Rhys Oates but the Pools striker could only curl the ball over.
The hosts continued to push for a second goal that would have surely killed the game but chances and half-chances kept going begging as the scoreline remained 1-0.
Goalkeeper Killip was closing in on his fourth clean sheet in six matches without having to really lift a finger following his first half save to deny Hooper.
Armstrong, Shelton, Oates and Ryan Johnson all had chances to extend Hartlepool’s lead after the break but the best chance of the lot came just two-minutes from time.
Substitute Molyneux did well to play a fine ball across the face of goal for Armstrong to tap into an empty net. It didn’t look like the striker could miss but the ball somehow got caught under his feet and the chance went begging – he is human after all.
A 1-0 win that ought to have been four or five but it’s still three crucial points on the board for Challinor’s side.
After the match, Barnet manager Tim Flowers pointed to Armstrong as the difference. “He’s miles above this level, miles above," the former Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper told BT Sport.
The reality is he’s not the only one playing beyond this level at the moment.
Jamie Sterry was named man of the match in the game following a relentless display at both ends of the pitch. The right-back put in countless quality deliveries and didn’t allow Barnet a sniff.
If Armstrong is miles above National League level then Pools’ right-back certainly falls into that bracket as well.
The side have been blessed with great right-backs over the past few seasons with Peter Kioso and Macauley Southam-Hales.
As good as those two were, Sterry is better. He brings a level of consistency and genuine Football League class to the side and almost never gets beaten one on one, whether it’s in a foot race or a challenge, not to mention his quality crosses from the right flank.
In normal circumstances, he wouldn’t be playing anywhere near this level so for Pools it’s just about enjoying him while he’s here and making the most of it.
But singling out Sterry and Armstrong would be doing a disservice to the rest of Hartlepool’s squad, who have really stepped up in recent months.
With the exception of Dover, Pools have faced every team in the National League and you’d be hard pressed to find a better strike partnership, midfield three or wing-back pairing in the division than what Pools have at the moment.
Defensively things have improved massively with Lewis Cass and Ryan Johnson boosted by the welcome return of Gary Liddle.
The pieces are slotting together nicely but there remains a vulnerability to this young side who need to start translating encouraging performances into wins away from home.
The next three games will see Pools visit Halifax Town, Torquay United and Altrincham – a serious test of their promotion credentials.
Avoid defeat and ideally get a couple of wins from the next three and a title challenge could very well be on.