Dominic Scurr's verdict: Hartlepool United go top of the National League table with 2-0 win over Notts County live on BT Sport
Hartlepool United are top of the National League table with seven games remaining following a 2-0 win over promotion rivals Notts County.
Now that feels good to say, even if it does prove to be short lived.
It’s been 14 years since Pools led a division going into the final weeks of the season – the club and its supporters have earned the right to enjoy this.
Okay, Sutton United are just a point behind with four games in hand. Realistically, they will probably comfortably return to the top at some stage but that doesn’t detract from Pools’ achievements this season.
Top of the table (it still feels good to say) aside, Pools are 14 games unbeaten with 11 wins from 12 at Victoria Park and have now done the double over Notts County without conceding a goal. The Vic has been sterile in terms of breeding success over the past 14 years, this season, things have changed.
Goals at the end of either half from Gavan Holohan and Richie Bennett secured Pools’ latest victory against a Magpies side who sat fifth in the table with five games in hand.
Going into the game, manager Dave Challinor made two changes from the side that drew 2-2 at Boreham Wood on Easter Monday.
Goalkeeper Ben Killip picked up an injury during that game and has since been ruled out for around 12 weeks with an elbow ligament injury. Henrich Ravas came into the side in Killip’s absence for his first league start since December.
England under-19s international goalkeeper Brad Young was also named on the bench for the first time this season after spending the week training at a Premier League club believed to be Leicester City.
Meanwhile, Stockport County loanee Bennett was handed his first start for Pools with Rhys Oates missing out due to a thigh strain.
A strong start
Pools were quick out of the traps and applied pressure on Notts early on with crosses from David Ferguson, Jamie Sterry and Lewis Cass threatening to cause trouble.
At the other end, The Magpies were offering very little as Ravas enjoyed a comfortable start on his return between the sticks.
Mark Shelton had the hosts’ best chance of the opening 35-minutes when his edge of the box strike deflected wide of the left post as the score remained goalless.
County created their first chance of the game shortly afterwards with Kyle Wootton’s header just over the bar coming as a warning shot for Hartlepool who had dominated territory and possession up until that point.
Pools finally found the breakthrough on the stroke of half-time as Holohan picked up Shelton’s flick and caressed the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal for his fourth in as many games and 10th of the season.
The Irish midfielder is only the third player this century to score in four consecutive league matches for Pools after Adam Boyd and Nicke Kabamba.
Second half game management
With the 1-0 lead, Pools weren’t quite as aggressive in getting bodies forward and crosses into the box after the break as Notts County’s change of shape allowed the visitors to get more of a foothold in the game.
Ian Burchnall’s men started to get a few shots away from distance and failed to test Ravas, who could have set up a deck chair in front of the Rink End given how well organised Pools’ back three were in limiting their opponents.
Hartlepool had a couple of half chances to extend their lead before Notts were reduced to 10 men in the closing stages of the game after their final substitute Cal Roberts was forced off with an injury.
The former Newcastle United winger had only just come onto the pitch having been injured for the majority of the season before having to withdraw himself and giving Pools a man advantage.
Bennett at the back post
Bennett’s first start for Pools offered the side something different in Oates’ absence. The powerful frontman’s aerial presence and hold up play proved effective throughout the game before he was finally rewarded for his efforts with a fine finish following a corner to make it 2-0.
The strike effectively secured victory for Pools and took them nine points clear of Bennett’s parent club Stockport County in the league table.
His time at Pools may prove to be short-lived given his recall clause but he’s done his job superbly so far even if the loan itself seems increasingly bizarre.
If you want a Premier League comparison, it’s almost like Chelsea loaning Olivier Giroud to Manchester United – it just wouldn’t happen.
But Stockport’s loss (for now) is Hartlepool’s gain as they move top of the National League with a crucial win.
With supporters still not allowed into the stadium, cars racing down Clarence Road beeping in celebration of Pools’ going top of the table was the extent of the post-match fan celebrations at Victoria Park on Saturday afternoon.
The run continues
Challinor’s side have now beaten Notts County (twice), Stockport, Sutton and Torquay without conceding on this remarkable run they’ve been on since late December.
And it extends Pools’ lead over Notts to 12 points, meaning the Magpies would have to win at least four of their five games in hand in order to catch them.
Points on the board will always be more valuable than games in hand.
More importantly, it extends Pools’ position inside the play-off places to 17 points with seven games remaining. A play-off place now seems all but secure which anyone at Pools would have taken at the start of the season.
Anything that happens now – whether it be finishing top five, top three or somehow winning the league – should be seen as a bonus.
But hopefully, it’s more than just a few beeping cars celebrating outside The Vic come the end of the season.