Dominic Scurr's verdict: Hartlepool United's contrast against Torquay United epitomises the progress Dave Challinor's side are making in the National League
What a way to pick up your first away win of 2021.
Hartlepool United made the 365-mile journey down to the English Riviera to face a Torquay United side who had sat top of the fifth tier table since October.
Pools had won just one of their last nine games away from Victoria Park but knew three points at Plainmoor would take them level on points with The Gulls, who hadn’t been in the best form themselves on home turf.
But all those away day frustrations were quickly forgotten about as Luke Molyneux’s early strike proved to be enough to separate the sides as Dave Challinor’s side claimed one of their biggest 1-0 victories of the campaign – and there’s been a few.
Fellow promotion contenders Sutton United and Notts County have also been on the receiving end of a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Hartlepool.
Defensive organisation, tenacity and resoluteness are becoming staples of these Pools performances that only bode well going into the business end of the season, as only goal difference denies them a place at the summit of non-league football.
Admittedly, Torquay still have a game in hand and second place Sutton have three so are effectively the ones in the driving seat at this stage.
But it still shows how much progress has been made over the course of the season at Hartlepool.
The side got a real lesson in the reverse fixture against Torquay at Victoria Park on Halloween. That 5-0 defeat is Pools’ heaviest in the National League and was undoubtedly in the back of everyone’s minds going into Saturday’s game.
After a frustrating draw at Halifax Town, Pools were left doubting the fitness of key defenders Jamie Sterry and Ryan Johnson. Thankfully, the pair travelled down and were declared fit to play.
Midfielder Tom White also made the journey despite his short-term loan from Blackburn Rovers expiring ahead of the game. An extension couldn’t be agreed in time so the 23-year-old missed out but Pools remain hopeful of getting something sorted this coming week.
New defensive addition Jake Cooper was also with the team following his arrival on loan from Rotherham United, but didn’t make the squad.
The return of Rhys Oates to the starting line-up in place of midfielder Gavan Holohan brought a formation change to 3-4-3 with Oates and Molyneux playing either side of Luke Armstrong in attack.
The match itself proved to be a lively affair from the start. Torquay, as they would have expected, quickly knew they were up against a completely different beast to what they faced back in October.
And just before the quarter-hour mark, Pools found a breakthrough. Armstrong picked up the ball and slid a well-weighted through pass to Molyneux who composed himself well before slotting past the onrushing Shaun MacDonald to make it 1-0.
Oates had a couple of half chances to double the visitors’ advantage shortly before Torquay started to push bodies forward in search of an equaliser.
The Gulls had a couple of chances with new signing Scott Boden seeing a deflected effort go just wide following a rare mistake by Nicky Featherstone.
But Pools continued to defend well and limit Torquay to few shots on goal with Ben Killip having just one simple save to make in the opening 45-minutes as the sides went in at 1-0.
The second half would see Pools manage the game brilliantly as they further restricted the most potent attack in the National League despite the hosts’ territorial advantage.
Hartlepool remained a threat at the other end with Oates and Molyneux both coming close and Johnson having an effort cleared off the line.
In the final moments, Torquay had their best chance of the match as Billy Waters’ close range effort was clawed away by a diving Killip to keep his and Hartlepool’s clean sheet intact.
And that was that, a huge three points for Pools and finally another away win.
Pools’ last three away victories have come months apart but have all followed the same formula of starting well, getting the first goal and defending resolutely.
Saturday’s win means Pools have beaten Torquay, Sutton, Notts County and Stockport in their last 13 matches – all without conceding.
They weren’t anything flash at Plainmoor (Jamie Sterry’s roulette and Luke Molyneux’s nutmegs aside), but they didn’t need to be. They were just a well-drilled and well organised outfit from front to back, everything they weren’t back on Halloween.
The return of Gary Liddle to the side cannot be understated. The fact Pools have kept four clean sheets in the six games Liddle has featured in since coming back is no coincidence.
As good as Lewis Cass, Johnson and Timi Odusina have been at times, experience in defence is priceless and the 34-year-old just keeps things calm and organised throughout.
Sterry’s influence is also massive and the fact he was risked by Challinor for such an important game just shows how crucial he is. Despite being a doubt 24-hours before kick-off, the 25-year-old played the full 90-minutes with another excellent display at both ends.
Torquay were 14 points clear of Pools back in December but that gap has now been closed completely following Saturday’s result.
Challinor’s side have won 14 of their 26 league games this season, the same as they managed during the entirety of 2019-20.
Previously, for every step forward Pools made, they made two steps back. Under Challinor it’s the opposite as they’ve shown an ability to bounce back from every set-back they’ve suffered.
The side have won nine and drawn two of their last 13 games and they’re hitting form at just the right time.
On the weekend that marks a year without supporters at Victoria Park, it’s uplifting to see Pools mount not just a play-off challenge but a title charge this season, even if it has felt like a bit of a blur.
But it really, really, really could happen.