From promotion joy to pre-season frustration – has this summer been a missed opportunity for Hartlepool United ahead of League Two return?
In a week and a half, Hartlepool United will officially make their League Two return at home to Crawley Town.
August 7 is the day we’re all eagerly anticipating – after all it’s been four torturous years since Pools last played in the Football League.
A lot of hard work, dedication and tough decisions have got Pools back to this point, most notably from manager Dave Challinor and chairman Raj Singh.
But since securing promotion via the National League play-offs on June 20, the past month has unfolded at a lethargic pace.
From the moment Brad James saved Matt Buse’s penalty at Ashton Gate, Pools knew they had less than seven weeks to prepare for life back in League Two – no time at all considering all but five senior first team players were out of contract.
Over a month later, Pools have the majority of their squad tied down. Most players who were offered new deals agreed to stay at the club with two-year contracts for Nicky Featherstone and Jamie Sterry certainly looking like smart pieces of business.
But at the same time, Pools have let Rhys Oates, Ryan Johnson, Lewis Cass and Luke Armstrong slip through their net after great individual seasons at Victoria Park.
Pools had a very obvious ‘to do list’ that would help prepare them for life back in League Two. As it stands, they’re yet to really tick any significant boxes and that promotion positivity has quickly turned into pre-season wariness.
Singh stated publicly that one of his top priorities this summer would be tying Challinor down to a new contract with his current deal set to expire next summer. That has been put on the back burner for the time being with Challinor not willing to commit just yet with player recruitment the main focus.
But with just four confirmed signings in Neill Byrne, Reagan Ogle, Martin Smith and Fela Olomola, it’s done little to inspire any further confidence in Pools’ squad ahead of the new season.
Ultimately, Pools have lost 32 goals from their attack following the departures of Oates and Armstrong and the current squad is arguably weaker than the one that finished fourth in the National League last season.
There is still well over a month of the summer transfer window remaining so it would be unfair not to mention incredibly hasty to write of Pools’ squad over a week before a competitive ball has been kicked, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of work to do.
Convincing pre-season defeats against National League North opposition have also gone some way to taking the wind out of Pools’ promotion sails this month.
The club are on the back of one of their best seasons in recent memory, this should be a time for hope and optimism ahead of the new season. In many ways it is, but there was a chance to really harness the feel good factor of promotion yet it now risks slipping away.
Any excitement ahead of the new season is largely because it’s League Two and fans are back in full force rather than any club developments. Pools’ lack of action since securing promotion has only caused trepidation.
Instead of striking while the iron is hot, they have let it cool and with it lost some of the momentum that had been built over the previous campaign.
It’s easier said than done but tying players and the manager down quickly, releasing the new kit and making a couple of marquee signings would have helped everyone get pumped for the new season and it would have been reflected in bumper season ticket sales. But we haven’t seen any of that.
Instead it’s been a bit of a damp squib so far. We’re nowhere near the panic station stage just yet but this summer was a chance for Pools to make a real statement of intent and show that they’re a team to be feared on their Football League return.
As it stands, teams will be seeing Pools for the newly promoted side they are rather than the awoken giant who mean business that they could be.
Of course budgets are tight, but the club seem to be recruiting almost as if it’s another season in the National League, looking to maintain the squad rather than improve it significantly.
It could well be enough to compete in League Two, but is it worth the risk?
Challinor has been backed during his tenure at Pools and that will need to continue and then some between now and transfer deadline day on August 31.
They are crying out for a marquee signing, a goalscorer who you can say with a certain degree of confidence will be able to find the net consistently in League Two.
In addition, the side still need a couple more forward players, plus a goalkeeper. And based on what we’ve seen so far in pre-season, notable additions in midfield and defence wouldn't go amiss either.
Pools will be running a squad of around 22 senior players this season so additions before August 7 are as expected as they are necessary.
But once the transfer window is shut, that’s them set until January – they can’t afford to take chances.
Last season, Challinor had the luxury of fixing any shortcomings in the side at any point in the season due to the lack of a National League transfer window.
When they needed a striker they signed Armstrong, when they needed a right-back they got Sterry – the list goes on.
Had Pools been under transfer window constraints, they may well have struggled to make the play-offs, let alone win them.
It’s going to be a learning curve for Challinor in his first taste of EFL management.
While pre-season can be brushed under the carpet, the next month or so will go a long way to determining Pools’ season as they look to make their return count.