Hartlepool United 0-5 Torquay United verdict: Pools' big problems exposed in Halloween humbling live on BT Sport
and live on Freeview channel 276
It was a Halloween horror show for Pools, a living Victoria Park nightmare – the lines write themselves on October 31.
After being frustrated at home to bottom side Altrincham on Tuesday night, Dave Challinor named an unchanged starting 11 for the visit of the league leaders.
On the bench, Claudio Ofosu dropped out for the re-signed Luke Williams and 17-year-old Joe Grey remained favoured over Rhys Oates.
It was a tactical decision that highlighted Pools’ options going forward. Unfortunately, it’s a starkly different story at the other end.
A horrific start
Despite Torquay making the longest league trip in English football to be at The Vic on Saturday evening, they looked the sharper and more determined side from the off.
Within 15-minutes, a Danny Wright brace had the Gulls well in control and deservedly 2-0 to the good.
Things went from bad to worse for Pools shortly after as defender Timi Odusina was forced off with a hamstring injury.
And with no defensive cover on the bench, captain Ryan Donaldson had to slot in at right-back with Lewis Cass moving into the middle. It was a tactical change that put an already floundering defensive line into disarray for the remainder of the game.
Gary Liddle was the only injury concern going into the game, but now with Odusina facing troubles of his own, you have to worry for Pools’ defence.
The lack of defensive cover always threatened to be a major problem for Challinor's side – on Saturday that problem very much came to light.
Not one player was able to take charge and organise things at the back for Pools. Ryan Johnson and Cass are Pools’ sixth choice centre-back pairing, they were a bag of nerves throughout and bullied by the Torquay frontline.
Challinor will not risk pairing them together again for next week’s FA Cup first round trip to Salford City. Whether it means bringing a defender in or recalling Aaron Cunningham for his loan spell at Blyth Spartans, changes will be made at the back over the next week.
As half-time approached, Ben Whitfield pounced on a misplaced David Ferguson pass and Cass slip to slot in Torquay’s third of the game. The hosts had initiated self-destruct mode.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was planning to announce a second national lockdown.
The first lockdown infamously prompted the cancellation of the 2019-20 National League campaign. This time out, elite football has escaped the four-week lockdown cull as Pools’ fixtures will continue for the time being.
For years, football has been a cultural form of escapism from the politics and hostility of the real world. Now, the two have become unavoidably intertwined with club’s having their season’s dictated by Government regulations and relying on support packages to stay afloat.
Such is the bleak reality we now live in.
Things can only get better?
After conceding just three goals in six matches ahead of the Torquay match, Pools had now conceded three in the opening 45-minutes for the whole nation to see on live television.
Their unbeaten start to the season was effectively over, but surely a side who hadn’t lost a league game by more than a single goal in 2020 could show some sort of response after the break? Ultimately, they didn't.
Torquay started the second half as they ended the first. While Pools started to create some half chances through David Parkhouse and Luke Molyneux, it was to no avail as 11-minutes after the restart Wright headed in his third and Torquay’s fourth to put the result beyond any doubt.
Substitute Gary Warren completed the rout late on with a close-range finish after Pools failed to deal with the danger once again.
That confirmed Hartlepool’s heaviest ever National League defeat and biggest home defeat since they lost to Cambridge United by the same 5-0 scoreline whilst in League Two back in 2016.
All the positivity, hope and optimism built up during the opening weeks of the season had been smashed in one Torquay moulded hammer blow.
It may just be one result, and disappointing defeats happen, but it’s the manner of the loss, goals conceded and shortcomings exposed that make this one particularly worrying.
It was an embarrassing display from a side who supposedly have ambitions to challenge.
The bigger picture
Three weeks ago, Pools were flying high at the top of the division following three wins from their opening three matches. Three league games without a win since, topped off by Saturday’s 5-0 humbling, and the doubt is starting to set in.
Taking a step back a looking at the bigger picture, it's one defeat in seven matches in all competitions for Dave Challinor’s side so far this season. One defeat shouldn't derail all their hard work.
But also looking at the bigger picture moving forward, you notice a complete lack of cover at the back. Johnson, fresh from his extended contract, looked way out of his depth against arguably the first ‘top’ National League side Pools have faced this season.
Pools’ midfield, for all their technical ability, lack an enforcer to physically boss games. In attack, the side looks short of ideas and experience.
Last season, Hartlepool were good at taking points from the teams around them. If they want to be up challenging this time out, they need to at least be competing when they come up against the ‘Torquays’ of the division.
This was the first time Pools had had things not go their way this season and they completely capitulated.
They’ve now got two weeks before their next National League game to put things right.