Hartlepool United 1-0 Woking verdict: Luke Williams 'debut', Ben Killip wonder save and Rhys Oates takes his chance as Pools continue promotion push
Another home win, clean sheet, nine unbeaten, second in the table and a long-awaited return – all in all a good afternoon for Hartlepool United.
After three straight draws, Pools got back to winning ways with a 1-0 victory over Woking at Victoria Park on Saturday afternoon.
Rhys Oates’ 80th-minute strike proved to be the difference between the sides despite the hosts creating numerous chances to take the lead in the first half.
The game also marked Luke Williams’ full National League debut for the club after almost three years as he took a big step in putting his injury nightmare behind him.
Here are the big talking points from an eventful afternoon at The Vic…
An attacking formation for Pools
After starting with three centre-backs in Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw at King’s Lynn, manager Dave Challinor opted to change things up as Pools switched to a 4-2-3-1 set-up.
Defender Jake Cooper dropped out in place of Oates, who was initially deployed on the left wing before later switching to the right.
Williams also came into the side in place of Mark Shelton to make his first league start in over 1,400 days.
With Woking playing former Hartlepool man Niko Muir as a lone striker, it was a sensible decision to avoid playing three centre-backs once again and helped Pools take control of the game and create chances early on.
David Ferguson and Jamie Sterry retained their attacking threat as full-backs with the former putting in a number of excellent deliveries from the right side.
Oates came close on a number of occasions in the first half and Luke Molyneux struck the crossbar with a first timed effort from 15-yards as the score remained goalless.
Luke Williams makes his long awaited return
Going four years without starting a league game is a long time, almost a third of a career for some players.
Challinor had hinted at a possible start for Williams in his pre-match press conference on Friday morning yet when the teamsheet was published at 2pm on Saturday afternoon, the midfielder’s inclusion still came as something of a surprise.
The National League pulls no punches and going into a crucial game, the creative reigns reins had been handed to someone who had barely kicked a ball in a competitive setting in recent years.
But Williams’ technical ability is without question and it was apparent from the off that the midfielder wasn’t using the game to work on his fitness or make up the numbers, he was there to make a difference.
An early sliding tackle won possession back for Pools and that set the tone for the rest of Williams’ first half display.
He didn’t look like a player who hadn’t started a league match in four years, he was getting on the ball with confidence, gliding past players and looking to make things happen.
Then he had an opportunity to complete the fairy tale.
A great turn of pace down the right from Jamie Sterry set-up Williams perfectly inside the penalty area. He saw the headlines, ‘goal’ was in his mind but he just snatched at the opportunity and dragged the shot wide of the left post from 10-yards. What a moment that would have been.
Still, the 27-year-old wasn’t deterred and remained a threat until half-time. Woking got into the game more after the break as Williams’ influence waned before his 70th-minute withdrawal.
All in all, it was a hugely encouraging outing from the midfielder who got through the game without any issues. And as he said afterwards, ‘the bubble wrap is off,’ and he’s here to try and make a difference in Pools final dozen matches of the campaign.
Ben Killip keeps Woking at bay
Pools could have been out of sight at half time with the chances the likes of Molyneux, Oates and Williams had in the opening 45.
But Woking looked significantly more dangerous after the break and would have taken the lead had it not been for the goalkeeping heroics of Ben Killip.
The Pools number one has been in solid form so far this season but recent errors at Altrincham and King’s Lynn Town had cast doubts over the goalkeeper.
But it was a case of going from ‘villain to hero’, as Challinor put it, as Killip dived to claw away Sam Ashford’s point blank header and keep the score at 0-0.
His reactions were impeccable as it looked a certain goal.
It would prove a key moment in the game as Killip kept his seventh clean sheet in his last 12 National League matches.
And fortunately, the side would do the business at the other end to secure the three points.
Rhys Oates backs himself and Pools win it
With 10-minutes remaining, Mark Shelton slid a neat ball through for Oates inside the Woking penalty area.
The Pools forward had the angle against him and a cross to Armstrong in the middle would have been the safer option. But this time he backed himself and drilled the ball emphatically into the bottom left corner of the goal via the post to give Pools a late but deserved lead.
Since Pools were beaten 3-0 by Woking in December, the side have lost just two of their last 17 matches with Oates scoring all seven of his league goals in that time (although the National League records still incorrectly show it as eight).
The 26-year-old is often overlooked as a goalscorer but his record of seven goals in his last 13 starts is the best of any Pools player at the moment.
Most importantly, the goal proved to be the winner as Pools consolidated their second place position in the table.
They now sit 10 points inside the play-off places, six points ahead of fourth and four behind leaders Sutton United with 12 games to go.
This is Hartlepool’s chance, they’ve got a dozen games to take it.