Hartlepool United 1-1 Dover report and analysis: 17 points dropped from winning positions, and counting
Hartlepool United are still yet to claim those elusive consecutive victories under Dave Challinor as a stoppage time equaliser at Dover Athletic denied them three points.
Pools arrived at the Crabble Athletic Ground fresh from their battling 2-1 win over Eastleigh at Victoria Park on Tuesday night knowing that another win would take them up to 11th and within three points of the final play-off place.
But back to back wins is something the side are yet to achieve since Dave Challinor took charge back in November.
As was the case on Tuesday night, Saturday’s match was the only one taking place in the National League and with that both Pools and Dover had an opportunity to make ground on the top seven.
The sides went into the game level on points knowing that a draw wouldn’t really do either of them any favours as they looked to break into the top half.
Challinor made one forced change from the previous match as defender Myles Anderson made his first start since August in place of the injured Michael Raynes.
And the match got off to a fairly busy albeit scrappy start as both sides fought to take control.
Hartlepool found their feet fairly quickly and took the lead after 22-minutes when a dangerous floated ball into the box from the impressive Gavan Holohan was headed into his own net by Dover defender Kevin Lokko.
It was a finish that the lurking Nicke Kabamba would have been proud of as the Pools striker jokingly tried to claim the opener by tapping his forehead in celebration.
From that point on, the away side were fairly comfortable in the game despite inviting pressure onto themselves.
The new look centre-back pairing of Anderson and Gary Liddle dealt with almost everything that came their way with confidence and conviction.
Neither player was at the club a month ago, and for the best part of 90-minutes, it was as solid as Pools have looked defensively since Challinor took charge.
Anderson may be playing out of necessity but the loan spell at Aldershot and timing of his return seems to have worked out nicely as he slotted into the team well.
For the most part, Liddle has been impressive since arriving on loan from Walsall. It's a deal that expires in two matches time so Pools should do what they can to get that extended because the 33-year-old has helped address the side's defensive issues somewhat.
Throughout the game, there was never really a shaky moment for Pools. The closest thing to a ‘heart in the mouth incident’ was when Liddle’s header back to Mitch Beeney was almost intercepted but otherwise they looked well on course to claim another three points.
That was until the first minute of stoppage time when a quick exchange in play from Dover took advantage of a rare moment of disorganisation at the back from Hartlepool as substitute Nassim L'Ghoul rolled the ball past Beeney who slipped in an attempt to stop the strike.
And 1-1 is how it finished as United dropped two points once again as their wait for back-to-back victories goes on.
Hartlepool looked comfortable in the game in the first half without taking full advantage. Missed chances from Ryan Donaldson and Kabamba prevented them from extending their lead further.
Second half was slightly different as Dover started to apply the pressure in search of an equaliser but the defence remained resolute.
After the break, it all became a bit too negative from the visitors as their ‘hang on’ mentality kicked in rather than taking the game to Dover as they had done in the opening 45-minutes.
If the opening 35 matches of the 2019-20 campaign are anything to go by, Pools aren’t a ‘hang on’ team.
Pools have scored the opening goal in 21 matches this season yet have failed to win 10 of them. It’s a record that is as frustrating if nothing else as the first goal should set the tone and provide a platform to go on and win the game.
But such is the case with Hartlepool, if they take the lead you may as well flip a coin to find out if they’ll come away with three points.
Saturday’s game is yet another match that Pools should have won and another in a long line of ‘what ifs’ we’ll be asking at the end of the season should they fall short of the top seven.
There are few things worse in football than a late equaliser, especially when it’s avoidable.
The decision to take off Kabamba for Aaron Cunningham in the 90th-minute prompted a late and in hindsight unnecessary tactical reshuffle from Pools who were now playing with a back five.
And suddenly the defence who had been so organised and resolute for almost the entire game were now at sixes and sevens as Cunningham and Liddle both went for the same ball and in turn allowed L'Ghoul to find space around the back and slip the ball into the bottom right corner.
This failure to capitalise and ultimately put a run together has been the story of Hartlepool’s spell in the National League so far. They’re a nearly team who flirt with potential success before returning to their natural habitat of mid-table mediocrity.
Have we seen enough under Challinor to suggest things will be different? Possibly not this season, but with every new campaign there’s hope.
The fact of the matter is it’s five wins from 15 since the former AFC Fylde boss took over. Craig Hignett was sacked after opening the season with a very similar record.
Hignett’s dismissal hasn’t been completely vindicated as of yet though Raj Singh said in his programme column last week: “the general belief is that we are definitely making big strides in the right direction."
With Challinor, there’s potential should he be able to assemble a squad of his players rather than make do with what he’s got.
The phrase ‘serial losers’ in reference to certain members of the Pools squad is a strong one being used by several fans to explain the shortcomings of the team.
It may be a bit harsh on the players but it does hint at a mentality issue that is becoming more evident as the games go by.
Time and time again, we’re seeing the side throw away leads in avoidable ways and any suggestion of contentedness with a point at Dover is perhaps indicative of the problem. They lack a winning mentality.
The point does see the side move into the top half of the table for the first time in a while but that’s an incredibly minor positive in what could have been a turning point in the season.
And there’s nothing like conceding in the last minute to make that 340-mile journey home seem just that bit longer.