Hartlepool United players and manager analyse the competition in the squad
The competition in the Hartlepool United squad has been a much discussed topic ahead of the new National League season.
With eight senior defenders, 10 midfielders and four forwards to choose from, manager Craig Hignett could have his work cut out when it comes to selecting a starting line-up.
“Competition is massive for everyone,” said the Pools boss.
“I was adamant the standards were going to go up and the players we’ve brought in lift those standards.
“There’s players in the squad that need to step up now because the competition for players is massive because if you look at the squad now, picking my starting XI is going to be tough.
“What you’ll find is that you’ll get people who step up and raise their standard or people who find it too much and they wilt.
“I’m sure we’ll get one or two of them as the standards go up because competition for places is massive at any football club if you want to be successful.”
You will be hard pressed to find a more hotly contested position in professional football than the central-midfield spots at Pools this season. As many as 10 players will be competing for the same two or three places in the side.
One of those players will be last season’s top scorer Liam Noble – who is relishing the challenge of having to earn his place in the side.
“It’s exactly what you need as a player because if you’re not good enough then you won’t be playing and might have to look elsewhere or fight to get back into the team,” he said.
“So it’s down to you to have confidence in your own ability to get into the team so it’s always good to have competition.
“The past month has just been focusing on fitness really, we’ve had one eye on the league matches but we’ve just been preparing to get as fit as possible and show the gaffer what you can do in games and training so that you’re in the team come the first day of the season.
“If you get the shirt for the first game, it’s yours to keep then and lads are going to be behind you trying to get it off you and if you don’t get it lads are going to be behind you trying hard to get it so it’s good competition and there’s a lot of midfielders so we have to be on the ball every day really, there’s no days off.
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“If you’re not in the team, you need to get your head down to get back in the team or else you’ll have to look elsewhere.”
The summer arrival of veteran midfielder Jason Kennedy only added to the competition in the middle of the park but it’s something the new midfielder feels will help the squad as a whole given the variety of options to choose from.
“There’s a great mixture of different sorts of players so there’s going to be a lot of competition but as a player you’ve got to stand up to that and do well,” Kennedy told the club website.
“As long as we’re getting results, I’m sure we’ll back each other to push on and get us up to the top of the league.”
Forward Luke James won’t have quite as much competition as the likes of Noble and Kennedy but feels the quality throughout the team has created a ‘buzz’ around the club.
“I’ve been here a few times and sometimes pre-season can be a bit slow but I think the competition for places is probably the key factor in that because you can’t rest on your laurels,” he revealed.
“The most important thing is that we’ve signed quality which can only be good for us. Gus [Mafuta] is a player with a winning mentality and we have winners in the dressing room.
“Just going off this pre-season, it feels good, there’s a buzz around the place. There are so many options, we could play two different XIs and both would be very strong so it’s up to us to fight for that shirt.”
Hignett has been keen to rotate his squad throughout pre-season with almost every member of the 23-man senior squad playing at least one full friendly match.
And that’s something the manager will continue to implement over the course of the competitive season as he combats his side’s early injury issues.
Luke Molyneux (foot), Josh Hawkes (hamstring) and Ryan Donaldson (calf) are set to miss the opening games of the season while Myles Anderson (mouth) and Luke Williams (knee) have seen their game-time limited in pre-season as they near full returns.
“What the competition does is make sure that those who have the shirts are on the top of their game,” Hignett said.
“If they drop off then they’ll be out straight away and someone else will come in. There are a lot of games so I’m sure we’ll have to [rotate]
“In the first six weeks I think we play a quarter of the season, that’s a challenge in itself but I have enough in the squad to not worry about it if they all stay fit.”