Comment: Craig Hignett's biggest challenge as Hartlepool United manager this season
Craig Hignett faces countless challenges as Hartlepool United manager – though his biggest one is somewhat self-inflicted.
The Pools boss was well backed by chairman Raj Singh over the summer as he brought in eight new faces and handed new contracts to a further six players. This brought the senior squad size to a substantial 24 in number.
Having so many individuals to choose from in the National League is somewhat unorthodox as it’s only one fewer than the squad limit for Premier League sides.
Despite some disappointing results, it’s worked relatively well so far for Pools as their early season injury troubles have been comfortably combated without Hignett having to sacrifice his style of play or approach to matches.
A lot of talk has been about the competition for places in the side and the players standing up to the challenge in order to earn and maintain their place.
But in this lies Hignett’s toughest job as a manager.
There are no obvious fringe players in the outfield squad of 22. All of them will want and almost expect to be involved week-in, week-out, yet half are guaranteed to be disappointed with five on the bench and seven not even making the matchday squad.
While it’s good to have plenty of solid options to choose from, the very nature of the United squad presents a double-edged sword scenario for the manager.
The time and attention Hignett will have to give to managing his players who aren’t playing will likely outweigh that given to those that are starting. In effect, he’ll almost have to manage two squads simultaneously.
Theoretically, those who are playing should look after themselves while those who aren’t will simply have to get their head down or look elsewhere. It could be beneficial to loan out a couple of players to help get things down to a more manageable size.
Young goalkeepers Ryan Catterick and Brad Young are the only loan departures so far with the pair joining Northern League sides Guisborough Town and Billingham Town respectively.
For the most part, this is Hignett’s squad so managing 22 outfield players is his decision and a challenge he’s prepared to embrace. The important thing will be ensuring nobody feels left out, though looking at the squad, that is going to be very difficult.
Of the 14 players signed and re-signed in the summer, eight were midfielders, which presents a headache in itself.
Nicky Feathersone, Gavan Holohan and Liam Noble, Ryan Donaldson and Luke Williams all agreed new deals in the summer. In addition, Jason Kennedy, Gus Mafuta and Luke Molyneux were brought in to further bolster the side.
Adam Bale and Josh Hawkes were also tied down for the new season after options to extend their contracts were taken up by the club.
Although Williams, Molyneux and Hawkes are more advanced midfielders by trade, Pools are rarely going to play more than four of those 10 players at any one time.
Given Hignett’s budget, retaining Featherstone, Holohan and Noble before bringing in Kennedy and Mafuta in particular has risked bordering on the excessive. All five players bring their own qualities to the side though they are all seasoned pros who will expect to be playing regularly.
The injury issues of Williams, Donaldson, Molyneux and Hawkes have made this potential midfield conundrum less glaring so far. But once everyone is fully fit, we’re going to see some big names left out entirely.
Looking at the squad, goalkeeper Ben Killip is realistically the only certain starter. This leaves 22 players fighting for 10 places in the side.
Likely starters would include players such as Molyneux, once fit, and Mafuta, who has impressed following his summer arrival from Salford City.
Fraser Kerr and Michael Raynes seem to be the preferred centre-back pairing but Aaron Cunningham and Myles Anderson will provide some very interesting competition given the latter’s return from injury.
As captain, there will be some expectation for Donaldson to start most matches but it's by no means a guarantee.
Ignoring injuries, Cunningham and Bale are the only two fit members of the squad who are yet to feature so far in the National League this season.
It’s a cliché but footballers want to play football and it’s how they react to not playing that will be significant for Pools as Hignett won’t put up with any disruptive individuals.
He’ll want his players to be disappointed – if they’re not then that’s worrying in itself – but disappointed in a way that gives them the drive to raise the bar and earn their place in the side.
And in that could lie the crux of Pools’ success this season. If everyone is pulling in the right direction and competing for places in a way that improves the team as a whole, the outcome will almost certainly be a positive one.
But that is far easier said than done and Hignett’s man-management skills are going to be imperative over the course of the campaign.
The United boss admitted his current crop of players is the strongest he’s managed during his time at the club.
Now it’s up to everyone to put that strength into action.