Craig Hope on HUFC relegation: Sadly, Pools had long since lost their way

Antony Sweeney shouts at his fellow players against Oldham Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID
Antony Sweeney shouts at his fellow players against Oldham Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID

LOSERS, whether dignified or disgraced, are still losers.

And, last night, Hartlepool United lost their League One status.

That they delayed demotion until this relatively late juncture matters not.

It is not a source of celebration.

The bloodied boxer floored cold on the canvas would be foolish to later offer – “At least I got a couple of punches in”.

A badly beaten boxer he would remain.

And so it would prove folly should any from within Pools dare to venture – “We were written off so many times, at least we made a fight of it”.

For ultimately, the doomsayers were correct – Pools were not good enough to remain in the third tier.

Yes, there has been the occasional flirtation with survival – well, February – but the bulk of the season has been abject, a dispiriting grind toward the inevitable.

For Pools have now resided in the drop zone for exactly 200 days – and that paints its own pitiable picture.

When John Hughes took charge in mid November his team were nine points from safety.

Today, that gap has been narrowed to eight.

They have, quite literally, made a point.

February was, of course, fantastic, four wins and two draws seeing Hughes rightly bestowed with a monthly accolade.

But to confine resistance to a solitary month was unacceptable – how’s about a bit of fight in September? December? Or even March?

Four, wonderful weeks apart, this season has been an unmitigated disaster, actions both on and off the park contributing to the demise.

Relegation is deserved.

So where to start in sifting through the wreckage?

It extends further but May of last year is perhaps as significant a period as any.

Pools, under the care of Neale Cooper and having hobbled towards the campaign’s closure with just two wins from their final 13 matches, were, on home soil, the division’s lowest scorers.

They desperately needed a striker, without exception one with a penchant for goals – not necessarily a prerequisite given previous acquisitions, remember Colin Nish, Armann Bjornsson and Denis Behan?

In July, after a six-week wait for his decision, the club signed Steve Howard, a move Cooper would later regret, by which point his tenure had expired.

But the problem – goals – remained.

Pools had a measly 13 of them when Hughes arrived, just one of which belonged to their “marquee” summer signing, as he had been billed.

Now that is not to deride Howard himself, for it is the scouting and decision to invest which deserve criticism.

In Hughes’ first nine hours at the helm just two more goals were added, talk of January reinforcement intensifying.

Hughes, indeed, welcomed such dialogue with reporters.

There were trialists, there were even departures in the case of Paul Murray and Nish, but the squad, in urgent need of firepower, remained alarmingly low on ammo.

Tension, we understand, grew behind the scenes.

Hughes, having talked of making a “statement” with his first signing, was frustrated, his players equally embittered that the goal-scoring burden remained with them.

And so, with their third-tier status in grave danger, it was a point of bewilderment that Pools did not even attempt to resuscitate their lifeless offence.

Then came February, January’s failures forgotten.

But the attacking shortcomings remained, lurking beneath the surface.

They were soon to loom large.

Twelve hours, 42 minutes and 28 seconds was the point at which the clock stopped on a scoreless stretch which, without doubt, had eroded any hope of survival.

Recent wins against Bury and Tranmere Rovers simply suspended their demotion.

If anything, they offered a painful reminder as to the under-employed talents of Luke James.

During just his second league start of the season at Tranmere on Saturday he became the only Pools player in recent memory to be afforded a standing ovation by the home support.

For the large part of that ruinous goal-drought he had spectated from the dugout.

But to pin reason for relegation at the belated inclusion of the teenager would be unwise, it can merely be filed under “what if?”.

No, it is those on the pitch who have to accept blame, regardless of managerial misdeeds or lack of investment.

The players, as many have admitted, have not been good enough.

If ever an opening day has produced a sense of foreboding then Pools’ humiliation at Crewe Alexandra was it.

Trounced 5-0, it was a scoreline and spineless performance which was to be replicated at Preston North End five weeks later.

Then again in Hughes’ first game in charge against Coventry City – “Welcome to Hartlepool” the banner headline in SportMail following that collapse.

Do not forget, either, that the Coventry embarrassment came just two weeks after the nadir of the entire, sorry season – a 6-1 drubbing at League Two Chesterfield in the FA Cup.

In each of those atrocious outings the personnel had been largely unaltered.

And so to Oldham Athletic last month – the match which would define the campaign.

It did that alright, Hughes later accusing his players of “letting the club down” following a 3-0 loss.

Chief executive Russ Green agreed it was the moment which accelerated Pools’ ill-fated journey towards the precipice.

They were as good as relegated that night, only good fortune prolonging their stay.

For from the outset back in August this group have been destined for the drop.

They began the season as losers and that is how they have ended it.