Hartlepool United suffered yet another away day National League defeat at Aldershot in midweek – but this time there was something markedly different about it.
Recent losses against the likes of Halifax Town and Ebbsfleet United have been utterly abject.
But the performance at the EBB Stadium was full of life.
Matthew Bates’ men may not have come back from Hampshire with a deserved share of the spoils, but they did with a bit of pride intact.
So what was there to be positive about? Here’s FOUR key points to come from the 2-1 loss on Tuesday night.
*Shape & system
For the first time in a long while, Pools seemed to have a very clear shape.
Bates was brave with his selections on Tuesday. While the experiment at the back maybe did not work as well has had been hoped – Pools were still all over the shop under pressure – the system change and personnel switches further forward were inspired.
A midfield diamond seemed to get the best out of everyone in there, playing to strengths, even if it did leave the flanks a little susceptible.
And the gameplan drilled into the side by Bates was clearly popular, because, to a man, the players carried it out expertly.
Pools looked fresh. Maybe a new voice or two has had the impact those at the top had hoped it would. Only time will tell on that, mind.
*Performance of Rhys Oates
The one thing that can never be faulted when talking about Rhys Oates is his ability to chase every lost cause.
Quality, sometimes, is the thing that lets him down from time to time.
On Tuesday night, he had the lot.
An evening filled with fives and sixes and Oates was an eight, and was keeping a lid on it.
He was the catalyst to everything good Pools did in the final third.
One of the biggest criticisms of former manager Craig Harrison was his insistence on playing just one striker, even at home against some of the so-called lesser lights.
It was a tried and tested system for him.
But having had Jake Cassidy before, you’d have thought he’d know that one up top with little support was quite possibly the worst combination for his frontman.
In that formation he was isolated. And, despite his hold-up play being second to none at this level, on his day, Cassidy looked totally toothless feeding off scraps and unable to bring others into play.
Now, Tuesday was far from Cassidy’s best show for Pools. In fact, I would go as far to say it was one of his worst in a little while, but he had support.
The impressive Oates was given licence to roam in a more central role and it suited him to a T.
He was Cassidy’s legs. And, on a better day for the natural No 9, I think this pairing, with the late bursting runs of Conor Newton and Michael Woods in the mix, looks like it could be a blend made in heaven.
One of the worst things about Pools this season has been their midfield. Yes, they’ve not scored goals and, yes, they’ve been horrendous at the back.
But every single side put out seems to have a three, two or four in the middle who are much of a muchness.
For the first time this season, Pools’ midfield had spark and dynamism.
I think Newton played a big role in that.
Long may it continue.