Hartlepool analysis: If they didn’t already, Pools now know they’re in a National League battle

Ryan Donaldson sends a header wide on Saturday.
Ryan Donaldson sends a header wide on Saturday.

Welcome to the National League. No one said it was going to be easy. No one expected a walk in the park.

And 90 minutes into their fifth tier campaign, Pools now know that just like many experts predicted, life outside the Football League is going to be a slog.

If Pools needed a wake-up call after the devastation of relegation, they got it on Saturday.

They might be a big fish in a seemingly small pond but fall short even for just one moment and there are plenty of teams ready to oblige and take Pools’ scalp.

Padraig Amond called it, in the aftermath of the drop. He said this division is a “Football League club graveyard”.

Far too many teams with big names, good crowds and league facilities have dropped from the fourth tier and stuck.

Dover, courtesy of a 29th minute Jamie Allen striker, proved that there’s no room for egos at this level and Pools will have to realise that, if they are to bounce back at this first time of asking, as the club, the owners, the manager and the town so badly crave.

Pools handed debuts to five of their summer signings from the off at the Vic, with Jack Munns, Conor Newton, Scott Loach, Ryan Donaldson and Louis Laing all making their bow.

And while there has been much talk of formations and systems, Harrison went for a very fluid looking 4-3-3. It was not to stay that way for too long.

Lewis Hawkins and Michael Woods were given licence to roam from the middle with Munns doing likewise on the left. Newton provided the shield in which the back four would come to rely.

Liam Donnelly got a rather unceremonious welcome to the division, given a torrid afternoon by Allen, who needed no second invite to open the scoring.

Some poor defending, typified by Scott Harrison seeming to play the Whites frontline on side with a slow reaction to a second ball, allowed Allen the chance to tuck home from close range.

One of the major problems of the last campaign was that Pools looked soft and ill-equipped for the physicality of life in the fourth tier. It seems that Dover, known for their physical approach, were keen to test that resolve.

And at the break Pools went in behind - deservedly so. In their first 45 minutes at this level they did very little to suggest they warranted anything at all out of the game. And, to be fair, a nervy if remarkably impressively sized Victoria Park crowd knew it.

The second-half brought hope.

And credit must be given the brave decision by manager Harrison to take off the ineffective Munns, suspect in the build-up to the Dover goal by his absence, and Michael Woods and replace then with Rhys Oates and Jake Cassidy, reverting to a much more conventional 4-4-2.

It gave Pools more shape and purpose but again did little to create clear cut openings worthy of getting something out of the game.

Oates went close with a powerful drive, so too Newton, but at the other end the Whites created chances at will, as Pools, pushing for a leveller, left spaces at the back.

When the final whistle went few could complain with the result. The visitors deserved their three points.

And in fairness, while there will be negativity about the game and performance, maybe this was exactly what Pools needed.

Harrison’s men are under no illusions now. They’re going to have to fight tooth and nail for every point at this level.