Are Hartlepool United contenders or pretenders?
Hopefully, we’ll get an emphatic answer when Pools play their part two of their home double tomorrow night with Halifax Town.
Fingers crossed it will be better than this first instalment on Saturday when Pools fluffed their lines somewhat against fellow promotion candidates, Aldershot Town.
Gary Waddock’s side were hardly world-beaters, but they were a cut above Pools on a day to forget, moving fifth with a goal late in each half.
If Pools have genuine aspirations of an immediate return to the Football League, these are the matches they must win. In fact, they must win their home matches, full stop, starting with the visit of 17th-placed Halifax.
While Pools are hardly a million miles away from the promotion picture – just four points – they have got to start looking like contenders.
They were anything but against the Shots. There was no spark, no tempo, no creativity, no goals, no shots. None on target anyway.
And off-day is allowed. Unless you are a Man City you are not going to win by three or four goals every week, but Craig Harrison’s side look distinctly off colour.
Pools have not scored in the last three Saturdays and, more disturbingly, have barely looked like scoring.
They have had just three efforts on target in as many games with Barry Roche’s brilliant save from a Jonathan Franks’ volley in the FA Cup at Morecambe the only time they have ‘frightened’ the opposition goal. Pools did not have a single effort on goal against Aldershot and that it is a worrying statistic.
Keeper Lewis Ward certainly has not had to break his back or even break sweat.
The hosts have not even got the excuse that they did not have their shooting boots on – attempts off -target could be counted on one hand.
Harrison started with a 4-4-2 against Town with Jake Cassidy and Devante Rodney up front.
It was Cassidy’s first start since the win at Guiseley at the end of August.
The powerful front man put himself about, without particularly extending the away defence, though the 24-year-old will need time to get into his stride after a long absence.
It has to be said the service was not great. Franks aside, there was no real drive from the midfield drive and the full-backs rarely got forward, even after Pools went to a 4-1-4-1 for the second half.
Michael Woods, one of the inspirations of the side’s revival, has lost his starting spot, though the midfielder has been troubled by Achilles problem, and Lewis Hawkins , another player who provides energy, has fallen out of the match-day squad completely.
While Pools need a response from the players tomorrow night there too needs to be one from the manager and his coaches. They are going to have to get the best 11 players out there at 7.45pm, when they are going to have to devise a plan to get the best out of them.
Lifeless and direction-less Pools never got out of first gear against the Shots, who hardly sparkled themselves, though they did try to play football.
The first half produced little of note. Pools did win four corners, which produced little bar Nicky Deverdics being off target with a header from a Jonathan Franks delivery.
The only shot was an overhead attempt which cleared the Rink End bar by some distance from Rodney, who almost go on the Deverdics through ball but was offside anyway.
Aldershot seemed happy from the outset to merely go home with a point so they looked both surprised, and delirious, when they took a 44th-minute lead with a well-taken goal.
Pools appeared content to let Aldershot drive forward unchecked and when a cross came in from the right, Bernard Mensah, identified in SportMail on Friday as the away dangerman, guided a superb header past Loach.
After the break, Pools watched as Adam McDonnell flashed a shot just wide of Scott Loach’s left stick.
To the credit of the hosts,there was a rise in pressure with Deverdics seeing a header go wide from a Franks cross.
Another goal looked unlikely though there were two offside ‘goals’ to dissect.
Will Evans should have been fined a week’s wages for being caught offside from a free-kick, his 63rd-minute free header beating Loach.
Franks looked unlucky to be flagged soon after and that was the last moment of ‘excitement’. Ward did have to gather the ball at his near post in the 81st minute but it came via a low Kenton Richardson cross.
For all Pools’ ineptitude, there was always a chance while the score remained 1-0, especially with Harrison having sent on subs Rhys Oates, Jack Munns and Woods.
The goal, when it came in the 86th minute, belonged to the team in red who put 3,545 Poolies out of their misery and on the way to the exits.
With Pools ‘pushing’ for an equaliser, James Rowe sent fellow James, Kellerman, clear and the midfield produced a brilliant finish high into the home net from the edge of the area. It was a rare moment of quality in a contest which had promised much but failed to deliver any. Tomorrow needs to be different.