DEFENSIVE lynchpin Jack Baldwin says his team-mates have to be right on their game as competition for places intensifies.
Hartlepool United are unbeaten in three games after consecutive victories over Mansfield Town, Sheffield United and Exeter City and confidence, and competition to be named in the starting XI, is high.
The 20-year-old defender returned to the side for the convincing 3-0 win over Exeter on Saturday after missing the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win over the Blades through suspension and he opened the scoring courtesy of a glancing header.
The week before, versatile Baldwin played centre midfield at Mansfield, with Sam Collins slotting into central defence but the veteran defender picked up a slight knee injury which meant he missed the cup victory, so Neil Austin moved into the middle and Darren Holden slotted in at left-back.
There was further defensive changes at the weekend as Baldwin returned to the side and Holden dropped to the bench but Pools recorded their second clean sheet on the bounce.
Baldwin said the players are now going into matches conscious that they have to cement their place in the team and pointed to the likes of Jonathan Franks, who has been sat on the bench in recent games, as a sign of the quality available to come on.
Antony Sweeney and teenage prodigy Bradley Walker were also named among the substitutes at Exeter and Baldwin says there is “real competition” for places.
Baldwin said: “Sam came in at Mansfield and played centre-half and I stepped into the middle and he had a terrific game there.
“But a slight injury kept him out of the Sheffield United game but then Neil Austin can just step in there and is strong anywhere across the back and Daz [Holden] also came in and did well, so there is competition all over the pitch.
“You have Franks sitting on the bench, he is a great player, and Nialle [Rodney] as well is a strong player up top.
“So there is competition and that can only help.
“The lads go out each week thinking there is competition and you need to nail your place down each week.”
Baldwin is excited by Pools’ current run of form and said it is thrilling, from a defensive viewpoint, watching the team’s pacy forwards break towards the opposition’s final third.
Goals from Luke James and Jack Compton helped secure the 3-0 win on Saturday, while Baldwin’s flatmate James Poole and Andy Monkhouse also impressed.
Baldwin said: “One of the biggest attributes at the moment is the pace up front, with Poolie just off the striker and Luke again getting clapped off by the fans at Exeter.
“He has been outstanding this season.
“Monks and Compo are both terrific players and sometimes when we are at the back, watching them break, it is a nice thing to watch.
“Poolie is loving it in that position.
“I think that is his position and where he thrives most.
“When his confidence is high, like his goal at Sheffield United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, he will try anything and he pulls most of them off as well.”