Keith Watson return a boost - but Hartlepool United loan man will have to fight to start

Keith Watson. Picture by Gareth Williams/AHPIX.com
Keith Watson. Picture by Gareth Williams/AHPIX.com

Hartlepool United boss Craig Harrison has hailed the return of Keith Watson to full fitness, after almost four months out.

But despite the defender’s obvious quality, Harrison says he will not walk straight back into the Pools starting XI.

Watson returned from injury in the dying embers of the Boxing Day draw with Gateshead - a game in which having gone in front, Pools, down to 10 men, had to come from behind to salvage a point.

It was a shock to see him named on the bench, so to see him get gametime came as an even bigger surprise.

But having stepped up his recovery in recent weeks, Pools medical staff were happy enough to throw him back into the first-team mix after a frustrating spell on the sidelines.

Providing there has been no reaction to the knee problem, which Harrison has previously compared to an injury more often sustained in a car crash or game of rugby, Watson is almost certain to be again involved this weekend, when Pools travel to Chester looking for their first win since November.

But, while Harrison rates Watson very, very highly, he is not guaranteed to start.

And that’s nothing to do with the player himself, it’s more to do with the performance of those occupying the shirts at present - Liam Donnelly and Louis Laing.

“Liam and Laingy have set their stall out,” said Harrison.

“Keith might be back but the type of performance they put in against Gateshead was the type that means you keep the shirt.

“It’s going to be Keith’s job to snatch that shirt off them.

“The pressure is on them to keep their levels up also.

“Everyone has been talking about Keith coming back but for me Laingy and Donners have set the benchmark at Gateshead.

“They basically said ‘it’s our shirt, come and take it off us, Keith’.

“As a manager that is no bad problem to have.”

The festive period has been far from kind to Harrison in terms of injuries.

At times during the last fortnight he has had just nine players to call upon for first-team training.

Last week a virus swept through the Pools camp, meaning many of the starting XI could not train together for large chunks of the week.

And added to that the club has also been going through a bit of a mini injury crisis with the key figures such as Nicky Featherstone, Carl Magnay and Watson out of action.

Harrison admitted in the week that Featherstone and Conor Newton, who tweaked his groin on Boxing Day, are unlikely to be involved tomorrow.

Although, he is set to give them every opportunity to make the journey west.

The same can be said of Sunderland loanee Michael Ledger.

Central defender Ledger has struggled with injuries since coming to Pools, but has a chance of a much-needed return this weekend.

He is rated as doubtful for the clash.

Players who will definitely miss out are Kenton Richardson (shoulder), Luke George (hamstring), Aaron Cunningham and Ryan Donaldson (both ankle).

Blair Adams will miss out through suspension.

The left-back, playing out of position on the right earlier this week, was given his marching orders for two bookable offences at Gateshead. He will, though, be available for the Heed encounter on New Year’s Day at Victoria Park.

For the opposition, Chester boss Marcus Bignot has a concern over front man Ross Hannah who was forced off just half an hour in to their Boxing Day defeat to Guiseley with a leg injury.

Lathaniel Rowe-Turner will also miss the clash with Pools after he was shown a red card in the 2-0 home defeat to The Lions.

However, Jordan Archer and Craig Mahon both returned to the bench in that game following injury and both will press their claims for a start this weekend.