THIS wasn’t how Marlon Harewood’s Hartlepool United debut was supposed to go.
The signing of the 34-year-old former West Ham United, Aston Villa and Newcastle United striker had not only created a buzz among supporters but also at the team’s Maiden Castle training camp.
Pools, desperate for a win after two consecutive 3-0 home defeats, travelled to Fleetwood Town’s Highbury Stadium in good spirits and confident of getting a result, Simon Walton said as much after the game.
But within two minutes and 14 seconds Colin Cooper and Craig Hignett’s plans had been thrown out of the window.
Jordan Richards’ “challenge” on midfielder Jeff Hughes – who was catapulted into the air – wasn’t malicious but it was late, reckless and costly.
Pools had lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Harewood partnering 10-goal top scorer Luke James, in a bid to generate some goals and kick-start what has been a torrid 2014 so far for Cooper’s men.
But within less than three minutes the manager’s blueprint had been ripped up and the Amble-born teenager subbed in place of the veteran defender Sam Collins.
As is often the way, a forward was sacrificed but James was visibly frustrated with the decision, even pointing to himself as if to suggest “Me? Surely not”.
Yet the fourth official’s board did indeed read Number 33 and the 19-year-old begrudgingly made his way off.
Now, whether taking off the pacy, energetic and tireless forward was a good decision or not is a question for debate – surely his attributes would have come in handy and helped push Fleetwood back?
Mind, it would have been equally harsh to take off Harewood three minutes into his debut and he is after all an experienced player who will no doubt have experience of leading the line by himself before.
It would, of course, be harsh to judge Harewood too much on this performance, given the circumstances, but he looked keen, hardworking, with a good touch and vision at times, in linking in with team-mates.
Harewood didn’t manage an attempt on goal but did last the full 90 minutes and no doubt fans will be looking forward to him and James starting their partnership afresh against York next Saturday.
Richards, meanwhile, not only had the following 87 minutes to ponder what he’d done but also the next three matches, watching from the sidelines.
It was a crazy challenge on the touchline but you have to feel for the 20-year-old, who was looking for a run in the team in place of the injured Michael Duckworth.
Speaking afterwards, Cooper admitted it was the right decision but felt it was harsh given it was so early into the game.
Mind, if a Fleetwood player had wiped out one of the Pools players in a similar fashion the Pools bench would no doubt have been calling for a red, whether it be the third minute or 93rd minute.
Either way the challenge and subsequent red card - which also resulted in the injured Hughes being subbed - meant it was going to be an afternoon of damage limitation for Pools.
Jack Baldwin was pushed to right-back, with Collins replacing him in the centre as Pools went 4-4-1. And to be fair, they showed great resilience and character in the first-half to reduce Fleetwood to speculative long-range efforts for the most part.
The Cod Army’s Stewart Murdoch, David Ball and Jon Parkin all had chances but Pools looked relatively comfortable and were still managing to play their passing game at times.
Fleetwood’s manager Graham Alexander stormed off down the tunnel at the break and it was no surprise his side came out for the second-half with far more intent.
Playing 88 minutes with 10-men was always going to prove nigh-on impossible for Cooper’s side.
Within minutes of the re-start Christian Burgess had to be on his guard to head the ball off the line from a Steven Schumacher effort after Flinders had failed to deal with the ball.
It eventually led to Burgess and Flinders having words with each other as the pressure intensified, with the on-loan Boro defender not happy with his keeper’s indecisiveness.
Flinders made amends minutes later with a fine right-handed save at full stretch to deny Parkin’s attempt in the 56th minute.
But then two quick, and well taken goals, in the 67th and 69th minute from former Pools loanee Parkin and Blackburn loanee Alex Marrow, respectively, gave Town an unassailable lead.
Burgess’ clearance fell to Parkin whose crisp, first time left-footed finish curled past Flinders from 12-yards before Baldwin was robbed of the ball on the half-way line two minutes later by on-loan Sunderland striker Mikael Mandron.
He burst forward before laying the ball off to sub Marrow who poked the ball, first time, past Flinders from inside the box to seal the 2-0 win in the 69th minute.
Andy Monkhouse’s 25-yard effort, which cannoned off the cross bar, was the only shot on target Pools mustered.
Tempers threatened to boil over when Marrow left a foot in on Flinders as he dived to gather the ball, the challenge angered Burgess who ran over and pushed the Fleetwood striker, resulting in both players getting booked.
And that was that.
There must be something in the water in Lancashire when it comes to the county’s teams playing against Pools.
So far, this calendar year, Bury, Rochdale and now Fleetwood Town have all beaten Cooper’s side, who have scored none and conceded eight. Indeed, all three teams have now done the double over Pools this season.
Not a good statistic. Neither is Pools picking up just seven points from their last nine Sky Bet League Two matches.
Worrying form which has seen them fall to 16th place, now 11 points adrift of the play-offs and five above the drop zone.
It seems foolish even talking about the play-offs the way the team is currently playing but fans live in hope that a run similar to the one in October and November could kick-start the season once again.
Next up is York City at home, who are thankfully not from Lancashire, but another tough test none the less. Keeping all 11 men on the pitch would be a start.