Match Analysis: Hartlepool can build on Ronnie Moore’s foundations

Craig Hignett
Craig Hignett

In amongst the 5,000-plus crowd at Victoria Park on Saturday was the man who ensured Hartlepool United could still host Football League football.

Flanked by his former allies Sam Collins and Russ Green in the director’s box, Ronnie Moore watched on his former charges fell to a 2-0 defeat to Portsmouth.

The biggest change Moore will have seen was the style of football.

Witnessing a Pools loss is customary for Moore and the rest of supporters, but this loss felt different to the ones endured in the past.

It wasn’t a turning point, for under Craig Hignett Pools have undoubtedly improved and reached new standards in March, but it was a defeat that wasn’t greeted with moans but rather optimism.

Indeed, Moore tweeted as much afterwards, proclaiming that with a handful of signings Pools can secure a top three finish next season.

Optimistic, maybe, but no one can deny the positive vibes at Clarence Road.

Moore will have seen a hard-working, industrious side who can and did create a multitude of chances.

For the most part, defensively Pools were rigid, rarely exposed and not daunted by Portsmouth’s tricky forwards.

The biggest change Moore will have seen, however, was the style of football. When Hignett arrived he was tasked with keeping Pools in the Football League, but he emphasised his desire to turn the team into a possession-based side.

Such statements at the depths of League Two are often mere token comments and can rarely turn into a reality given the league’s fondness of robust defenders and card-hungry midfielders.

But, credit to Hignett and his assistant Curtis Fleming who has reinforced a porous defence, Pools have been transformed into a side that play football befitting of their players’ capabilities.

It wasn’t meant as a slight on Moore, the man who signed him, but it was telling when Nathan Thomas said afterwards that “to go from the style of football we were playing at the start to now, we look like a different team now”.

Such games in the past would have seen Pools as much the inferior side, but not Saturday, not under the stewardship of Hignett.

Of course, it is the product of the impending summer recruitment and the hours spent on the training ground during pre-season that Hignett will be judged on.

It was only a year ago that talk of promotion under Moore was filling these column inches. But the signs are even more promising now.

On Saturday, however, things have could started in the worse possible manner for Pools, had former loan player Kal Naismith not got in the way of his team-mate Gary Robert’s curling shot in the third minute that was destined to settle beyond Trevor Carson.

Fortunately for Pools, Naismith strayed into the ball’s path and diverted it for a Pools goal-kick and that was the closest Pompey came for another 37 minutes.

The first half was mostly uneventful but don’t let that obscure the fact that Pools were an equal match for their promotion-chasing visitors.

The midfield trio of Nicky Featherstone, Michael Woods and Lewis Hawkins are looking more like a treasured three with each passing game, while Thomas continues to threaten to damage whenever he has the ball at his feet.

It was Thomas who instigated Pools’ chances in the first 45 minutes.

The former Mansfield man had a free-kick rebound off the wall after 22 minutes and on the cusp of half-time he muscled his way into the Pompey box twice but without an end product.

Just before he tried in vain to open the scoring, Michael Smith looped a header from 10 yards over the bar for Portsmouth and Gareth Evans located space between Matthew Bates and Adam Jackson to force two smart saves from Carson.

Evans was unable to expose Bates again, however, for an ankle injury forced his departure early in the second-half to be replaced by Rob Jones.

Billy Paynter, playing his first game in six after a hamstring injury, looked to add to his 15 goal tally when an inviting bouncing ball dropped in front of him 30 yards out.

Paynter chested the ball and volleyed it towards Brian Murphy’s goal but it arced horribly wide and high.

It was a valuable miss, for two minutes later Naismith broke the deadlock for Portsmouth.

Smith marched into the Pools box from the right and squared it across goal where Naismith was waiting to cleverly back-heel the ball beyond Carson.

Portsmouth’s automatic promotion hopes at this point were still alive, and so too was Pools’ hopes of winning.

Just 60 seconds afterwards, Woods intersected the Portsmouth defence with a fabulous through ball. Paynter read the pass, collected possession on the edge of the box and charged in on goal.

But Murphy advanced from his goal to make a good save to deny Paynter’s placed effort.

The game had kicked into life and it was Roberts who was the next to threaten a change to the scoreboard but Carson dealt with his tame shot from close range with ease.

Pools’ goalkeeper was then called into employment again, rushing from his goal to prevent Smith from a similar distance.

As Pools searched for an equaliser, Paynter made way for Rhys Oates who within seconds should have scored.

He was played in on goal but ran wide before shooting straight at Murphy. It was a wasted opportunity.

Luke James was unlucky not to get a shot away when the ball became stuck under his feet six yards from goal, and Oates squandered another great chance again not long after, heading Thomas’ centre wide of the goal.

It proved pivotal as Conor Chaplin made it two and victory for Portsmouth five minutes from full time when he rolled in Enda Stevens’ cut back from the goal-line.

A third successive defeat against promotion-hunting teams, but providing investment in the summer is matched with productive training hours, the next time Moore returns to The Vic, he could be watching a promotion-hunting Hartlepool United.