MATCH REPORT: Capital punishment is Crewe-l for Cooper

Antony Sweeney gets a shot in only to see it rebound from the post as Pools look for a breakthrough. Picture by FRANK REID
Antony Sweeney gets a shot in only to see it rebound from the post as Pools look for a breakthrough. Picture by FRANK REID

BURSTING with fury having witnessed the most cataclysmic opening-day surrender, Neale Cooper demonstrated an outward stealth which belied his inner rage.

His side were trailing by four goals after just 45 minutes of the League Cup curtain-raiser, but the Scot chose not to crash through the dressing-room door, instead loitering outside its entrance.

There was method behind his mellow.

Cooper was waiting – waiting to hear raised voices, the sound of the proverbial tea cup smashing into tiles, or the protest of a team-mate pinned to the wall by a comrade.

He desperately wanted his players to launch their own inquest into what he later labelled “the worst half of defending I have ever seen”.

But there was no uproar, no hail of expletives into which he would enter.

There hadn’t been earlier, either, each sorry concession met with sad silence, heads bowed as they returned to position for yet another restart.

It’s not Cooper’s style.

“Honestly, I’ve would have been pinned to the wall if I didn’t do my job,” he later said.

And was there a response at half-time?

“One or two voices afterwards,” he revealed – too little, too late is how it goes.

Cooper likened the capitulation to last season’s 5-0 whipping at Wycombe Wanderers.

There were mitigating factors on that day, however – Pools were relatively safe and seeing out the season, their opponents, buoyed by a raft of new signings, were scrapping for their lives.

Saturday, in comparison, was the FIRST day of the new campaign, a level playing field for both teams – hopes high and optimism abound.

And so, to produce such a performance, was as puzzling as it was painful.

This is not a poor side. This is not a group of over-hyped prima donnas. This is not a team who will be fighting relegation.

So where do we look for reason as to the most woeful of opening weekends?

Ability? Are Pools simply not as good as the above trio of statements suggest?

Fatigue? Was Tuesday’s 5-1 humbling at the hands of Newcastle United a pre-season outing too far? No matter the popular prose which states summer results are academic, self-confidence must surely take a hit after such a schooling by fellow professionals.

Or was it simply a bad day at the office? Only time will tell in that regard.

Cooper will today sit down, most probably in a darkened room, and sift through the wreckage of the horror show.

After five minutes he will be forgiven for thinking he has installed the wrong DVD, the team in blue and white having bossed the early action, even creating a pair of half chances.

But then, on seven minutes, comes the X-rated warning – ‘all those of a Pools persuasion please proceed with care’.

Peter Hartley needlessly launches an ill-timed lunge on Crewe wonderkid Max Clayton and the defender sees yellow – his manager will soon be seeing red.

The initial free-kick is blocked by the wall but, when the ball loops free inside the area, it is the unchaperoned red shirt of A-Jay Leitch-Smith who gratefully accepts his freedom with a first-time finish.

Cooper will wait just five minutes before recoiling in repeat of Crewe’s second.

A disjointed, high defensive line allows not one, but two home strikers to scamper clear.

Pools stop, claiming offside. They start again when the flag stays down, only to switch off once more when Scott Flinders blocks the effort from Leitch-Smith. But the danger is not clear and the hosts fashion an opening for Clayton, who duly tucks home for 2-0. It’s all far too easy.

Cooper will watch the next 20 minutes of the DVD and see his side work the odd chance of their own, Steve Howard heading over from a Jonathan Franks centre – that link-up the one positive to emerge from the afternoon.

But, by now, Cooper knows the script, an Alex third arriving on 34 minutes.

A cross from the right is, on first evidence, harmless enough in its lofted delivery, time surely for Sam Collins and Neil Austin - the skipper and his deputy - to react?

Instead, they watch as Mathias Pogba strolls unattended to meet the ball on its descent, dispatching a volley beyond the brutally exposed Flinders.

Moments later, the same Pools pair run into each trying to deal with a routine ball forward – an incident which Cooper later said, “summed up our day”.

The objective now is to get to half-time without further injury – they fail.

Cooper will be peering through his fingertips by this point, an attacking corner quickly turned into a defensive retreat, the mightily-impressive Clayton leaving two blue shirts trailing in his wake on halfway before burying beyond the brow-beaten Flinders.

But the most alarming sight of all is not the gifted goals, rather the lack of reprisal they prompt.

And this was the point Cooper made to us later when revealing his half-time waiting game.

By the end of a subdued second half Pools had conceded a fifth, Pogba getting free of Simon Walton before rolling by Collins and poking home in injury-time.

In fairness to Collins, who along with sidekick Peter Hartley had endured a “torturous” afternoon as Cooper put it, he did emerge to speak to the press after the game.

Talk tentatively turned to making amends against Swindon Town in five days’ time – although the madness of such a vow after just 90 minutes of the season was not lost on anyone.

Cooper, though, will be expecting a response either way, good or bad the outcome of the League One opener.

He won’t suffer silence, his players have been warned.