MATCH REPORT: Dons defeat leaves John Hughes with plenty to contemplate

John Hughes in the dugout during the game against MK Dons. Picture by FRANK REID
John Hughes in the dugout during the game against MK Dons. Picture by FRANK REID
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JOHN Hughes cut a pensive figure.

Gathering his thoughts prior to his post-match reflection, the Scot fixed a steely stare on the camera lens.

‘Where to start?’ was probably the gist of his thinking.

The somewhat harsh red card which saw Simon Walton removed early in the second half?

His side’s failure to score for a seventh successive match?

The terrace boos which greeted the full-time whistle?

All worthy contenders at the forefront of his concerns.

But there was an elephant in the room.

Or rather, a burly striker in Sheffield.

For just 24 hours earlier Steve Howard had been allowed to leave the club in the direction of Sheffield Wednesday.

Many supporters celebrated the departure, three goals in 30 outings from the No.9 underlining their side’s perennial struggle in front of goal.

Hughes, too, had offered little resistance to the 36-year-old’s exit.

The Scot had, however, hoped to be afforded a replacement.

Since arriving in November Hughes has talked of “making a statement” with his first signing.

Colin Nish, Paul Murray and now Howard have all been removed from the wage bill.

As for the “statement”?

Well, it is yet to be penned.

Hughes has tried to strengthen a squad he feared was not good enough to remain in the division.

But at each juncture he has been told ‘no’ – a 65-per-cent salary cap the reason offered.

Pools are certainly paying the price now.

It is 10-and-a-half hours without score.

It is almost as long without a meaningful effort on goal.

Yesterday, they only motored into gear once Walton had been sent off.

Ten-man mentality? That’s easy. The challenge is doing it from the off. That, they definitely did not.

They gifted the Dons their opener with just six minutes on the clock.

Patrick Bamford gathered possession in a relatively harmless domain 25 yards from goal.

Somehow, though, he was allowed to waltz unopposed through the heart of the backline before prodding home.

A fine score from one perspective, a devastatingly poor concession from another.

Pools, who had already lost Ritchie Humphreys during the warm-up to a calf problem, then saw Tony Sweeney succumb to a hamstring injury.

And the biggest roar of the afternoon from the home crowd came for the belated sight of Luke James entering the action as Sweeney’s replacement, for many fans feel a striker who plundered three goals for the reserves during the week should have been in from the off.

The first half duly fizzled out before the sending-off controversy on 52 minutes.

Walton tangled with Bamford, the Dons wideman toppling to the turf.

The Pools midfielder, stumbling back over his opponent, appeared to plant his studs in Bamford’s back, prompting referee Jeremy Simpson to brandish a straight red.

In fairness, replays suggest Walton was attempting to maintain his footing rather than cause harm and an appeal has been lodged.

Either way, the dismissal confirmed the outcome.

Just to be sure, Dean Bowditch dispatched a sumptuous curler into the bottom corner from 20 yards just after the hour mark.

Thereafter Pools huffed and puffed, Peter Hartley striking the post late on, but defeat had been deserved.

Results elsewhere had been unkind, Oldham Athletic drawing at Swindon Town and Scunthorpe United winning at home to Leyton Orient.

It leaves Pools eight points from safety with just five matches remaining.

But Hughes did not mention the numbers when it came to his post-match meeting with the press.

You get the impression he knows the game is up.

And you have to say his players have done little to suggest otherwise on the pitch.

For Hughes, the bigger battle could well be the one at boardroom level.

He has twice spoken of arranging a meeting with chief executive Russ Green and chairman Ken Hodcroft over the coming days.

Hughes has not one, but two eyes on close-season now.

The Pools boss certainly has a lot to think about.