Match report Notts County 3 Hartlepool Utd 0

Leon McSweeney gets the better of Notts County defender Harley. Picture by FRANK REID
Leon McSweeney gets the better of Notts County defender Harley. Picture by FRANK REID

PERHAPS Pools should be forgiven for a defeat which was their first since November.

This was, after all, the conclusion of a run which had yielded a valiant five straight victories.

Afterwards, Mick Wadsworth spoke of “all good things coming to an end”.

That’s fair enough. It would have been unrealistic to expect Pools to extend their winning streak too much further into the new year.

But what must now be guarded against is that the termination of a good run is not the unwanted birth of a bad one, because in this league you can fall as quickly as you’ve risen.

Results elsewhere were kind, though, and Pools have slipped just one place to eighth and remain just one point off the play-offs.

But there was something about this defeat which doesn’t sit easy.

After the first goal, albeit garnered in controversial fashion on the cusp of half-time, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome.

And there shouldn’t have been, for Pools, until that opener, were the better team and should have been ahead themselves, a combination of good goalkeeping, bad refereeing and wayward finishing conspiring to prevent that scenario.

But after the interval you never truly believed they would locate a route back into the game and so it proved, after 20 minutes of huffing and puffing, County twice strode upfield and put the result beyond doubt.

This was not the Pools of late, the team which has emerged victorious from bruising skirmishes at promotion contenders Bournemouth and Huddersfield and swept aside league leaders Brighton and most recently Oldham on their own patch.

And this was, arguably, against opposition weaker than that aforementioned quartet of beaten rivals.

Therein lies the concern, the ability to strike a chord of consistency which will see teams of Notts County’s ilk disposed of in similar fashion to the Brightons of this world.

After the cup tie at Watford, next Saturday’s visit of Dagenham and Redbridge, second bottom and some 14 points adrift of Wadsworth’s men, will present a fair examination of Pools’ survival credentials; a “bread and butter” fixture if ever there was one in this division.

And that – survival – must remain the primary target this season.

The recent points-gathering winning spree has gone a long way to making sure that objective is achieved with relative comfort.

But, given the claustrophobic nature of the third-tier, an equally poor sequence of results, as eluded to earlier, could well see a club plummet towards those murky waters of the League Two bound bottom four.

Pools, though, should have enough to avoid that situation and there was enough evidence in this game, at least during the early exchanges, to suggest they could be set for a sixth straight victory.

Evan Horwood’s seventh-minute corner was turned back into the six-yard area by Gary Liddle and Tony Sweeney, glancing a header towards goal, was only denied a tenth of the season by the safe hands of Robert Burch.

Within two minutes Burch had again thwarted the visitors, this time hurling his frame through the air to paddle clear Leon McSweeney’s goal-bound drive.

McSweeney was Pools’ most energetic attacking presence throughout his 73 minutes on the pitch and the diminutive winger’s penalty-box foray soon after should have been rewarded with a spot-kick when Alan Judge fell before handling, but referee Darren Drysdale was unsighted.

Magpies keeper Burch then succumbed to an ankle problem but his replacement, Stuart Nelson, was never forced into a single save.

Sweeney volleyed over from Ritchie Humphreys’ long throw on 26 minutes and Andy Monkhouse scuffed a tame effort on target not long after the half hour.

But that profligacy came back to haunt Pools one minute shy of the break.

Neil Austin hesitated when faced with a deep punt into the right-back position, allowing Craig Westcarr to close and steal, perhaps illegally.

But the referee’s whistle was not forthcoming and the former non-league striker passed possession to Thomas Ince, son of manager Paul, who burst into the area before poking beyond Jake Kean from eight yards out.

The goal had not been coming but it did change the game.

And, until Lee Miller added a second with 20 minutes remaining, the closest Pools had come to restoring parity was just moments earlier when McSweeney checked infield from the right before blazing over with his left boot.

Miller’s goal was a routine header from barely six yards out, Ben Davies the architect with a pinpoint centre from the right.

And the same player was the provider when the ever-troublesome Westcarr got a deserved goal after collecting a low cross and firing home from12 yards on 79 minutes.

By this points-sealing juncture Pools had thrown on James Brown, rested following a full 90 minutes against Oldham, Armann Bjornsson and Adam Boyd and, as perhaps expected and probably forgiven, had left themselves exposed the back.

Defeat was, as Wadsworth said afterwards, inevitable at some stage.

But it is now about the response and the ability to prove that this result is merely a blip and not the start of a slump – expectations have been raised of late and rightly so, nothing less than a win will do when The Daggers come to town.