MATCH REPORT: Pools find their fighting spirit

Jordan Richards encourages Antony Sweeney and Sam Collins to get on with the game after their argument during the game against Sheffield United. Picture by FRANK REID
Jordan Richards encourages Antony Sweeney and Sam Collins to get on with the game after their argument during the game against Sheffield United. Picture by FRANK REID

A FLASHPOINT? A turning point?

A two-minute period which could yet define the second half of Pools’ campaign.

With the score at 1-1, Sheffield United had just seen a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out, a linesman’s offside flag the cause of its cancellation.

Sam Collins and Antony Sweeney had dithered in the build-up and Ryan Flynn was allowed to steal in to score.

The flag, however, spared their blushes.

But it mattered not, each blaming one another for its concession.

Fingers were pointed, words exchanged, team-mates ultimately intervening.

Rather than withdraw the pair in an act of disgust, John Hughes turned to his dugout and quipped “isn’t that brilliant?”.

Within minutes Pools had waltzed, or rather waded, their way upfield, shovelling the ball through the mud in as gracious a manner as possible.

It culminated in a crucial second for Pools - but more on that later, for it was a thing of beauty amid the bog.

It gave them the lead they deserved, an advantage which was then doubled and eventually saw home, save for a late scare, to ensure a first three points in four months, 23 matches to be exact.

And Hughes was right – the Collins/Sweeney spat might well have been “brilliant”.

For until thee o’clock on Saturday, Pools had shown precious little appetite for the fight.

Carlisle, on Boxing Day, bordered on embarrassing in parts, such was the ease at which fellow strugglers ran out winners.

Many more before had taken on an equally shameful tone.

But Saturday was different, from the very first mud-lathered minute they were the superior side.

The dug in, quite literally at times given the conditions, and produced a performance many observers thought was beyond them.

Perhaps they should start hacking away at Victoria Park ahead of tomorrow’s visit of Preston North End, for there was no doubt the environment suited.

That, however, is not to say Pools slogged and slid through 90 minutes, on occasions they teased passes around their league-leading opponents.

Their early lead was not one of surprise.

Evan Horwood, who had a foot in all three goals, swapped passes with the outstanding Ritchie Humphreys.

He somehow scooped out the most inviting of centres for Steve Howard to attack, and that he did.

One criticism of Howard is that he does not make enough of what crosses do enter his domain, albeit with limited supply on occasions.

But this time there was no doubt, there was only one name on that ball, Howard barging through two home shirts before planting a firm header into the bottom corner.

It was just the second time Pools had led under Hughes’ care.

By half-time, though, the hosts were on level terms, Michael Doyle firing through the grasp of Scott Flinders, whose balance appeared to be undone by the mud.

Nonetheless, the goalkeeper will be disappointed.

But Pools made it through to the break with little fuss and, not until Flynn’s disallowed effort, did Danny Wilson’s side truly threaten.

Collins and Sweeney clashed, Hughes rejoiced, and everyone, it seems, drew inspiration for another offensive push.

The recalled Simon Walton defied the mire to slide an incisive pass into the feet of Jonathan Franks.

He spun before spraying an equally exquisite pass to the front-running Horwood, by now needing no invitation for such forrays.

He crossed, this time drawing back across the turf and into the path of Humphreys.

The midfielder, a boyhood Blades fan, showed no mercy for his favourite club - the finish was instinctive, the celebration ecstatic.

It was just reward for a man who has reinvented himself of late.

He’s started every game under Hughes, arguably emerging with man-of-the-match plaudits in the bulk of them.

He is, in short, a good footballer, the best on Pools books.

Give him the ball, he’ll keep it.

And that, given the woes of this term, is a precious commodity.

But, on Saturday, they all did.

Walton barely wasted a ball, Franks married effort to output, Horwood was a danger, Sweeney committed and busy, while Charlie Wyke, at times, scared the life out of a table-topping rearguard.

At the back, Collins and Peter Hartley rediscovered their better form, proving impassable on occasions.

While special mention must go to teenager Jordan Richards, a goalmouth block inside the first minute perhaps passing by unnoticed, without it, however, this narrative could have taken on a different course – he went on to enjoy his best game yet.

But the match-winner was Howard.

The game-sealing goal arrived 18 minutes from time.

Horwood was again involved, finding substitute James Poole with a slick pass.

There was work to be done, however, and he hung up a far-post cross which Howard, stretching, duly looped over home keeper George Long.

It wasn’t quite game over and Harry Maguire did blast home in stoppage time, but the points, you felt, were never in doubt from that moment.

Hughes flipped between joy and caution afterwards, for he wasn’t going to pass up the chance for merriment with such a fine win.

But it’s a start, that was his overriding message.

Defeat to Preston tomorrow and all is rendered academic.

Hughes confirmed that Collins and Sweeney had kissed and made up, or words to that effect.

Let’s only hope their passion remains, for that two minutes could yet prove a turning point in Pools’ season.