MATCH REPORT: Pools heading in right direction

Neal Cooper and Tony Mowbray pictured during the Hartlepool United versus Middlesbrough pre season friendly match at Victoria Park.
Neal Cooper and Tony Mowbray pictured during the Hartlepool United versus Middlesbrough pre season friendly match at Victoria Park.
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EVOLUTION not revolution is how the saying goes.

And, on first glance, the make-up of this year’s team is not dissimilar to the vintage of last.

It is the same back five for a start.

But then, the real problems never did reside in that department.

Care to look further forward, however, and it becomes evident the changes which Neale Cooper is, slowly but surely, imposing on his side.

The sextet of attacking personnel has been reshaped, from two bands of three to a four and a two.

There are three new faces as well, not to mention the revival of Luke James, the teenager who burned so brightly in the first few games of Cooper’s reign, only to fade as quickly as he’d emerged.

Steve Howard is his partner, a foil if ever there was one for a jet-heeled juvenile.

Howard was immense against Middlesbrough last night.

Evidence, if ever debate had even surfaced, of the havoc he could wreak this coming season.

Boro, as Cooper later pointed to, are a good side, better, in fact, than Sunderland looked four days previous.

So to see his new-look Pools emerge with a draw – forget talk of results not being important – was certainly a point of pride.

Cooper has taken the bold step of inking the names of his preferred starters some two weeks before the season commences.

Indeed, the XI against the Teessiders was the same which triumphed over the Black Cats.

Few managers adopt a similar tactic, perhaps for fear of upsetting some players before the campaign has even begun.

Cooper, rather, insists that everything is geared towards that opening day at Crewe Alexandra in a little over a week’s time, and you have to agree his philosophy is sounding sense.

He has treated the last two games as if they were the opening fixture of the season – the same line-up, same tactics and no wholesale changes.

And, last night, they again impressed.

The aforementioned Howard, in particular, was a handful throughout.

His contribution is not blessed by beauty, but it will certainly look pretty damned good to Cooper.

It was from his flick that James scurried clear down the left just inside the 20-minute marker.

The youngster had much to do.

But, stealing a yard to cross despite the attention of two red shirts, he dug out the most inviting of centres from which the unmarked Tony Sweeney duly nodded into the bottom corner.

Sweeney, paired with the eye-catching Simon Walton, has again been afforded his license to roam and another handsome goals return awaits should this set-up continue to prosper.

But then came a four-minute warning, a reminder of work to be done, and by half-time Boro were ahead.

Their first, on 33 minutes, saw Brazilian trialist Correa drop a delicate ball in behind the Pools backline.

Neil Austin, recovering to get on terms with Scott McDonald, spurned the chance to clear having done well to chase down his opponent, and the Aussie striker duly steered low beyond Scott Flinders.

Then, after a series of “non-tackles” as Cooper put it, Boro had their second, Adam Reach capitalising on that soft touch to hammer home from close range.

Walton, never afraid to vent his feelings, proceeded to deliver a verbal volley in the direction of his defensive colleagues – not a bad thing, you have to say.

The visitors made 11 changes at the break but it was Pools who “won the second half”.

Yes, they rode their luck against a free-passing Boro on several occasions, but they nonetheless stood strong and repelled the attacking flair of Messrs Emnes, Williams and Leadbitter.

And so they got their reward 10 minutes from time, Collins taking full advantage of Howard’s disturbing presence to direct a powerful header, from a Jonathan Franks corner, beyond Conor Ripley and into the Town End goal.

There was still time for Emnes, strolling clear on goal, to lazily fire wide, but a more energetic conversion would have been harsh on Pools.

For regardless the pre-season mantra, last night’s result is better for morale than any defeat and is a clear indication of the progress made since the early part of the month in Holland.

Evolution is a slow process, but you just get the impression that, under Cooper, the eventuality will be worth the wait.

SportMail Star Man: Steve Howard showed his worth with a powerful performance. Special mention too for skipper Sam Collins whose all-round display was capped with fine leveller.

Pools: Flinders, Austin, Collins, Hartley, Horwood, Franks, Walton, Sweeney, Monkhouse, James (Poole 76), Howard

Subs not used: McHugh, Humphreys, Baldwin, Holden, Nish

Goals: Sweeney 18, Collins 80

Boro (First half): Leutwiler, Smallwood, Hoyte, Correa, Hines, McManus, Haroun, Thomson, McDonald, Ledesma, Reach

Boro (Second half): Ripley, Friend, R Williams, Bailey, Halliday, Park, Dudu, Leadbitter, Castelan, L Williams, Emnes

Sub not used: Main

Goals: McDonald 33, Reach 36

Att: 3663 (1916 away)