MATCH REPORT: Why didn’t Pools play like this before?

Hartlepool United get an equaliser against Brentford. Picture by FRANK REID
Hartlepool United get an equaliser against Brentford. Picture by FRANK REID

IT is the eternal poser which troubles the majority of recently-unemployed football managers – why couldn’t they do that when I was in charge?

Antony Sweeney recognised as much on Saturday, “It’s no win really, if we play well then everyone asks ‘why couldn’t you do that before?’”.

And he is right.

In fact, no player more than Sweeney personified the above conundrum at Griffin Park.

Hopelessly out of form in recent weeks – to the point of changing boots, diet and weight-lifting routine – he, from somewhere, unearthed a man-of-the-match display.

Did he deliberately not perform in the hope of prompting Neale Cooper’s exit?

Not a chance.

If anything, Sweeney enjoyed a closer relationship with Cooper than the majority of his team-mates.

Perhaps, previously, he was trying too hard.

Either way, against Brentford, he struck no resemblance to his quality-shorn efforts of late.

In the first half alone, with Sweeney the heartbeat, Pools fashioned more clear-cut chances than they have done during the entirety of what is now a 13-game winless stretch.

Sometimes in football, it is simply the idea of change, a fresh start, which triggers an improvement.

That, though, is not to detract from the tactical tweak implemented by caretaker boss Micky Barron.

Rolling out a new 4-5-1 system, with Sweeney afforded license to roam, Barron’s instruction beforehand was clear, “Pass, pass and then try to pass some more”.

And they did.

For Pools to have superior possession stats would surely have had the administrator demanding a recount - but it was true.

They teased passes through defence and midfield, the culmination of this patient approach invariably a goalscoring opportunity.

Yes, frailties remained and it was, at times, clear that this was a pilot episode.

But it did more than enough to earn a second airing.

Barron was pleased.

Rather than simply “take care” of matters as his current title suggests, he had sought to rehabilitate personnel and remedy the ailments which have plagued the current campaign.

The script, however, appeared to be taking a familiar course when, following an adventurous start, Evan Horwood gifted possession to the hosts and they launched an incisive break which was climaxed by Paul Hayes’ close-range finish on 11 minutes.

Barron, though, had demanded his players adhere to his “passing principles” regardless of scoreline.

They complied.

One move, in particular, saw 16 consecutive passes knitted together before Steve Howard spurned a chance to head on goal.

They even varied their approach, Scott Flinders booming a ball downfield which sprung Ryan Noble clear but he slammed a volley into the chest of keeper Simon Moore.

Ritchie Humphreys then lifted narrowly wide after a Sweeney burst in behind the backline.

Then came the leveller, Sweeney again scampering clear before seeing his cross clip off the heels of the recovering Harlee Dean and into his own net.

It was well deserved and it was a long-overdue slice of luck – more on that later.

Noble, after his stupendous midweek blast at Bury, was again in the mood and he saw a near-post header loop over the crossbar before an instinctive volley was parried clear by Moore.

It was as good a 45 minutes as Pools had produced all season.

The second period was nowhere near as impressive and the West Londoners regained the lead when Hayes out-jumped Jack Baldwin to head home on 58 minutes.

The pursuit of parity was somewhat predictable at times but Pools had earned a helping of good fortune.

And so, with just seconds of normal time remaining, Horwood’s in-swinging corner was turned into the top corner by the head of defender Tony Craig for another own goal.

It was the least that Barron and his team had deserved.

The smartly suited caretaker boss had worn a Roberto Mancini-style blue-and-white scarf for the game. Only, in the week when the Manchester City boss had been criticised for his tactical approach, Barron had got his spot on.

It’s early days, however, and his reign may not yet extend much beyond this Saturday’s FA Cup trip to Chesterfield.

But if he does harbour ambition of landing the full-time role – and we’re sure he does – then this was as a fairly sound working-practice interview.

As for the players, well, evidence at long last that they do have the means to claw themselves clear of the sorry situation for which they are responsible.

But Mr Cooper isn’t the only wondering – why couldn’t they have shown this sooner?