New National League season – is it going to be same old Hartlepool United or will something eventually happen?
We’re back for another National League season, is it going to be a case of same old Pools or will something finally happen?
People won’t need reminding that this is Hartlepool United’s third season in the National League. A team who’ve spent almost the entirety of its 111 year existence in the Football League are now finding themselves competing directly with the likes of Boreham Wood and Saturday’s opponents Sutton United.
14-years after being on the brink of promotion to the Championship, Pools’ season opener provided yet another unwelcome reminder of the level they’re now competing at.
Craig Hignett’s side ended last season positively with the 3-2 win over Salford City suggesting brighter things were on the horizon going into the new campaign.
The momentum continued to gather and the signing of Luke Molyneux in particular was another boost that would kick-start an encouraging pre-season for United.
There was a different feel around the club, almost everything was being done professionally and properly. Off the field, things were going well and 3,000 season tickets sold in record time signalled that Poolies were certainly buying into the club’s vision.
The pre-season buzz around the club was there for all to see but as we all know, it’s what happens on the pitch on a Saturday afternoon (or Tuesday night) that matters.
And what happened as Pools opened their competitive season had a sickeningly familiar feel about it. A lethargic display saw them 2-0 down to Sutton United after just 23 minutes before falling to a 3-1 loss.
People can take defeats, had Pools lost to a moment of brilliance, bit of bad luck or a poor refereeing decision – there’s a begrudging level of tolerance for it.
But after such positivity and momentum had been built up throughout the summer, to have that ‘same old Pools’ feeling back so soon was a tough pill to swallow.
It was a reality check but by no means a disaster. As everyone with a basic grasp of maths knows, it’s a long, long season in the National League.
And it’s important not to let the buzz around the club fizzle out so quickly, a good start is obviously important, especially if you want to win the league, but it’s by no means vital.
This season is shaping up to be one of the more open National League season’s we’ve had – not too dissimilar from the 2017-18 campaign.
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Although Macclesfield Town ended up winning the National League reasonably comfortably in the end, the competition for the play-off places that season was rife with just seven points separating places 4th to 11th .
Should 2019-20 prove to unfold in a similar way, teams who get off to a poor start can take solace from the fact that side like AFC Fylde made the play-offs despite competing in the bottom half for the first half of the campaign. In fact Tranmere Rovers, who eventually finished 2nd and went up via the play-offs, were 16th with almost half the season played.
But this can work both ways – Woking were in the top four at one point and remained in the play-off places until late November before completely imploding and being relegated.
So it’s important teams don’t get carried away regardless of how well or poorly they start the season. Ultimately, it’ll come down to consistency, bursts of form, keeping within touching distance and ending the season well.
Like every team in the National League – except arguably reprieved Aldershot Town – Pools are in this division on merit or rather a lack of it.
Just because there are several ex-Football League clubs in the division who still pull-in crowds of several thousand doesn’t give them a divine right to compete at the top end of the table.
The National League is one of the hardest leagues to get promoted from. Pools’ 15th and 16th place finishes in their two seasons at this level have proven just how arduous it is.
Yet the minimum expectation for Craig Hignett’s side is to achieve a top half finish, something they haven’t done in any division since the 2006-07 League Two promotion season.
When you’ve had that level of serial disappointment for so long, it’s not something that just disappears overnight.
There have been talks of a play-off push, but as we find out more and more often in football, it’s money that talks.
For all this ‘strength in depth’ that Pools supposedly have, their playing budget believed to be around £700,000 is not even in the top seven in the top tier of non-league football – such is the way the professional game is going.
The likes of Wrexham, Chesterfield, AFC Fylde and Solihull Moors are teams who’ve continued to spend big and should be up there come the end of the season. While money is a huge help, it’s no guarantee for success.
Pools are very much in the chasing pack though they have managed to assemble a large squad with some quality additions and several still to return from injury.
So will this season be different for Pools?
With a bit of patience, yes – the league won’t be won or lost in August, but we need to start seeing some consistent signs that progress has been made on the pitch, not just off it.