HEARTBREAKING. Frustrating. Galling.
Pick any word you like to describe last night’s dramatic 2-1 defeat to Coventry City in the FA Cup second round replay because it was that kind of game.
A resolute and plucky Pools had battled hard against the Sky Blues, who ply their trade in League One, and have as good a strike pairing up front as any club outside of the Championship.
Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson would be a match for most defences.
But for the most part, Jack Baldwin and Christian Burgess coped well with what they had to throw at them.
Indeed it could all have been so different after Baldwin’s 87th-minute header from a pinpoint Matty Dolan corner pulled the scores level for Colin Cooper’s side.
As the clock ticked towards the final whistle, it looked for a moment the magic of the FA Cup was truly alive and kicking for Pools and the impressive away following of 225 Poolies.
As soon as Baldwin’s header smashed into the back of the net, fans were getting themselves ready for extra time.
But Pools couldn’t manage to see out the game and moments later Clarke took advantage of a loose ball inside the penalty area to score his second of the game to send Steven Pressley’s team into the third round.
Their reward, is a trip to Barnsley, who now have former Pools gaffer Danny Wilson in the dugout.
Pools will have to brush themselves down and take their frustrations out on Burton Albion when they come to visit Victoria Park on Saturday in Sky Bet League Two.
And Cooper and his players can hold their heads high after another impressive performance against League One opposition.
Indeed, this was the fifth time this season after cup games against Bradford, Sheffield United, Notts County, Rotherham United and Coventry City.
Pools have played well in all of those games and it should give the players confidence as they now refocus their attentions on the league campaign.
Last night’s match was played at a sparse and bitterly cold Sixfields Stadium in Northampton, Cov’s new ‘home’.
Midfielder Brad Walker and Jack Compton were restored to the starting line-up, with club captain Antony Sweeney and left-back Darren Holden benched.
Cooper admitted his 3-5-2 formation against Cheltenham Town at the weekend hadn’t worked and the Pools gaffer went for a more compact 4-5-1 formation for the FA Cup clash, with Jonathan Franks again up front.
Despite the Sixfields Stadium resembling a reserve game with two sides of the ground closed, the game itself started at 100mph.
There was little in the way of chances though until the 15th minute, when Clarke looked set to give the Sky Blues the lead from close range.
But Scott Flinders was on hand to spread himself – Peter Schmeichel-esque – and deny Clarke. It was a remarkable stop and drew gasps from both sets of supporters.
You’d do well to see a better save this season.
The pace didn’t settle but it was the Sky Blues who attacked with more purpose and the home side looked neat and tidy in possession, but dangerous up front.
Clarke and Wilson’s threat meant Baldwin and Burgess had to be on their toes and they coped well for the first 30 minutes.
Pools’ first clear chance came when Franks found himself with space inside the area but his angled shot was easily held by Joe Murphy in the Coventry goal.
Wilson almost found himself in on goal in the 32nd minute but Burgess just managed to nick the ball off his foot on the edge of the area.
The warning signs were there though and Coventry took the lead in the 36th minute.
Clarke took advantage of a static Pools back line, drawing Flinders out of goal before coolly slotting the ball into the net from eight-yards out.
Burgess could have equalised two minutes later but his free header from a Simon Walton free-kick was powered wide of the left-hand post.
Wilson and John Fleck both went close with efforts as the half drew to a close.
The second half started in very much the same fashion as the first ended, with Clarke almost doubling the lead for Coventry in the 47th minute.
He fought his way past Burgess inside the penalty area and his shot from the left hand side hit the post, with Flinders just about managing to smother the ball before it crossed the line.
Flinders had to be alert again to spread himself well and deny Clarke who had been put through on goal by Franck Moussa.
The ball was eventually cleared for a corner by Burgess as Pools started the second half hanging on.
Cooper then made the first move, bringing on 10-goal top scorer Luke James for Compton, who had been unable to influence the match, with Franks pushed out wide.
It was then that Pools started to show more attacking intent with on-loan Middlesbrough midfielder Matty Dolan firing an effort wide in the 62nd minute.
Michael Duckworth started seeing more of the ball and powerhouse Walker in the centre of midfield was also starting to get more involved in the final third.
Baldwin then headed into the hands of Murphy after a good free-kick from Dolan before Cooper made another change, James Poole – who had a penalty shout turned down after being elbowed – coming on for Walton.
Flinders was called into action again saving from Carl Baker, but with 13 minutes left to play Flinders was stranded as Wilson’s effort took a deflection onto the crossbar and over for a corner.
It was then that Cooper took the unusual step of turning to veteran defender Sam Collins to play up front, with Monkhouse, James and Poole playing off him.
The tactical switch energised Pools and they equalised through Baldwin’s header from a Dolan corner in the 87th minute.
The powerful header sent the away fans behind the goal into raptures and it looked, for a moment at least, that Pools had the belief.
But Coventry weren’t finished and spurred on by their fans, who had finally woken up, Clarke took his opportunity.
His goal came from a very debatable Baldwin foul near the half-way line.
The ball was pumped high into the box and Flinders made another block but the ball broke free to the deadly Clarke.
He calmly placed his effort into the corner of the net, breaking the hearts of the Pools players and fans as it rolled over the line for the most dramatic of finishes.
Cooper and assistant Craig Hignett were incensed by the free-kick but it came too late for Pools to hit back.
The final whistle came and went, along with Pools’ FA Cup dreams. For this season, at least.
Scott Flinders: 8. MOM. Couldn’t do much about either goal. Aside from picking the ball out of the net twice, Flinders again showed his class with some fine saves – one in the first half in particular was world class.
Michael Duckworth: 6. Was again quiet but did grow into the game during the second half. Hasn’t been as much of an attacking threat of late.
Jack Baldwin: 7. Scored Pools’ goal with a powerful header from a corner. Was a tough test for Baldwin and defensive partner Christian Burgess but they did well for the most part.
Christian Burgess: 7. Should have scored at least one goal from two good chances. Strong in the air alongside Baldwin and comfortable on the ball breaking from the break. The whole defence could have done better for both goals though.
Neil Austin: 7. Back wearing the captain’s armband and he looked more comfortable in a back four. Didn’t make too many mistakes.
Jack Compton: 6. Disappointing night for Compton, who didn’t manage to cause the City defence enough problems. Worked hard but looked out of sorts. Subbed after less than an hour.
Simon Walton: 7. Decent performance from Walton, sitting in front of the back four and Pools looked more compact and solid than in previous matches.
Matty Dolan: 7. Excellent corner for Baldwin’s goal. Gave the ball away once or twice in the centre of midfield but overall a solid performance.
Andy Monkhouse: 6. Quieter night for Monkhouse. Played wide left and wasn’t as influential as he was against Cheltenham Town last time out. Also booked again.
Brad Walker: 8. A contender for man of the match after a much-improved second half showing. Always looking for the ball, plays it nice and simple and looks very composed. Keen to push forward too.
Jonathan Franks: 7. Worked his socks off in the first half without any reward. Was too isolated at times from his team mates and was pushed out wide when James came on as sub.
Luke James: 6. Looked as keen as ever when he came on. Didn’t have much in the way of chances but worked hard for the team.
James Poole: 6. Was elbowed when clean through on goal but referee waved it away. The recent rest will have benefited him though.
Sam Collins: N/A
Coventry: Murphy, Christie, Jordan Clarke, Seaborne, Adams, Baker (Webster 90), Conor Thomas, Fleck, Moussa, Leon Clarke, Wilson (Daniels 84).
Subs Not Used: Barton, Phillips, Garner, Haynes, Gott.
Goals: Leon Clarke 36,90.
Pools: Flinders, Duckworth, Baldwin, Burgess, Austin, Compton (James 57), Walton (Poole 69), Walker, Dolan, Monkhouse,
Franks (Collins 84).
Subs Not Used: Rafferty, Sweeney, Holden, Rodney.
Booked: Baldwin, Monkhouse.
Goal: Baldwin 88.
Att: 1,214 (Pools 225)
Ref: Keith Hill (Hertfordshire).