ONE step forward, two back.
Last weekend’s 3-0 victory over Torquay United put Hartlepool United within touching distance – or five points – of the top seven in Sky Bet League Two.
It meant Saturday’s trip to a sun-kissed Buckinghamshire was a real chance to close the gap further, with Wycombe Wanderers fourth bottom despite being unbeaten in five.
Yet two moments of sloppy play and a disappointing second-half display ensured Colin Cooper & Co faced a long coach journey home to reflect on what might have been.
On the plus side, both Plymouth Argyle and Southend United lost, which meant they hadn’t lost any ground despite the 2-1 defeat.
But that made it all the worse for the 188-travelling supporters because if Pools had held on to their half-time lead, they could have been just two points off the play-offs.
It was a frustrating afternoon all round.
Frustrating the clear third-minute foul on Luke James inside the penalty area wasn’t given and that the culprit Anthony Stewart wasn’t given his marching orders.
Frustrating that Pools then took the lead through (another) sublime Jack Barmby goal three minutes before the break but couldn’t hold on.
And doubly frustrating was the manner in which Pools let their lead slip; Dean Morgan getting in front of Sam Collins too easily in the 52nd minute to equalise and then Matt McClure had a free header from six yards to win it after evading Simon Walton.
It looked like a foul on Scott Flinders as Max Kretzschmar’s corner came across but even so McClure shouldn’t have been allowed a free header inside the area.
Afterwards Cooper was rightly scathing of referee Andrew Madley’s performance – the James penalty incident in particular was blatant.
But the referee’s performance overshadowed what was in truth a bitterly disappointing second-half performance, in which Wycombe bullied Pools into submission.
They came roaring out of the blocks second-half and the Pools players couldn’t cope with the pressure.
Ball after ball was pumped into the penalty area and Pools were unable to assert themselves or push further up the field.
Cooper admitted afterwards he wanted to see his side “puff out their chests” more and grab control of the game.
Pools do have a lot of young and relatively inexperienced players, the likes of James, Brad Walker, Barmby, Darren Holden and Jordan Richards but there is also an experienced spine.
Flinders, Collins, Walton, Andy Monkhouse and Marlon Harewood all started so you can’t really use youthful naivety as an excuse for what happened in the second-half.
It was a missed opportunity to bridge what, at times, seems like an impossible gap.
There are only 11 games left and Pools need to win at least two more matches than the likes of Southend United if they are to clamber into the top seven.
As much as Cooper and the players were left baffled and bemused by the referee’s performance, it is the missed opportunity that will really hurt.
Pools – playing the first game since Craig Hignett had departed to be Aitor Karanka’s Number 2 at Middlesbrough – were unchanged from the Torquay win.
It was a lovely warm spring day in Wycombe, being watched by former Sunderland manager and Middlesbrough coach Malcolm Crosby – now chief scout for Birmingham City – who was deep in conversation with Cooper prior to kick-off.
Also watching was BBC Breakfast show presenter Bill Turnbull. He was co-commentating on local radio and it wasn’t long before he had some breaking news to report.
Three minutes in and James was bundled to the floor by Anthony Stewart, yet inexplicably the referee waved away the penalty appeals and it took Pools a while to recover.
Whether or not the penalty would have been scored remains to be seen but the home side being down to ten men so early certainly would have changed the course of the game.
James had started the match well, running at the Wycombe defence four times within 15 minutes but they just about managed to keep the 19-year-old at bay.
While Pools enjoyed plenty of possession it was Wycombe that carved out the better chances.
In the 29th minute Walker had to be alert to block the strike from Nick Arnold and then moments later substitute McClure was free inside the area but his fiercely-struck shot was straight down the throat of Flinders, who gathered well.
Matt Bloomfield then screwed a shot five-yards wide of the post in the 39th minute but it was Pools that took the lead three minutes later.
Barmby, son of former England international Nick again watching from the stands, took advantage of a chest down from Marlon Harewood, took one touch, before volleying a left-footed shot past Matt Ingram into the top of the net.
He doesn’t score tap-ins. Moments later he was then booked as Pools entered the break in front and in control.
But then it all went horribly wrong.
Pools were slow to start and within seven minutes Wycombe had equalised.
Striker Morgan managed to get in front of Collins to head the ball in from six-yards, following a good cross from Josh Scowen.
Cooper’s side looked rattled.
Max Kretzschmar then found himself in acres of space on the edge of the Pools penalty area but fired his shot high over Flinders’ bar to the relief of the stopper.
Walton chanced his arm from 20-yards with a left-footed volley but it was wide, while Richards did well to squeeze a cross towards James but he was sandwiched out of it by Leon Johnson and Stewart.
Wycombe then struck again.
Sub McClure found himself free at the back post in the 70th minute from a Kretzschmar corner to head the ball past Flinders, who was appealing for a foul as the ball came across.
It was a poor goal to give away and it could have been worse but Flinders managed to get a strong hand to McClure’s effort moments later.
Cooper brought on Antony Sweeney, Jonathan Franks and Nialle Rodney as the clock ticked down but the damage had already been done.
Walker then had a 25-yard shot saved and Sweeney headed over the bar late on.
Temporarily down but certainly not out.
The gap is still five points and there is plenty still to play for – starting with Accrington Stanley away on Tuesday.
Another team said to be ‘struggling’ near the bottom, who happened to beat table-topping Chesterfield 3-1 on Saturday.
Over to you Pools.
Pools (4-4-2): Flinders, Richards, Collins(C), Burgess, Holden, Walton (Rodney, 87), Walker, Monkhouse, Barmby (Sweeney, 73), James, Harewood (Franks, 73).
Subs Not Used: Rafferty (gk), Hawkins, Compton, Poole.
Booked: Barmby, Walton.
Goal: Barmby 42.
Wycombe (4-4-2): Ingram, McCoy, Wood, Johnson, Stewart, Scowen, Arnold, Bloomfield, Kretzschmar, Morgan (Craig, 90), Cowan-Hall (McClure, 8).
Subs Not Used: Horlock (gk), Jeffrey, Kuffour, Pierre, Kewley-Graham.
Booked: McCoy, Scowen.
Goal: Morgan, 52, McClure, 70.
Attendance: 3,073 (188 Pools)
Referee: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire)
Scott Flinders: 6. Made a couple of routine saves in the first-half but was far busier in the second. Looked to have been blocked for their winning goal, will have been disappointed to have conceded two sloppy goals.
Jordan Richards: 6. Robust in the tackle and had a very busy second-half along with the rest of the defence.
Sam Collins: 6. Should have done better with the first goal, allowed Dean Morgan to beat him to the ball six yards out.
Christian Burgess: 6. Alongside Collins had managed to restrict Wycombe to half chances in first half. Didn’t do a lot wrong but endured a tough second-half, which ultimately ended in defeat.
Darren Holden: 7. Always positive and comfortable in possession. Needs to work on crossing still though. Long throw is a useful weapon and led to Barmby goal.
Simon Walton: 7. MOM. He was at fault for the second goal and admitted as much afterwards but aside from that battled hard again in the centre of midfield. Does a lot of the groundwork for flair players.
Andy Monkhouse: 7. Good first-half from the experienced winger, always an outlet and linked up well with Darren Holden. Struggled to get out of own half in second.
Brad Walker: 6. Threatened to break through on a couple of occasions but didn’t really trouble the defenders. Made a couple of timely blocks in his own area.
Jack Barmby: 7. Another marvellous goal from the 19-year-old. With three defenders on him he still managed to delicately loft the ball into the top of the net. Booked.
Luke James: 6. Worked hard as ever and should have had a penalty three minutes in. Always looking to run at the defence but bullied off the ball a little in the second-half.
Marlon Harewood: 6. Chested the ball down to Barmby for the opening goal and put himself about but didn’t look a goal threat.
Antony Sweeney: 6. Added a bit of urgency but could have showed a bit more composure in the final stages. Sent a tame header over the bar near the end.
Jonathan Franks: 6. Looked bright when he came on but struggled to get crosses in when in good positions.
Nialle Rodney: N/A
Neil Pearson @hpoolneil
@RMennearHMail @HPoolMail no great surprise to see us lose, poor ref and poor play...typical pools get in a great position and we bottle it.
@RMennearHMail @HPoolMail Dreadful performance from back to front today. Very few players able to hold their heads up #terracetweets
Pete Stephenson @petestephenson2
@HPoolMail poor performance but if correct call is made on 3mins it’s different game! Wasn’t even hard decision, frustrating! #terracetweets
Mark Carroll @MARKCARROLL3
@HPoolMail after barmbys fine goal just before half time I hoped we would push on but 2nd half was dreadful, second to everything.