HARTLEPOOL United’s heaviest defeat under Colin Cooper was as miserable as the scoreline suggests.
The fact that captain Matthew Bates felt obliged to apologise to the 79 brave souls that travelled across from the North East spoke volumes.
Under Cooper’s stewardship, Pools have - in the main - been at least hard to beat. But not last night.
The game was open from the off and Port Vale were given the freedom of Vale Park to pump cross after cross into the Pools box.
Every one of the six goals conceded was avoidable and the defensive display and scoreline will be a major cause for concern for the Pools manager.
Micky Adams’ side didn’t have to create a moment of magic to put Pools to the sword, Cooper’s team was gifting it to them on a plate.
By the end it was teetering on embarrassment.
Afterwards Cooper was rightly fuming with his side.
As a former Middlesbrough defender who has played for England one thing Cooper prides himself on is having a strong defensive unit.
But last night they collapsed and what was more worrying was it came so soon after a fairly solid defensive display at Stevenage, despite the 1-0 defeat.
Yes, Port Vale are from the league above but that is no excuse seeing as though last season Pools coped admirably against higher league opposition in cup competitions.
Pools fans will be hoping, wishing, praying that last night’s collapse was a one-off and that they bounce back to winning ways this weekend.
Bates has already described the Bury match as a “huge, huge” game - just two matches into the new season.
You may not believe this, but the away side actually started the match well.
Cooper had made three changes, the injured Stuart Parnaby missed out altogether while Marlon Harewood and Jack Compton were dropped to the bench.
In their places came Boro loanee Ryan Brobbel, debutant Michael Woods and Jonathan Franks.
It was an attacking tactical switch by Cooper, with Pools starting in a 4-3-3 formation and a lot of supporters had called for Brobbel and Franks to be included to add a bit of much-needed pace and creativity going forward.
But after a promising opening five minutes, the match quickly began to unravel for Pools.
Defender Ryan McGivern was given too much time and space to shoot from distance, the shot seemed to swerve and Flinders could only spill the ball.
Ben Williamson was on hand to poke the ball home in the 8th minute.
Two minutes later though and Cooper’s side were level.
Franks picked the ball up 25-yards out and struck a low shot to Sam Johnson’s right and into the corner of the net.
Five minutes later and Williamson netted his second of the game.
Vale midfielder Mark Marshall was given too much time to jink his way into the box and feed the ball to Williamson who shot through the legs of Flinders at the keeper’s near post.
It got worse just three minutes later with Williamson completing his hat-trick in the 18th minute.
The goal came after a routine cross by Chris Birchall wasn’t dealt with and Williamson managed to get in between Michael Duckworth and Sam Collins to loop a header over Flinders.
So after less than 20 minutes, Pools were 3-1 down. All three goals were avoidable.
There were further chances for Marshall and Williamson as Micky Adams’ side looked to steamroll Pools into submission before the break.
James lashed a shot wildly over the bar after 36 minutes and Brobbel then crossed for Franks but he couldn’t get enough of his head onto the ball.
Vale were comfortable though and could have added to that before the break, Flinders saving well from a Michael O’Connor free-kick from distance.
Tom Pope then hit the post for the home side.
Finally, the half-time whistle came and a chance for Pools to catch their breath.
Cooper’s words certainly had an early impact, with Pools starting the second half strongly.
In the 55th minute, Franks did well down the left before crossing towards the six-yard line towards Brobbel but he was unable to take advantage of the cross.
The clearance dropped to Austin who fired in a half-volley from 20 yards out, forcing Johnson into a strong save.
Pools had their tails up and Chris Robertson then hauled down Collins inside the penalty area with 58 minutes on the clock.
Austin stepped up to send Johnson the wrong way and make it 3-2.
So, game on then? Wrong.
Vale - re-energised by the half-time arrival of Hartlepool-born midfielder Michael Brown - upped their game and less than three minutes after getting back into the game, Pools again shot themselves in the foot.
This time, the cross from the left flank wasn’t dealt with and Brown rose highest to head the ball in from the six-yard box.
A crushing blow.
James then curled a shot wide and Brobbel forced Johnson into making a smart save before Vale scored again.
Hat-trick hero Williamson was subbed with 73 minutes on the clock, Louis Dodds coming on.
Dodds’ shot a minute later saw Flinders dive to his left to make a smart save but Pope followed in to make it 5-2 to Vale.
In truth, it could have been far worse if it wasn’t for Flinders saving first from Dodds who did well to find room in the box before his shot was well blocked, then Brown again forced Flinders into a save.
In the 85th minute, it did get worse.
Marshall with the cross to the unchallenged Pope at the back post, who glanced a header into the corner of the net to make it 6-2 to Vale.
Flinders made a further fantastic save, with his outstretched right foot to deny Brown from making it seven.
Then an awful miss from six-yards out from sub Marlon Harewood summed up a thoroughly miserable night for Pools.
The Capital One Cup dream may be over for another season but it is last night’s performance that will be causing Cooper nightmares.