Connor Smith in action against Luton Town. Picture by FRANK REID
Connor Smith in action against Luton Town. Picture by FRANK REID

ONE step forward. Two steps back.

That sums up Hartlepool United’s season so far with defeat to Luton Town at an emotional Victoria Park seeing Sam Collins’ side slip to third bottom.

Hope and confidence was high on the back of the fine win at Exeter City.

But after a promising first half display Pools again struggled to create chances and score goals on their home turf.

Just three league goals at home this season and two of those came against Shrewsbury.

It could, of course, all been very different had Pools been awarded the clear penalty for the foul on Charlie Wyke in the 30th minute.

But the penalty wasn’t given and Pools can’t be relying on officials to help them.

Goals win football matches yet with Pools scoring just eight league goals all season – and conceding 20 – it is no wonder they find themselves where they are.

Pools are in desperate need of two things; one a decision on the next manager and two, some new players.

Saturday marked two weeks since Colin Cooper resigned and within that time York City and Tranmere Rovers have both seen managerial changes.

Yet Pools fans are still waiting.

Could it be Sam Collins? He has certainly impressed in his short time in charge of the first team.

Collins named an unchanged line-up playing an attacking 4-3-3 formation and Pools had the best of the first half and felt hard done by going in 1-0 down.

Confident Pools were full of energy early on and Collins will have been pleased with the performance in front of the visiting Norwegian dignitaries from owners IOR, who were over for the weekend.

But the second-half wasn’t up to scratch and while there was plenty of effort and commitment this current squad lacks the consistency to produce a high level of performance every week.

Collins admitted afterwards the side lacks leaders and the squad is unbalanced with too many younger players and older pros.

Whether he is given the chance to change that remains up in the air but something needs to happen soon.

There were some positives, and in truth not much to separate the two sides, but it did feel like normal service had been resumed for Pools with a defeat.

Tomorrow’s match away to Accrington Stanley has a lot riding on it but if Pools could pull a result out of the bag then the momentum gained from Exeter could be regained.

Another defeat though, would knock the stuffing out of this young, new-look side.

Tellingly once again Marlon Harewood, along with Darren Holden and on-loan Boro defender David Atkinson, failed to make the squad despite being fit.

Pools started well with Wyke forcing Mark Tyler into a strong save in the fourth minute after a powerful shot from distance.

Then, four minutes later, it was Ryan Brobbel’s turn to chance his arm from distance. His 25-yard effort just swerved over the bar at the last second.

Emotions were running high at The Vic as supporters stood as one to take part in two separate rounds of applause.

First, in the 14th minute in memory of Hartlepool teenager Rhys Hewitt, 14, who tragically died in a road accident last week.

Then in the 25th minute, fans again took to their feet and applauded in memory of Pools midfielder Michael Maidens who died seven years ago yesterday.

On the pitch and five minutes later Pools were denied a clear penalty that could have changed the whole match.

Brobbel played in Wyke who was then chopped down by Town defender Luke Wilkinson but the strong appeals were waved away by referee Paul Tierney – who didn’t enjoy the best of games.

Backpedaling Matthew Bates then saw his flicked header from inside the area pushed on to the crossbar in the 33rd minute before John Still’s side took the lead against the run of play in the 40th minute.

Some slack Pools defending from a throw-in saw Mark Cullen played in by Pelly Ruddock, the striker firing a low shot underneath the legs of Scott Flinders to put the Hatters 1-0 up.

After the break, it was Luton – backed by 525 travelling supporters – who had the better chances to add to their lead.

Ricky Miller fizzed a shot just wide of the right-hand post from distance before Wilkinson then incredibly missed a great chance to put Luton 2-0 up with header.

Collins turned to Connor Smith from the subs bench with 63 minutes gone, Michael Woods the man replaced and the teenager looked positive when he came on.

Pools were pressing looking for the equaliser but they couldn’t break down a stubborn Luton defence and they were made to pay with ten minutes left.

Neil Austin conceded a dubious free-kick on the edge of the Pools penalty area, from which Flinders palmed away Miller’s strike only to see the ball break to sub Jim Stevenson who was all alone to poke the ball into the net.

Pools were given a late lifeline from the penalty spot in the 92nd minute, when sub Brad Walker was brought down by Scott Griffiths’ two-footed lunge.

Austin stepped up to blast the ball high into the left hand roof of the net but it came too late for Pools.

It was their eighth defeat out of 13 league matches.

Unlucky, perhaps, but what is certain is that whoever does become the new manager will also need some new players.