WHISPER it quietly but Hartlepool United are within grasp of the Sky Bet League Two play-off spots.
Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Newport County has pushed Pools up to eighth, just outside the top seven and now just six points adrift.
Colin Cooper’s team hasn’t been in the top seven all season but they are now within touching distance thanks to back-to-back hard fought victories and a third consecutive clean sheet.
On paper, the win over Newport looks as comfortable as they come, in truth, it wasn’t as easy as that.
For large periods of the opening 45 minutes Pools were camped in their own half, sitting too deep and inviting pressure from Newport, managed by former Spurs defender Justin Edinburgh.
For consecutive Saturday’s Pools at times rode their luck but once again stood firm and two moments of pure class –coupled with a comical and clumsy own goal – secured the win and three more vital points.
Some fans don’t want to even think about the play-offs until Pools are actually in them and that is fair enough because there has been enough false dawns this season to question whether the team can maintain the form of recent weeks.
Pools do look more solid though, with added experience in the side, and the team as a unit are working really hard for each other, making them hard to beat.
But Pools are relying heavily on on-loan Christian Burgess and Sam Collins remaining injury and suspension free, as that would leave the squad woefully short of central defenders, following Jack Baldwin’s Peterborough United move.
Meanwhile, highly rated Luke Williams’ month-long loan deal from Middlesbrough comes to an end after the weekend trip to Northampton Town and Cooper is desperate to tie him down for the rest of the season.
Not literally of course, mind some League Two defenders may have to resort to that in a bid to stop the twinkle-toed frontman.
But, if Williams stay is lengthened and Collins and Burgess stay injury and suspension free, then Pools have every chance of making that top seven – provided they don’t collapse again like they did post-Christmas with three defeats on the bounce.
Recently though, Pools have turned the corner and look more resolute at the back, which in turn is giving the forward players licence to do their stuff at the other end.
And two moments of magic on Saturday helped seal the win.
Luke James, with his 13th goal in the 41st minute, put Pools on their way after taking Simon Walton’s cross with his left foot just inside the area, before turning and shooting low past Elliott Parish with his right.
It was a class finish from the 19-year-old, so deadly from that distance.
In the 93rd minute, it was the turn of the other Luke, nutmegging a Newport defender before laying the ball to Andy Monkhouse, who played it back to the lively 20-year-old, who then shot low into the back of the net.
Sandwiched in between was a bizarre own goal, courtesy of County’s Andy Sandell in the 55th minute.
It meant in the space of a week Pools have beaten two rivals for a top seven spot – Dagenham & Redbridge and Newport County – with seventh-placed Southend United to come Tuesday.
Victory there would put Cooper’s side within three points and while 10th-placed Newport may have four games in hand, the Exiles haven’t won in six and playing almost two matches a week to catch up will be hard going.
Saturday’s win was an all-round team performance with Burgess and Collins at the back, Walton and Williams in the middle and James up front all excelling.
Cooper decided to stick with the same winning team, with a welcome return to the bench for Michael Duckworth but Neil Austin again missed out with a toe injury and won’t return until after Northampton.
Newport had the first chance, with the Pools defence caught napping from an early corner but Pools rode their luck and Collins almost snatched the lead in the 6th minute.
His header flying just over following a pin-point Walton corner, again impressive at the base of the diamond formation.
Newport’s David Pipe then screamed a long-range shot just wide but again Pools hit back, first through Burgess, who fired over from 25-yards, and then Jordan Richards who forced Parish into a low save.
Pools though were sitting far too deep and the vast majority of the play was inside the home half, Walton and the defence remaining sharp to nullify the Newport threat.
Then, in the space of two minutes, Darren Holden and Marlon Harewood entered referee Trevor Kettle’s book as the game threatened to boil over.
They say you never notice a good referee, well Kettle was very visible and was keen to flash the cards – apt given it was Valentine’s Day the day before.
Collins then cleared a goal-bound Ryan Burge shot from 12-yards to keep the scores level in the 37th minute and Newport paid the price four minutes later through James’ clinical strike.
Walton did well to whip the ball towards James, who took a touch, turned, before firing it low past Parish.
Burgess was then called upon to make a last-ditch tackle after Collins had been dispossessed, to maintain the lead at half-time.
It wasn’t long after the interval before Pools had doubled the scoreline, through one of the most comical own goals you’ll see this season.
Walton’s corner was headed by Lee Minshull onto Harry Worley before finally going into the net off Sandell – the Pools players almost too embarrassed to celebrate.
Cooper made his first sub in the 72nd minute, Jack Barmby coming on for Harewood, with Pools switching to a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Williams tucked in behind James.
It was aimed at shoring up the victory and worked as the next 15 minutes were comfortable for Pools, with neither side creating clear chances.
Ironically, Barmby was partly to blame for that. He struggled to beat his man down the right wing and misplaced passes during a fairly miserable sub appearance.
Victory was sealed in the third minute of added-on time courtesy of Williams.
A low, crisp shot from eight yards following a neat lay-off from Monkhouse gave the forward his second goal in a week.
All in all, the Pools supporters went home happy with another win, another clean sheet and just allowing themselves to start dreaming of the play-offs once again.
Hartlepool United (4-4-2): Flinders; Richards; Holden; Collins (C); Burgess; Walton; Walker; Monkhouse; Williams; James (Franks, 87); Harewood (Barmby, 72).
Subs Not Used: Rafferty; Poole; Compton; Sweeney; Duckworth.
Booked: Holden, Harewood, Walker.
Goal: James (41), Sandwell OG (55), Williams (93)
Newport County (3-4-3): Parish; Sandell; Naylor; Worley; Pipe (C) (Zebrowski, 72); Chapman; Minshull (Porter, 62); Willmott; Jeffers (Jolley, 72); Burge; Howe.
Subs Not Used: Hughes; Crow; Jackson; Thompson.
Booked: Worley, Naylor.
Referee: Trevor Kettle (Berkshire)
Attendance: 3,470 (127 Newport)
Scott Flinders: 7. For the third successive match didn’t really have a great deal to do but again managed to keep a clean sheet. Showed good concentration.
Jordan Richards: 7. Doing well since returning to the starting line-up. Got forward as much as possible, needs to keep performing to keep fit-again Michael Duckworth out.
Sam Collins: 7. Solid performance from Captain Collins. Could have placed his headers better at times but at least he won them. Done really well since returning to team.
Christian Burgess: 8. Contender for man of the match. Fantastic display alongside Sam Collins, including a fantastic last-ditch tackle in the first-half.
Darren Holden: 7. Looks comfortable in the team and is set to keep his place for Southend United and Northampton Town matches, with Neil Austin still struggling with toe injury.
Simon Walton: 8. MOM. Great performance from Walton at the heart of midfield. Broke up numerous Newport attacks and played it simple to attack-minded players. Also two assists.
Brad Walker: 7. Much improved second-half from Walker. Guilty at times of not maintaining shape in the opening 45 minutes but always keen to push on. Booked for tugging shirt.
Andy Monkhouse: 7. Linked up well with Luke Williams for third goal. Worked hard for the team.
Luke Williams: 8. Another good performance from Williams, capped off with a skilful third goal where he nutmegged defender, laid it off to Monkhouse, before finishing with aplomb. Works really hard and took an almighty whack on the side of the face.
Luke James: 8. Another hard worker, the Amble-born teenager bagged his 13th of the season with a low, crisp shot after a smart turn. Always dangerous from that distance.
Marlon Harewood: 7. Partnership with Luke James is beginning to blossom and is taking a lot of the impact from defenders. Desperate for a goal though.
Jack Barmby: 6. Struggled. Had several attempts to beat his man but didn’t and misplaced couple of passes.
Jonathan Franks: N/A
Your Terrace Tweets:
Steven Liddell @slidds
@RMennearHMail good performance, spine of team more solid with @sammyboy5677 & @Mazer_9 in the team. @SimonWalton8 MOM for me #terracetweets
Catherine McLaughlin @stucath70
@RMennearHMail @HPoolMail I think we rode our luck a bit today and the scoreline flattered us but we scored a couple of beautys. PTID
Liam Reid @ltreidy67
@HPoolMail A solid performance. Defence gave nothing away and chances were taken when they came. Williams and Walton both excellent.
Graham Mcelhone @monkeyhangermac
Great win, all to play for in the last 15 games James and Williams fantastic Collins and Walton solid. Now for southend #terracetweets
Lord Smythe @LordSmythe
@HPoolMail Too difficult to choose #motm such was this all round team performance great display, great result @Official_HUFC #terracetweets
neil pearson @hpoolneil
#terracetweet good 3 points, not the best performance but newport were poor, dont get me started on the ref an absolute joke.
neil sharpe @sharpeleeholme
#terracetweet another great win, great team performance, man off the match was hard to make I would give it Simon Walton up the pools