Why Hartlepool United's 1-0 win at Barrow was their best of the National League season so far
Three wins in a row, level on points with the play-offs, things have turned around rather well for Hartlepool United.
Tuesday night’s 1-0 win at Barrow was an incredibly hard worked one as Pools had to battle an early onslaught as well as the torrential conditions at Holker Street.
Barrow were always knocking on the door but never unlocking it as the longer the game remained goalless, the more Craig Hignett’s side believed they could go on to win it.
And that’s exactly what they did inside the final 20-minutes as Gime Toure slipped in Ryan Donaldson who darted forward before slotting the ball clinically into the bottom right corner of the goal.
Barrow battled for an equaliser but it was to no avail as the unyielding United defence held out for a deserved clean sheet.
The Bluebirds may be in the National League relegation zone but they are not a bad side by any means. The first 20 to 25-minutes of the match was the best any side have played against Pools so far this season.
They came out of the blocks strong, zipped it around and created numerous chances. While it looks pleasing on the eye, those chances needed to be put away by Ian Evatt’s side and thanks to the fine work of goalkeeper Ben Killip and his defence, Hartlepool remained in the match and their confidence grew.
On paper, it may look like a bit of a smash and grab from Pools but that would be harsh on Craig Hignett’s side. There was no real luck element to their win, they showed the grit, nastiness and determination required to succeed and grind out results.
For all of Barrow’s possession in dangerous areas, Pools were still able to create the better chances with Donaldson and Toure coming close in the first half and substitute Nicke Kabamba hitting the side netting from close range late on.
Toure also just missed another great cross by Peter Kioso from the right – on another night, Pools could have won by a few – though that would have been incredibly harsh on Barrow.
The Bluebirds will feel hard done by the defeat. They put United under sustained spells of pressure and were arguably the better side based on general play alone.
But it’s the result that matters – when you look at the table it’s Barrow who sit 21st and Pools eighth, albeit only nine games in. People don’t question how you win, just that you win, and good teams find a way of doing that.
And that’s why it’s their best win of the season so far.
It’s now three in a row in what has been an impressive turnaround arguably caused by a slight but effective tactical reshuffling.
Pools won one of their first six games this season without ever playing too poorly. They’ve never really had a bad 90-minute spell, it’s just been momentary lapses and errors that have proved costly.
But that has been cut out in recent weeks – the previously shaky and unsure defence and goalkeeper are starting to look confident and dependable.
A simple change in formation to three centre-backs these past four games has seen Hartlepool pick up 10 points out of a possible 12 and keep two clean sheets in the process.
Young centre-back Aaron Cunningham has been exceptional since his return to the starting line-up with almost nothing getting past him. Knowing he has the experience of Michael Raynes to his right and also Mark Kitching to cover him down the left is bringing out the best in the 21-year-old.
Last season, Fraser Kerr was one of the best centre-backs in the National League at Gateshead, where he played on the right side of a back three. After a shaky start to the season, it’s no surprise that the Scottish defender is back to showing the form that saw Pools bring him to Victoria Park in the first place following the formation change.
Along with Kerr, Michael Raynes has been ever present at the back this season and has commanded the back-line impeccably over the past couple of weeks.
There were question marks over goalkeeper Ben Killip early into his Pools career but the 23-year-old seems to be growing in confidence by the game.
Some convincing claims and fine saves kept Barrow at bay on Tuesday night. He’s starting to show the form you’d expect from an England C international.
But it would be wrong to single out just those players as the entire team has played their part. Toure’s efforts go without saying, Peter Kioso is an incredible talent, Gus Mafuta has been a revelation alongside Jason Kennedy and Liam Noble in midfield and Donaldson is almost superhuman with the performances he’s putting in after not having any form of pre-season.
While the 3-5-2 formation has been a literal game-changer for Hartlepool, Hignett has gone on the record several times saying it’s not his preferred choice as he’d look to change it once everyone is fit.
Though if it’s not broke, don’t fix it!
It’s three wins in a row now, things have turned around very quickly so it’s important to realise they can turn back just as quickly.
Pools will need to harness the momentum they’ve shown in their last three games as they’ve found different ways to win in all three.
If they can keep doing that, then there’s not many teams that will be able to stop them.