Oxford United 4-1 Hartlepool United: Pools FA Cup run comes to an end, now they can focus on the real task at hand in the National League
Hartlepool United’s FA Cup journey came to a slightly disappointing end at the hands of Oxford United on Saturday afternoon.
For 45-minutes, it looked as though Pools could pull off one of the upsets of the third round as they went in 1-0 ahead at the break thanks to Mark Kitching’s early strike.
But a second half onslaught from Oxford saw them run out as fairly comfortable 4-1 winners at the Kassam Stadium.
The result brings to an end a fairly successful FA Cup run for Pools despite their misfortune when it came to the draws and distances they had to travel.
Still, it was a run that generated a healthy six figure sum for the club as they saw off Brackley Town, Yeovil Town and Exeter City in the previous rounds before being finally undone by the League One side.
The 779 travelling supporters who made the near 500-mile round trip rightly took the plaudits following the match as they sang their hearts out from start to finish regardless of the scoreline. Nothing embodies the potential of this football club more.
Dave Challinor made a few changes from the New Year's Day defeat against Harrogate Town as the cup-tied Mark Shelton and Gary Liddle were replaced by Gus Mafuta and Fraser Kerr while Kitching returned to the side in place of Gime Toure as Pools switched to a more defensive set-up in an attempt to frustrate Oxford.
And Kitching’s introduction looked to be something of a masterstroke eight minutes in as the defender charged down a loose back pass from Rob Dickie and slotted the ball past Jordan Archer to leave the home side stunned.
This gave Hartlepool something to hang on to as Oxford inevitably started to impose themselves on the game and take control.
The hosts had a few chances in the first half but were frustrated by the visitors and ultimately failed to test Mitchell Beeney who once again stood between the sticks for Pools following his New Year’s Day debut.
On the stroke of half-time, Kitching burst through once again only to be bundled over inside the penalty area. It certainly looked like a penalty though the referee was quick to wave away the strong Pools appeals.
And that felt like something of a turning point in the tie as at 2-0, things could have been quite different going into the second half.
But it remained 1-0, though not for long. The second half proved to be one way traffic for the most part and seven minutes after half-time, Rob Hall breezed past a struggling Kenton Richardson before curling the ball beyond the reach of Beeney and into the bottom left corner to make it 1-1.
Not long after and the previously stubborn Pools defence was completely undone by a fine solo goal from Shandon Baptiste as the Oxford man waltzed his way through a sea of players before rolling the hosts into the lead.
Trailing for the first time with the best part of 20-minutes remaining, Pools started to throw men forward in an attempt to grab an equaliser.
They did start to get on the front foot somewhat with Gavan Holohan seeing a shot go wide and Kitching putting the ball in the net after the offside flag had been raised a good few seconds beforehand.
Challinor’s substitutions were positive as Tyler Hamilton, Luke Molyneux and Gime Toure were introduced but they ultimately backfired as a ruthless Oxford capitalised and exposed the now open Hartlepool defence as Tariqe Fosu tapped in at the far post to make it 3-1 with six minutes of normal time remaining.
And if that hadn’t secured Oxford’s place in the second round then Matty Taylor’s penalty certainly did as he finished emphatically after Kitching was adjudged to have fouled Mark Sykes.
The final 4-1 scoreline was perhaps slightly harsh on Pools, who were very much hanging on and in the tie for well over 80-minutes but the difference in quality was evident on the whole.
Oxford are no doubt a very good League One side and it’s no real surprise that they were able to brush Pools aside. But it’s the FA Cup, and it wasn’t as if Pools were going up against a Liverpool, Manchester City or even Sheffield United.
Oxford were sloppy in the first half and showed vulnerability which Pools initially took advantage of but weren’t quite ruthless enough in possession to cause anything more than a slight scare.
Of course Hartlepool weren’t expected to win and needed to treat Oxford with a certain degree of respect, but the fact of the matter is, it’s Oxford, and Pools had a better chance of progressing than most non-league sides in the third round could have hoped for.
It wasn’t to be in the end and maybe it’s a missed opportunity. But as a National League side, any FA Cup run is a bonus, a distraction to the main task at hand.
Like it or not, this cup run has rose-tinted Challinor’s start as Pools manager somewhat. It’s been an impressive run but back in the National League, which is the bread and butter for any manager, it’s two wins from eight.
The 24 goals conceded in all competitions since Challinor took charge is also a concern which he is no doubt trying to address.
As with any manager, time and patience is required and Challinor refreshingly knows where the issues lie and is actively looking to address them.
Perhaps this season will come too soon for a serious play-off challenge, hopefully not. But without a squad he can call his own, it’s always going to be difficult.
Their FA Cup commitments saw Pools drop to 17th in the National League table and the importance to make full use of this game in hand against Eastleigh on Tuesday night has increased even more.
They are now nine points off the final play-off place and only six off the relegation zone. With 18 games left to play, Pools need to be careful and start putting a run together quickly.
Hartlepool can take a lot of away from their cup run given the quality and desire they’ve shown particularly in the Yeovil and Exeter games as well as in the first half at Oxford.
But this needs to be applied properly and consistently in the National League. It’s far easier said than done but if they can find that balance, victories shouldn’t be too far away.