Stockport County 1-1 Hartlepool United verdict: A good point ‘tinged with disappointment’ as Dave Challinor's side keep up play-off charge
Hartlepool United continued their impressive unbeaten run in the National League with a 1-1 draw at play-off rivals Stockport County.
After a goalless first half of few chances, Pools midfielder Gavan Holohan headed the visitors in front early in the second half.
Hartlepool had chances to extend their lead before new Stockport signing Paddy Madden volleyed the hosts level in the closing stages.
The draw extended Pools’ unbeaten run to 11 matches as they remained second in the National League table.
Here are the big talking points from the game…
Injuries to two key players
Dave Challinor’s side went into the game following a solid 1-0 win at Dagenham & Redbridge in midweek.
The Pools boss admitted he would take four points from the two difficult away fixtures but was still desperate for another win.
But Hartlepool were hit by an injury blow late on Friday as in-form forward Rhys Oates was ruled out of the game with a groin strain.
That saw Luke Molyneux return to the side alongside Luke Armstrong in attack – the only change from Tuesday’s win.
There was also a surprise return on the bench as winger Claudio Ofosu made an appearance for the first time in over three months. Mason Bloomfield, Tom Crawford, Henrich Ravas, Josh MacDonald and Oates made the journey to Edgeley Park but did not feature in the matchday squad.
During the match itself, right-back Jamie Sterry picked up a hamstring injury which forced him off just moments before Stockport’s equaliser.
Sterry and Oates have been key players for Pools during their undefeated streak but both now face a short spell on the sidelines which could see them miss the Easter Bank Holiday double header.
A ‘play-off’ encounter
Before the game, Challinor was drilling in a ‘play-off’ mentality into his players. “Lose this game and that’s you done,” the Pools boss said in his Friday press conference.
And that seemed to transpire onto the pitch as Pools set themselves up well and were very organised out of possession to limit Stockport to few chances.
The first half was a cagey affair with both sides cancelling each other out, desperate not to lose while tentatively looking to get the all important first goal.
Thankfully for Hartlepool, they were able to take the lead after half-time as centre-back Lewis Cass burst forward well before putting in an excellent delivery for Holohan to nod in.
A great run and a well-connected header saw the Irish midfielder net his seventh of the season.
“He wasn't happy that [his goalscoring record] has been highlighted but we’ve spoken about Gav before and it’s about getting into those areas and if he gets into those areas, regardless of him scoring or not, that’s his game,” Challinor told The Mail.
“It’s good for Cass to get forward and join in, a great run from Gav and a good header to put us in a strong position.”
After that, Pools had a few chances to extend their lead.
Gary Liddle’s header was unable to be turned in by Ryan Johnson from close range while Sterry and Armstrong saw a couple of good chances go begging.
At the other end, Stockport started to threaten with Macauley Southam-Hales almost coming back to haunt his former club with a back post header which was well saved by Ben Killip.
Killip was called into action again with a fine diving save to deny Elliot Newby from finding the bottom right corner.
Madden makes his mark
With 12-minutes of normal time remaining, Stockport finally got through Pools’ stubborn defence.
Southam-Hales’ throw into the penalty area was flicked into the path of Madden who finished with aplomb from close range in what was his only real opportunity of the game.
It was the 31-year-old’s first goal since arriving from League One side Fleetwood Town on a three-year deal earlier in the month.
The Irishman arrived at Edgeley Park with a rich goal scoring pedigree in the third tier having previously won the division’s golden boot
And after drawing level in the closing stages, The Hatters looked like the more likely team to go on and snatch three points but Pools recomposed themselves and were able to take a point back to the north east.
A missed opportunity?
A result ‘tinged with disappointment’ according to Challinor following the full-time whistle.
Considering Sutton United and Torquay United in first and third respectively had dropped points. It was a great chance for Pools to move 12 points clear of fourth placed Stockport and close the gap at the top of the table.
Although the result seemed a fair one based on the balance of play, conceding a soft goal in the closing stages is always going to leave a slightly bitter taste.
It’s the first time in a while that all of the top four sides in the division have dropped points but Sutton remain very much in the driving seat, particularly following Friday's news.
The eve of the game saw Dover Athletic’s situation resolved and their results expunged which benefited Pools and Sutton with Torquay, Stockport and Wrexham all three points worse off.
Saturday’s draw keeps Pools four points off Sutton having played three games more. But crucially, they have a six point gap on third placed Torquay and nine on Stockport in fourth.
Challinor’s side are 11 unbeaten and continued their excellent record against their direct rivals at the top of the table. As it stands, they’ve taken at least three points off all of the current top seven, with the exception of Wrexham.
With 10 games remaining, winning the league outright remains a monumental task for Pools, reliant on an unwavering Sutton slipping up.
But a top three finish and a play-off semi-final match in front of 4,000 fans at Victoria Park is well within reach as we head into the final two months.
We can dream.