The reasons why Hartlepool United's decision to part company with Graeme Lee is harsh including the form of former Sunderland striker and ex-Norwich City defender

Were Hartlepool United right to part company with manager Graeme Lee?

By Joe Ramage
Friday, 6th May 2022, 4:45 pm

It’s a question which is going to be asked for quite some time over the summer, or at least until Pools are able to confirm the new man in charge.

And it is a question which is quite nuanced in the answers you try to provide.

From the outset, this looks like a harsh decision to sack a manager who succeeded in achieving the objective in which the club tasked him with.

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Hartlepool United parted company with Graeme Lee ahead of their final game of the season. (Credit: Mark Fletcher | MI News)

Peel back some of those layers however, and there is some justification to the decision.

And having looked at some of the reasons why the decision might have been made, it’s now time to consider why this could be considered the wrong decision.

Mission accomplished

No matter which way you look at it, Lee achieved what he was brought in to do by securing Pools’ League Two status. That cannot be denied.

Timi Odusina has been one of the players to enjoy success under Graeme Lee. (Credit: Mark Fletcher | MI News)

Not only did Lee secure Pools’ EFL status, he managed it with ease with Pools some 17 points above the relegation zone.

While many may contest the groundwork was done by previous manager Dave Challinor, Lee’s record of 31 points from 26 league games would still be on course for safety over the 50 point mark.

Where the end of season form has undoubtedly been frustrating, as a newly promoted side from the National League staying in the division has to be the goal.

Perhaps you could look at Sutton United and compare their season to Pools’ with the U’s very much in play-off contention, but there is a caveat in that this is their first season at this level.

Graeme Lee did improve Hartlepool United's away form. (Credit: Mark Fletcher | MI News)

How often do we see teams promoted to the Premier League for the first time, for example, and perform admirably. Maybe it would be best to assess Sutton based on next season, should they remain in the division.

Throw in the success in both the FA Cup and the EFL Trophy and there are plenty of reasons to look back on the season fondly.

Away form

When Lee arrived he walked into an immediate problem with Pools’ away form.

Pools had taken just four points from 30 on their travels which, in turn, heaped pressure onto their home form.

In the 13 games on the road since Lee’s appointment, Pools have claimed 16 points from 39 which has been imperative to their survival.

Although the form at the Suit Direct Stadium has tailed off recently, it is reassuring to know that Pools do not resemble a beaten side when stepping off the team bus at away stadiums.

Mitigating circumstances

The form since Pools were knocked out of the EFL trophy against Rotherham United has been alarming, but there has undeniably been a number of mitigating circumstances.

When Lee returned from his absence with COVID-19, he had just 12 players available to him in training. While accusations can be thrown at him for sanctioning player exits, Pools have experienced an uncanny amount of injuries over recent weeks, some of which you simply cannot legislate for. Nor can he legislate for some of the missed opportunities from his players.

Beyond the injuries and missed opportunities though, there have been long-standing issues with player contracts which you can only assume have impacted performances with certain players.

While the mantra is often for players to play for contracts here or elsewhere, that lingering doubt over what lies ahead can be unsettling and subconsciously translate onto the pitch.

Those contract issues are not the fault of Lee who opened dialogue with certain players as early as February.

Unfortunately for Lee however, he has had to deal with the standoff between players and the club over new deals while trying to motivate them for the remainder of the season.

Player improvements

One thing to often consider about a manager is how players have taken to his methods and whether or not they have improved and for certain players at Pools there has been an increased level of output.

Pools announced Luke Molyneux as their player of the season last week and he is one of those to really excel under Lee.

The former Sunderland striker has scored eight times in 30 appearances under Lee which has elevated his stock and helped generate significant interest in his services from teams higher up the Football League.

As revealed by The Mail, Molyneux has enjoyed his time with Lee as the club looked to tie him down to a new deal but he is not the only one to flourish.

Timi Odusina, who was named as Pools’ young player of the year, made just eight league appearances prior to Lee’s arrival. Since then he has gone on to be one of their standout players of the season and one of the first names on the team sheet for Lee.

Odusina credits a continued run of games in the starting XI as the reason behind his form and that comes down to Lee.

Unfortunately for Pools, Odusina is another out of contract in the summer with a deal yet to be agreed which will have again unsettled Lee.

Of those players out of contract, only Tom Crawford has agreed a new deal with the 22-year-old enjoying his breakout year for Pools.

Crawford has made 37 appearances and, again, credits Lee for his upturn in form.

Adaptability

While it can be argued it has not worked out in recent weeks given their form, Lee has shown he is able to mix things up with his approach in games when it comes to formations.

Upon his arrival Lee insisted there wasn’t much to change in Challinor’s absence thanks to the success the club had achieved.

But as time wore on, Pools began to find things difficult in the 5-3-2 system before Lee switched to a 4-3-3 which coincided with an upturn in form.

Lee has dipped in and out of systems, with their most recent victory at Newport County being another example of a well executed game plan.

Summary

What does all of that mean? As with most cases, there has been some good and some bad. But ultimately for Lee, he achieved what he was brought in to do.

While there can be concerns about how the future may, or may not, look under Lee, he has helped keep Pools in the division which is the first step on their road towards League One – if that is the end goal.

Without this step, and should Pools have fallen back into the National League, the club would have been set back enormously. And for that, Lee deserves credit and can perhaps consider himself unfortunate to lose his job.