Trialists, Hartlepool United's transfer priorities and new signings: Five talking points after Runcorn Linnets win
Hartlepool swept past non-league side Runcorn Linnets in their first pre-season friendly of the summer – and while it was hard to draw too many conclusions from a 9-1 win, Pools boss Dave Challinor will have been satisfied with proceedings.
Clearly there is still plenty of work to be done between now and the start of the EFL season in less than three weeks’ time, with preparations set to increase next week against Spennymoor Town and Gateshead.
Runcorn play their football in Northern Premier League Division One, the eighth tier of English football, and the difference in quality showed as the game wore on.
Yet, as Challinor pointed out, the main purpose of this fixture was simply to get minutes in the legs following a shortened off season.
It’s been just four weeks since the side’s National League play-off final win over Torquay, yet there has been little time for celebrations.
Pools’ League Two opener against Crawley Town at The Vic is approaching fast, and decisions will have to be made quickly in the coming weeks.
Here are some of the talking points from the first pre-season fixture.
There were plenty of them – nine in total as Challinor played two separate XIs in each half.
The situation shows where Pools are at the moment, following the departures of key players such as Luke Armstrong, Rhys Oates and Ryan Johnson.
Challinor admitted after the game that the trialists who played against Runcorn are all in different situations, with some under serious consideration and others likely to leave next week.
With a need to beef up the squad, the Pools boss will have to decide which players are capable of competing at League Two level and worth signing permanently.
The search for strikers
One of the three trialists who featured in the first half was former Port Vale frontman Mark Cullen, a player Challinor is hopeful the club can sign.
The 29-year-old was released by Port Vale at the end of last season after making 18 League Two appearances, scoring twice, during the 2020/21 campaign.
Cullen netted Pools’ third goal against Runcorn, heading home Jamie Sterry’s cross from the right with a towering header above the opposition centre-back.
After losing Armstrong and Oates, Challinor wants to sign at least four new forward players for this season, and will have to consider some of the other trialists who featured.
Albeit against tiring opponents, one of the unnamed trialists scored four times, once from the penalty spot, while another bagged a brace.
They couldn’t have done much more.
New signings feature
While it’s hard to know how many of the trialists will play again at Spennymoor on Tuesday, there were some new faces who are here to stay.
Defender Reagan Ogle became Pools’ first signing of the summer earlier this week and started the game on the right of a back three.
The 22-year-old endured a sticky start as he was beaten for pace within two minutes and caught out for the opening goal, which saw Runcorn take the lead.
Ogle grew in confidence during the first 45 minutes, though, and was able to step out with the ball from defence, while looking to switch play to wing-back David Ferguson on the left.
Pools’ other new additions, midfielder Martin Smith and defender Neill Byrne, who only joined the club less than 24 hours before kick-off, were both introduced at half-time.
Byrne also played on the right of a back three and wore the captain’s armband in the second half. The 28-year-old played under Challinor at AFC Fylde and is clearly a commanding and vocal figure at the back.
Pools found success by playing with a back three and wing-backs towards the end of their promotion-winning 2020/21 campaign.
There was some continuity here as six players who started the win over Torquay lined up to face Runcorn a month later.
Sterry and Ferguson kept their places as the wing-backs, while the midfield trio of Nicky Featherstone, Gavan Holohan and Mark Shelton remained intact.
Gary Liddle was also present from the off, starting in the heart of a back three, while Challinor is hopeful Zaine Francis-Angol and Luke Molyneux, who both came off the bench in the play-off final, will sign new deals.
The aforementioned players weren’t involved against Runcorn but could feature at Spennymoor if negotiations run smoothly.
As for the formation, it appears Pools will start the campaign with their tried and trusted system, with Ferguson and Sterry looking particularly suited to their roles on the flanks.
Killip returns in goal
Despite making 29 league appearances last season and playing a key part in Pools’ promotion to League Two, it was a disappointing end to the campaign for goalkeeper Ben Killip.
The 25-year-old suffered an elbow injury in May and didn’t feature in the final eight National League games, or the play-offs, even if he was named on the bench against Stockport and Torquay.
Middlesbrough loanee Brad James, 22, took Killip’s place but has since returned to his parent club following his play-off heroics in the penalty shootout.
In the meantime, Killip has signed a one-year contract extension and will be hoping to be Pools’ No 1 keeper this season.
His return against Runcorn was largely uneventful and there was little he could do for the opening goal when he was left exposed.
Aside from a few crosses to collect, Killip was largely a spectator for the rest of the half before the side changed at half-time.