Verdict: Dark times at Hartlepool United
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A corner of Hartlepool’s ground was thrown into darkness at the weekend during the club's 4-1 defeat to Bromley but you can churn out as many light and dark related puns as you like, the underlying fact remains that this is a bleak period for the football club.
The recent trip to York demonstrated what this club can be, and is, when things click into place. A fine performance on the field was mirrored by a fine performance in the stands as, for one day at least, the club found a synchronised harmony.
Those moments, however, have been few and far between over the course of the last 18-months – almost like lightning in a bottle. The concern is that those moments will continue to be even fewer on the club’s current trajectory as they continue to spiral towards mediocrity in the National League.
Saturday’s trip to struggling Fylde will represent the halfway point of the season and even if results go for them, they will, at best, still be five points adrift of the play-off spots, at worst they will be 11 off the pace.
Only four teams, Woking, Ebbsfleet, Fylde and Kidderminster (12), have lost more than John Askey’s side this season (11) – Pools taking just five points from 12 available to them against those sides. And you can find similar worrying trends looking up the table.
Although Hartlepool currently remain in the top half, of those 11 teams above them on the first page, Pools have won just two of their 10 games against teams currently in the top half – Askey’s side having yet to face Oldham Athletic. Of the other eight, they’ve lost seven.
The seventh of which came in a demoralising defeat to Bromley who never really looked troubled despite Hartlepool’s possession throughout the game. Had this fixture been decided on what happened between both boxes then it may well have been 4-1 in favour of Pools. In that respect they were quite efficient and moved up the field reasonably well.
The problem, however, came in both boxes. Hartlepool have done well when it comes to scoring goals for most of the season, they are actually slightly outperforming (36) their fifth place in the league when it comes to expected goals (XG) of 34.8, but on the odd occasions they are found a little wanting, such as in the draw at Kidderminster, that is when they need their defence to help them out, and that hasn’t happened all season.
This was always going to be a test for Askey’s side. Bromley have established themselves as one of the more well organised, well drilled and hard to beat teams in the division in recent seasons, and will no doubt be in the mix for promotion come the end of this one.
And in that regard, in both boxes, where it mattered, Andy Woodman's side were clinical. Five minutes is all it took for them to capitalise on a fragile, inexperienced Hartlepool – Askey left pondering as to how a man of Michael Cheek’s quality could be left with the freedom of the penalty area to open the scoring before he was left, again, to double the lead before half-time.
These are issues which have plagued Hartlepool from the beginning of the season, Pools having conceded eight more goals than their XG against of 34.03, and are issues that Askey somewhat worryingly conceded he cannot fix.
“We’ve been trying all season, haven’t we? So obviously we can’t,” he said.
Askey then went on to suggest that inexperience in key areas has played its part, similar to last season, with two of Hartlepool’s three centre-backs contributing to just 10 league starts between them ahead of kick-off.
But while it is a problem, things are more deep-rooted than that. Hartlepool currently have 11 defenders listed in their first team, 12 should you include Kieran Wallace, and none of them have been able to instil a regular level of confidence. Askey has routinely stressed the challenges of bringing in players of better quality having had to distinguish between short-term loan deals or players out of contract. And yet some of those players of perceived better quality remain short of the mark as well.
It led to questions being posed as to whether it can be addressed by a change in shape – something Askey tried against Ebbsfleet, only to abandon it midway through the first half as consistent answers continue to elude the Hartlepool boss.
What’s concerning is that it’s becoming difficult to establish what Hartlepool actually are; Are they a front-foot team? Are they possession-based? Are they a counter-attacking team? There seems very little identity to the club, as a whole.
A win here or a win there is fine in the moment, but it does little to distract from what has been a club in decline for too long now, a team who are too easy to play against.
Hartlepool saw first hand against Bromley what it takes to be a side who will be in contention this season and they were swept aside all too comfortably. They are 26 points adrift of league leaders Chesterfield who head to Victoria Park in December. Sixteen games ago they travelled to Chesterfield top of the division. Since then, they have won four games to Chesterfield’s 13.
What is the solution? Chairman Raj Singh continues to search for his exit, with the short-term funding suggestion and takeover talks still draped over the club. Askey, for the most part, retains the backing of supporters as the right man for the job – albeit frustrations are growing, whilst, on the field, players continue to look bereft of confidence. It’s a difficult puzzle to solve.
Ultimately, there are a multitude of problems with very little light at the end of the National League tunnel.