What we learned from Hartlepool United's 3-2 FA Trophy first round collapse at Harrogate Town as Dimi Konstantoupolos' second debut goes from dream to nightmare
Hartlepool United have a habit of throwing away leads, but Saturday’s late collapse at Harrogate Town was almost depressingly impressive even by their standards.
For the fourth time in 29 matches this season, Pools were 2-0 ahead and cruising before succumbing to a second half fightback from their opponents.
While their matches against AFC Fylde, Notts County and Ebbsfleet United ended in 2-2 draws, their match at the CNG Stadium took things to another level as the home side completely turned things around to win 3-2.
Before kick off, it was announced that United legend Dimi Konstantopoulos would be starting in goal in what would be his second official debut for the club, 15 years after his first.
The Greek goalkeeper had agreed non-contract terms with Pools earlier in the month and kept a clean sheet in a 3-0 Durham Challenge Cup victory over Tow Law Town in the Durham Challenge Cup on his return.
There was a sense of real excitement to see the 41-year-old back in a Pools shirt for a professional first team match once again.
And it seemed to be a real masterstroke to start the veteran shot stopper as he enjoyed a dream second debut for the best part of 75-minutes in the match.
Fellow debutant Tyler Hamilton netted 10-minutes into his first start for the club with a far post finish after Mark Kitching’s cross from the left was flicked on by Gus Mafuta. The Hull City loanee couldn’t really miss but it set the tone for what would be a positive first half display.
Konstantopoulos was called into action for the first time after 19-minutes when he made a fine diving save to parry wide George Thomson’s long range strike.
The best would still be yet to come from the former Middlesbrough man as Harrogate were awarded a golden opportunity to equalise when Fraser Kerr bundled over Brendan Kiernan inside the penalty area, leaving the referee with no choice but to point to the penalty spot.
Up stepped experienced forward Jon Stead from 12-yards but Konstantopoulos was equal to it as he rolled back the years with an impressive penalty save to keep the score at 1-0.
He couldn’t have hoped for better opening 45-minutes to his second debut especially when Ryan Donaldson rounded off a sweeping counter attacking move to double Pools’ advantage on the stroke of half-time.
Hamilton, Nicky Featherstone, Josh Hawkes and finally Donaldson played their part as they quickly worked the ball from one box to the other before the United captain slid the ball past Town goalkeeper Joe Cracknell.
The second half was a different story. The substitution of one of Hartlepool’s best attacking players in the first half, Hawkes, restricted them more in the final third as Harrogate came out on the front foot and started to apply pressure as they looked for a way back into the match.
Still, they were struggling to muster up any meaningful chances as the Pools goalkeeper and defence looked to be well set-up to deal with what the home side could throw at them.
Barring a few tame efforts, Harrogate had barely had a shot on target when, on 77-minutes, they suddenly found themselves back in the tie when the ball deflected off a sliding Peter Kioso and looped into his own goal.
It was the defender’s second own goal is any many games as his return from injury was marred by an unfortunate error of judgement.
Pools now had to hang on to their slender advantage for the final 13-minutes of the match.
Could they do that? Of course not.
Four minutes from time, Harrogate found an equaliser as Konstantopoulos spilled a high ball after being nudged by Connor Hall inside the six yard box. The attacker sensed the opportunity and took it as he got the ball at his feet and stroked it into an effectively empty net as the Pools players froze.
The United goalkeeper had a reasonable argument that he was fouled in the build-up to the goal which caused him to lose grasp of the ball, but nothing was given.
Things would then go from bad to worse for Hartlepool just as the game looked to be heading to extra-time.
Kerr struggled to deal with a bouncing ball forward as Konstantopoulos came off his line to claim it. Only he didn’t, once again the ball slipped through his fingers and Harrogate were handed another goal on a plate as Kiernan practically walked the ball into the net to confirm a place in the second round.
While you could debate whether Konstantopoulos had made an error for the equaliser, this time there was absolutely no question as Pools had quite literally dropped the ball once more.
We all know they have a habit of shooting themselves in the foot, but this was something else. They got out their 12 gauge shotgun and left themselves without a leg to stand on.
Ultimately, the team is not consistent or reliable enough to trust going into any given game, they don’t have the nous to see games out regularly and Dave Challinor has quickly realised this.
The one silver lining is that it was in the early stages of the Trophy rather than the league but the familiar shortcomings persist.
They are capable of really impressing and being solid at the back, but if the manager can't rely on them to deliver consistently, it’s going to be another year of mid-table football in the fifth tier.