MATCH ANALYSIS: It's a three-game relegation shoot-out for Hartlepool United (From The Advertiser Series)
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Can Pools beat the drop?
THE last time Hartlepool United left Burton they were heading into one of their biggest games in many a year.
This time around and they again exited the town with something else looming large on the horizon.
Whereas on their last visit, their 2003 FA Cup win set up a third round tie at Sunderland, on this occasion they left with their tails between their legs, and walking headlong into a game that will go a long way to defining the entire future of the club.
Cooper didn’t want to talk about the insipid nature of this defeat at one of the division’s more consistent teams.
He was instead, albeit briefly, willing to offer up a taste of today’s game with Morecambe: “We have a game in two days time, which could turn out to be one of the biggest games we have all been involved in. Simple.’’
If only things were that simple. They aren’t doing the simple things well. In fact they aren’t doing them at all.
This was their sixth successive defeat. A run which has taken them from play-off hopefuls to real relegation candidates.
Two points is all that is keeping Pools out of the bottom two. Since relegation to the Conference was introduced in the late 1980s, they have never been in such a precarious position at this stage of the season.
Teams in relegation battles have some fight about them, Pools don’t. Worringly, this team is in freefall.
Only twice in the club’s history have they lost more than six games in a row and it’s 21 years since they last managed it. Make it seven this afternoon, or eight at Plymouth next weekend, and things could come down to desperate final day shootout at home to Exeter.
To make matters worse, they look like having to complete their season without top scorer Luke James. He damaged his right ankle, losing his footing as he slipped on a water sprinkler while trying to keep the ball in play.
After treatment, he tried to carry on, but it was instantly clear he couldn’t and the 16-goal top scorer was in some distress as he was helped off the pitch.
Then his replacement, Marlon Harewood, had Pools first – and what proved only – chance.
Andy Monkhouse weighted the ball into his path to get in behind the centre-halves. He homed in on goal and delayed his finish. His first goal for Pools, against Bristol Rovers, was finished similarly, but not this time.
Goalkeeper Dean Lyness stood his ground and kept out Harewood’s finish.
At least it was, of sorts, a shot on target which is more than they managed in recent away games.
But they trailed when Billy Kee, a combative striker like his partner in crime Gary Alexander, turned in a clever delivery from deep by centre-half Ian Sharps.
The second goal arrived after Kee was allowed too much time to set up Jimmy Phillips to neatly curl in from the edge of the penalty area.
And number three came from a long-range raking Lee Bell free-kick.
But, just like after falling behind to Chesterfield the week earlier, there was no response.
James Poole flashed a header wide, Monkhouse had a shot charged down and a tame Jack Barmby shot from long range into the hands of Lyness brought ironic cheers from the travelling fans.
Pools, to their credit, have pegged admission prices back today to five pounds, in the hope supporters will help the team. They are in need of some inspiration and, on a day when victory is imperative, patience is also required, even against a team with only two wins in 20 games.
The game is too vital for anyone to turn edgy or negative.
Cooper was adamant he wasn’t talking about this defeat in the aftermath. The concentrated nature of his words showed all that matters is Monday.
He spoke last week of having plans he is ready and hoping to lay in front of the chairman and implement for next season.
Which division they are in remains open to conjecture. It’s in the players’ hands, but are they capable of winning the battle?