Hartlepool United Season Preview

hartlepoolThe Football Lab interviewed Hartlepool United fan David Stringer ahead of the new season. You can follow David on Twitter @scififootball. Here, he discusses the factors behind last season’s poor post-Christmas form, the signings of local boys Stuart Parnaby and Matthew Bates, and why Pool need to show more resiliance this season.

Your form in the second half of last season was poor. Is it right to say that the main factors were the departures of centre-back Jack Baldwin, and coach Craig Hignett?

Although Baldwin left right at the end of January and wasn’t replaced, I’d say that Hignett was the bigger loss. Baldwin and Burgess were a great ball-playing partnership, brilliant defensively and at playing the ball out, without the occasional mistakes you’d expect from young defenders. But Sam Collins – more of an old school centre half – stepped into the gap and may have actually been a better partner for Burgess.
Cooper and Hignett are two very different personalities – Cooper is more serious while Hignett apparently did more to gee up the players and create a sense of positivity. Added to that, Cooper’s attempts to replace Hignett took longer than he had planned, so he was coaching mostly on his own until, aided only by Collins, until the summer.

The problem with the Hartlepool squad seems to be that there aren’t many players who are at the peak of their careers. Would you agree with that assessment?

Possibly, but a bigger problem last season was that heads dropped when going behind – Pools had one of the worst records when it came to picking up points in games where we conceded first. I’d definitely like two or three more players, but being in the prime of their careers isn’t a necessity. Luke James, Brad Walker and Michael Duckworth, all youngsters, were three of the team’s best players last season but they were all pretty consistent despite their inexperience.

Ex-Boro men Matthew Bates and Stuart Parnaby arrive. Will they bolster the defence?

The thinking seems to be that Parnaby will play in the centre of midfield, replacing Simon Walton, but Bates will probably partner Sam Collins in defence. Middlesbrough fans speak highly of Bates, but fans of Bradford, where he was in and out of the team last year, don’t seem as complimentary. Hopefully a run in the first team can be good for Bates – we were close to signing him last summer but budget limitations ruled that out. He’s a player Cooper has coached before and obviously rates.

The 6 game losing streak last season coincided with midfielder Andy Monkhouse being out of the team. Are you surprised he’s been released?

Not just for that reason, but because he was an important part of Cooper’s tactics. It seems that the initial plan was for Jack Compton to be first choice left winger with Monkhouse being a squad player, but Monkhouse nailed down his place on the left, being allowed to drift and also being used as a target man – flicking on balls for Luke James to run on to – before Marlon Harewood’s arrival. Ironically he had two poor seasons before last year – I’d have been far less surprised to see him released in 11-12 or 12-13 than in 13-14.

Simon Walton played 45 times last season. How do you feel about him leaving?

Very mixed. At his best he was a combative ‘midfield general’ type, who could put his stamp on a game, and make some very decent long passes. But he lost his cool too often, and when heads dropped he probably could have done more as a relatively senior player to lift his teammates and take games by the scruff of the neck. Though it’s no fault of his own, he has a major lack of pace, meaning gaps in midfield were effectively bigger than they would otherwise be. It’s a shame to see him go, but it’s probably his potential rather than his actual performances that I’m sad to see go.

At 19, Luke James is the 2nd youngest Hartlepool player to hit double figures in a post-war season. Just how talented is he?
The fact that his workrate is such an important part of his game – he never seems to stop running, and keeps to a high pace all game – means that it’s hard to say exactly how high he’ll go, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him doing well in the Championship one day. The major strengths of his game are his doggedness and hard work, good inter play combined with real technical ability. He scores a lot of different types of goals – my favourite being his take down and lob against Exeter – but there’s also a range of precise finishes and long-range blasts. He’s even surprisingly good in the air for a small guy, scoring a lobbed header from the edge of the area.

Middlesbrough and Sunderland often loan youngsters to Victoria Park to gain match practice, Christian Burgess being one of the successful players. Have you taken advantage of that?

Definitely. Burgess was the standout last year, but Matty Dolan had a good loan spell from Middlesbrough, Luke Williams was excellent in the month he was here before being recalled to sit on Boro’s bench, and though Jack Barmby took a while to get going, overestimating the time he’d have on the ball at first, his class became clear towards the end of the season. Hartlepool being outside of the tightly packed areas of London and the north-west means that most of our targets would have to uproot themselves to sign for us, so using the local loan links is especially important.

With most bookmakers, Hartlepool are at around 7/1 for promotion. Where will you finish?

I’m honestly not sure. I’d like two or three more players to add depth to the squad, and a bit more flair. Hopefully Michael Duckworth should be able to push on after a good, but injury hit, first season, while Brad Walker should be able to be a bit more influential. But if Pools don’t add the required players, I can see the squad being too small, and a season of battling relegation. After a few years of stagnation and decline I’m reluctant to get my hopes up, but with a bit of strengthening, I think a playoff push is achievable.


TFL Verdict

If they continue to use the loan system effectively, Hartlepool should improve on last season. 15th

(Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hartlepool_United_F.C.)