Leyton Orient v Hartlepool: new ventures for Nolan and Hignett

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Craig Hignett – www.bbc.co.uk

It is no surprise that Hartlepool and Leyton Orient have changed manager since their last meeting. Ian Hendon had long endured the wrath of O’s fans, making his departure seem almost inevitable, while player-manager Kevin Nolan was a popular choice to replace him, partly for his playing pedigree. New Pool boss Craig Hignett, a man widely praised for having an influential role in Middlesbrough’s improvement under Aitor Karanka, appears capable of replacing Ronnie Moore, whose scattergun recruitment policy destabilized the squad.

Hartlepool won the reverse fixture with Orient 3-1 back in November, in front of the TV cameras. It was a display that provided a rare bright spot in an otherwise disappointing final six months of Moore’s reign. The Monkey Hangers were well-organized that day, their defence marshalled commandingly by Carl Magnay. They looked a threat on the counter-attack too, with the pace of Mikael Mandron and the movement of Jake Gray. Mandron failed to repeat his impressive debut display in other games, but Gray has been one of Pool’s more impressive performers this term.

The one dilemma that surrounds the Crystal Palace loanee, who is enjoying his second season of professional football, is just where to play him. There is a subtle slickness about his game that enables him to find space when his team have the ball but, perhaps, it also makes him less likely to dig in when Pool are on the ropes. For that reason, it can be a risk to play him in a central duo, where midfielders are required to be a bit more brittle and brutish.

Hignett appears to have got the best out of Gray on the right side of a midfield diamond, helped by the discipline of Nicky Featherstone and the industry of Lewis Hawkins. Fielded in a more central position, Hawkins has proved himself as a dynamic all-rounder, capable of contributing in different phases of play. The academy graduate has given Pool the muscle they require in midfield.

Leyton Orient’s midfield muscle comes in the form of Nigel Atangana. The anchor man joined from Portsmouth in January and does a lot of the dirty work, winning the ball aggressively whilst protecting the defence. Bringing in Atangana was Nolan’s first major decision as O’s boss and the Frenchman’s 10 games thus far have coincided with six clean sheets.

Orient could not keep a seventh at Accrington Stanley on Good Friday. They put in a disappointing performance in East Lancashire, created next to nothing and deservedly lost 1-0. Records suggest the East Londoners will recover strongly from that poor display, however. They have not lost back-to-back games since November – against Hartlepool – and since Nolan took over, they have won all three games that followed a defeat.

The new Orient boss shares similarities with Hignett that extent beyond their Merseyside upbringing. Nolan must handle the dynamics of being present as a player in the changing room, whilst also keeping a distance from players and making unpopular decisions. Unlike his opposite number, Hignett has already hung up his playing boots – nine years ago – but having spent much of that time coaching, he too must learn to command a position of higher authority.

Both managers have had good starts to their respective roles, but just as one swallow does not make a summer, two months does not define a managerial career. Sterner tasks for both men lie beyond the honeymoon phase.