Craig Hignett faces another sleepless night ahead of Hartlepool United’s second League Two fixture of the season.
The Pools boss has seemingly unlimited options for the long trip to St James’s Park – perhaps the 345-mile journey to Devon will provide some valuable thinking time?
His starting XI last Saturday against Colchester all performed well, as did the ‘stand-ins’ he selected on Tuesday in the EFL Cup at Preston.
Hignett gave Trevor Carson a night off, while he rested Rob Jones, Nicky Featherstone and Lewis Hawkins, with Billy Paynter sent home after feeling ill.
Paynter has returned to training and will be in the squad along with the men who watched Tuesday’s heartbreaking cup exit from the bench.
The players Hignett brought in – Adam Bartlett, Matthew Bates, Nicky Deverdics, Michael Woods and Josh Laurent – ALL laid down markers at Deepdale.
Looking at the squad, you would say probably only six of the 18 are guaranteed their places, Carson, Carl Magnay, Toto Nsiala, Jake Carroll, Lewis Alessandra and Nathan Thomas.
The rest? That is down to Hignett and how he approaches tomorrow’s test and what system he uses – last week, it was a rarely-seen 4-4-2 but on Tuesday night he restored his old faithful 4-3-3.
“No-one played their way out on Saturday,” he said. “I made changes on Tuesday in the knowledge that the quality wouldn’t dip and it didn’t.
“I’ve a choice to make for Exeter – a real headache, but it’s a nice headache to have.”
Hignett has been happy with his squad to date, putting the emphasis on squad rather than team.
“I’m’ delighted with what I’ve seen so far,” he said.
“Going into a season you want a level of consistency and good performances and I think we’ve got that.
“We should have beaten Colchester if I’m being honest and against Preston we more than matched them and in the end, it could have went either way – to lose it in the manner we did was cruel.
“I was delighted with the performance, it was everything I wanted.”
Hignett laughed off a question that Pools will be heading to Exeter, who have had a mixed start to the season, still awaiting their first win.
“It’s only people like you, who make an issue out of it,” he laughed.
“It doesn’t bother me – playing well will get results.
“We’ve not lost a league Two game and we lost by the last kick of the game to a Championship team, who played a full-strength team on their patch so I can’t be disappointed with what I’ve seen.
“We pushed Preston all the way. Since I came in we have tried to be difficult to play against.
“Preston had chances, but you could see by the desire of the lads in getting their bodies in the way and blocking shots that they had a shape and a willingness to defend properly.
“That was great. I feel we have improved on last year, as a team and as a squad.
“If we play at a consistent level in the weeks to come, just like we have in the first two, I know we will win far more games than we lose.”
Pools (from) Carson, Bartlett, Magnay, Richards, Nsiala, Jones, Bates, Carroll, Featherstone, Woods, Laurent, Hawkins, Deverdics, Alessandra, Amond, Paynter, Thomas, Oates