JUST when Hartlepool United fans think things cannot get any worse, their team come up trumps again.
Last night’s FA Cup defeat to Blyth Spartans live in front of the nation was humiliating and it showed why this current crop of players is likely to be playing in the Conference next season.
Sadly, for long-suffering Pools fans, the result didn’t even come as a shock.
When Jonathan Franks headed Paul Murray’s side into the lead just after the half hour mark there was genuine hope that come Monday night Pools could find themselves in the hat for the potentially-lucrative third round.
Yet they failed to capitalise on their lead and the second-half showing was an utter shambles, an all-too familiar tale this sorry season.
Yes, Pools will rightfully feel aggrieved that Marlon Harewood’s ‘goal’ wasn’t given, but the game should have been put to bed long before that.
The worst thing was Tom Wade’s side didn’t even have to play that well to get through.
Before the match, Wade said his players would have to play out of their skins and Pools would need to have an off day – not against this side, who lack leaders, passion, desire and commitment.Paul Murray said it himself after the match.
When the chips are down these players don’t seem to have it in them to spark a reaction, too many shied away from making challenges or had the courage to get on the ball and make something happen.
They froze in front of the cameras, while the atmosphere inside Victoria Park simply seemed to spur on the Spartans.
Confidence is at rock bottom. That is clear enough and the side from the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League deserve to be in the third round.
No doubt they will draw Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea away just to rub salt into Pools’ gaping wounds.
The squad were training today at Maiden Castle – the second time in less than seven days Murray has seen fit to drag them in on a day-off.
No doubt they will watch the DVD, well the second half won’t make good viewing as they were out-played and out-muscled by a team of part-timers.
Murray described it as “diabolical”. That was being kind. They simply gave in.
In a bid to make progress in the competition, Murray made four changes with Pools starting out with an attacking 4-3-3 formation.
Marlon Harewood was leading the line, and in fairness to him he did well, while he had Jonathan Franks and Sidney Schmeltz in support.
Spartans were cheered on by more than 1,100 travelling fans and it made for a fantastic atmosphere with green flares regularly being let off in the away end.
But it was the home side that started with more purpose and intent.
Hartlepool-born Blyth keeper Peter Jeffries was at full-stretch in the third minute to keep out a Schmeltz header – a fantastic stop and certainly one for the cameras.
Brad Walker then played in Michael Woods, only for the former Chelsea youth to see his shot go inches wide of the left-hand post in front of a bouncing Rink End.
Moments later, Franks failed to connect with a Neil Austin centre, with the goal gaping. Instead, Pools had to wait until the 31st minute to finally break the deadlock.
Harewood played in Austin down the right and he crossed to Franks who nodded the ball home from two yards out for his third goal in the competition.
Blyth striker Dan Maguire then flashed an effort inches wide of Flinders’ left-hand post before Harewood nodded just wide in the 34th minute after good work from Schmeltz.
So far, so good for Pools then, as they went in at the break leading 1-0.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
Lord knows what was said at half-time but the Pools players might as well have stayed in the dressing room.
As the temperature dipped at Victoria Park the atmosphere and intensity of the match cranked up a notch and it wasn’t long before the non-league side equalised.
On the 56-minute mark, Matthew Bates needlessly fouled Maguire close to the edge of the D, 20-yards from goal.
It seemed the script was written as up stepped former Pools academy product Stephen Turnbull to curl a beautiful free-kick high into the top left-hand corner of Flinders’ net.
You’d do well to find a better free-kick in the competition and it led to pandemonium in the away end.
Then came the moment of controversy. In the 65th minute, Harewood spun and shot from close range, the ball squirming through Jeffries’ gloves towards the goal. It took several replays but it appeared the whole of the ball had crossed the line.
Sadly, there is no goal-line technology in the FA Cup and referee Andy Madley waved away the strong appeals.
It was Pools’ best chance of the second-half and they were made to pay for a lack of purpose and creativity in the 90th minute.
Austin had the ball on the half-way line and was screaming at his teammates to make a move for him. None did and he didn’t want it either.
In the end the right-back dallied for so long that he lost possession and Spartans broke at speed up the other end.
Turnbull played the ball wide to Rivers, Dan Jones dived in and Bates stood off him, as the winger fired the ball low past Flinders to send Spartans into the third round.
Rivers works in his mum’s newspaper shop selling papers, well today he will be on the back of all of them.
Bates hit the crossbar with a late strike before Pools crashed out of the FA Cup with angry and disgruntled home fans venting their frustrations at the final whistle.
They have had enough and deserve far better.
Hartlepool (4-3-3): Flinders (C), Austin, Bates, Lanzoni, Jones, Featherstone, Woods, Walker, Franks, Harewood, Schmeltz (Compton, 75).
Subs Not Used: Maxted, Holden, Hawkins, Richards, Smith, Campbell.
Goal: Franks (31)
Blyth (4-4-2): Jeffries, Nicholson, Watson, Hutchinson, Buddle, Turnbull, Rivers, Hawkins (Mullen, 66), Maguire, Wade (Richardson, 76), Dale (C) (Wearmouth, 90).
Subs Not Used: Dixon, Parker, Hooks, Harrison.
Goal: Turnbull (56) Rivers (90).
Referee: Andy Madley (West Yorkshire)
Attendance: 3,735 (Blyth, 1,111)