HARTLEPOOL boss John Hughes admits his players are struggling to overcome a "fear factor" ahead of this afternoon's game with promotion hopefuls Stevenage.
Pools are ten points adrift of safety at the foot of the League One table and have still only recorded one league victory all season.
That win came on the first day of September, and the club's last four home games have resulted in four successive defeats with one goal scored and ten conceded.
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Unsurprisingly, confidence is hardly sky high, and Hughes admits one of his biggest challenges is to convince his players to continue trying to express themselves and take risks despite their wretched recent run.
"I think one or two players have been suffering from a bit of a lack of confidence and I can understand that because of our position in the league," said the Pools manager, who will oversee his fourth game since replacing Neale Cooper later today.
"But the way they train, the effort and commitment they put in, and the way they express themselves on the training pitch can sometimes be very different to a Saturday.
"Sometimes, you can see a trepidation in their game on a match day because of what's at stake. I really do believe that one or two of them are trying too hard.
"You have to find that mindset to be able to relax and find a freedom to go and play football. Go and play. If you can do that, and not let trepidation affect you, then you're a better player."
Today's game pits Pools against a Stevenage side who are on the fringe of the play-off places after winning six of their ten away games so far.
The visitors, who have never lost to Pools in three previous meetings, will start as firm favourites, but Hughes is hoping any undue complacency could work in the home side's favour.
"We're trying to create a siege mentality," he said. "We're bottom of the league, so one or two teams might be coming thinking, 'They'll be an easy touch - just look at their league position'."That's great. I want to put that message into my dressing room to create a siege mentality. It doesn't matter who we're playing against, they need to come off the pitch knowing they've been in a game."
Neil Austin is unavailable as he serves the second game of a four-match ban, while Simon Walton will not be considered despite making good progress as he recovers from a hamstring problem.
Luke James played 45 minutes for the reserves this week as he steps up his recovery from double hernia surgery, but the cold snap has restricted this week's training schedule for the whole of the squad.
"You want to get on the training field, but we've been really hampered with the conditions in terms of frost and snow," said Hughes. "But with what we've put on for the boys in training, I can see a spirit amongst them.
"As long as the players are coming in with a sweat on and getting a sense of achievement because of their work, that's fine. We've been trying to get them doing some short, sharp passing, and hopefully you'll start to see that in our game."