FIERY Swindon boss Paolo Di Canio tagged his players “donkeys” after Hartlepool United frustrated them.

And yet it’s Pools’ players, heading for the knackers yard not long ago, who now are turning into League One thoroughbreds.

“For this game they have to blame themselves and say they are stupid and donkeys,’’ insisted Di Canio.

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A point at Swindon stopped Di Canio’s donkeys from going top. It wasn’t enough to lift Pools off bottom spot, but victory tomorrow night at home to Portsmouth and they will have a team below them at last.

But other results again conspired again them on Saturday and Pools are 12 points shy of safety. At least now they are looking, and playing, like a well-drilled team.

First-half on Saturday they were harassed and forced back by a high-tempo Swindon side.

But the turnaround in fortunes was startling. Pools kept possession from the back, built attacks through midfield and frustrated the life out of the Robins.

Swindon spent the first half chasing and closing down Pools in an instant. Perhaps they could have tamed them in the second-half by getting tight on Simon Walton to stop the pace of game going through him.

A few weeks ago and Pools, after going one-down on such a raucous stage (the home fans spent most of their time singing the praises of Di Canio) would have crumbled.

Instead they stuck at their task and were rewarded when Andy Monkhouse scored an equaliser.

It’s not the first time he’s scored for Pools at his former club and how he loved it. And how they hated it.

“It must be my lucky ground,’’ he quipped after also scoring there in 2009 and 2007 after leaving for Pools in 2006.

“Maybe the next time we play them they won’t boo me, I usually end up scoring when they do. It’s the best way to shut them up.

“I don’t know why they boo me to be honest.

“I left Swindon and there was no problem at all. But when I first came back, every time I got the ball they booed me. I thought ‘why are they booing me?’ When I came on I had a feeling I’d get the equaliser.

“And when I did, I wanted to go to their fans and rub it in –it’s the best way to do it.’’ Monkhouse’s goal was wellcrafted and Pools didn’t score goals like that in the early part of the season. In fact, they hardly scored at all.

Monkhouse knocked the ball wide to Ritchie Humphreys and, rather than crossing into the area, he picked out Evan Horwood with a chip towards the far post.

The left-back nodded it back down and Monkhouse just about got there ahead of Charlie Wyke to score.

Monkhouse has not featured much under Hughes of late and hasn’t started since Boxing Day.

“I’m delighted for Monks,’’ said Hughes. “No doubt I’ve not been his favourite person of late because he’s been on the bench, but I said he would have a part to play between now and the end of the season.

“Let’s not get carried away overall, this keeps momentum going and keeps confidence high.

“Monks has scored here before, I said last week he would have a part to play – he would be entitled to come over to me and give me the finger.

But once again, he’s not a bad lad, I just feel the three lads up front give us some legs at this moment in time.

“I’m thankful to him for keeping the momentum going.’’ He added: “Everyone has a part to play and it has to be like that. I felt we played some good football and the goal came form a spell of good football when we kept the ball and switched the play.

“That’s all well and good, but we were up for the fight, spirited and determined and showed a desire to keep digging in. You can see the spirit and the boys have come a long way since my first game, so credit to them.’’ That first game was a 5-0 humbling by Coventry at Victoria Park. The sort of result they suffered on regular occurrences this season.

Now they stand up to the fight, like Hughes has instilled into them and take it head on.

Sam Collins took his share head on and his defensive work was top drawer. He was, according to Hughes Pools’ best performer.

Some praise given the heroics of Scott Flinders. He made three wonderful saves within a spell of 90 seconds, two of them from point-blank headers and one from a Gary Roberts piledriver that was destined for the top corner.

“Scott’s saves were top, top, top, top, top drawer. The second one, Roberts’ shot was superb,’’ said Hughes. “First one was like Peter Schmeichel in spreading himself across goal to save with his body.

“It inspired the rest of the boys, outstanding but he’s been our most consistent player all season.’’

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