WHEN Hartlepool United met Leyton Orient earlier in the season, it was so bad it was brutal.
Pools lost 1-0 at the Matchroom Stadium, skipper Peter Hartley admitted he was “ashamed” at the performance.
Boss Neale Cooper was at his wits’ end and also towards the end of his days in charge.
Four months on and, as low on confidence and hesitant they were that night, Pools go into today’s game with belief and confidence.
They are four games unbeaten, some achievement given what has gone on before, and they are competing in games which they simply weren’t doing previous.
The players have been lifted so much, manager John Hughes is even contemplating allowing them a pint or two to raise the camaraderie further.
Progress under Hughes hasn’t been dramatically swift, as the head coach has taken a step back and allowed his players to come out of their broken shells following his November appointment.
Since going to Sheffield United on December 29, Pools have won another three, drawn two and lost two.
The sequence has them tenth in the form table. In the real table, however, they remain bottom after missing the chance to get off it on Tuesday in a 0-0 draw with Portsmouth.
“Sheffield United gave us a lift,’’ admitted Hughes. “People see what the players do the pitch and those of us around them every day see more, see the spirit and togetherness.
“Performances and results have given them confidence and momentum.
“But you see them bouncing off each other and it’s vital. When I played I was a fitness fanatic, but I’m not adverse to a beer every now and again as well at the right time and, as a group, it’s good to do.
“We all go, everyone of us. A couple of beers, things get said and it brings you closer and is good for spirit. I’m not saying go out and do it all the time, but we are growing towards it.
“At this moment in time it’s a happy place to be around, you see the difference.’’
Hughes felt, following the hard-earned point at Swindon last weekend, his players appeared a little fatigued in midweek.
As a result, he gave them an extra day off to recover and refresh and had them back on the Maiden Castle training ground yesterday.
“I can see how low they were when I came in,’’ he admitted. “Spirit can be false as well – a lot of false bravado is in football. But being around them, I could see how low they were, they wouldn’t express themselves.
“It wasn’t for me to come in with a big stick and bash them under.
“It was about helping them and bringing them together and let them enjoy their training.
“Being honest, I’ve not done a lot of training with them, it’s been about getting them organised and effective. We pick a shape and get on with it because it suits us and we are hard to beat.
“It’s worked and training has been conditioned for a reason – two touch, pass it short, keep the ball, get a feel for it again.’’
Hughes likes to get stuck in on the training ground and coach his players, but he admitted: “Instead of coaching it, it’s about being conditioned – maybe half of them don’t know what we are talking about! But you hope the penny drops. Sometimes you can overcoach them, bamboozle them with tactics and it confuses them.
“Players, they say, need a kick up the backside, some need a cuddle. It’s how you cuddle them. It’s about engaging them. Ask their opinion and if they have say they have to take responsibility for it.
“How do they see it? They might see things we don’t. Express yourself, we are in it together and that’s what we have been doing over the last month – asking for their opinion. They have expressed it and took responsibility for expressing it.’’
Hughes is likely to change tack today and put Andy Monkhouse back in the starting XI. He scored in the draw at Swindon last weekend and Hughes has been impressed with his reaction since being left out of the side.
“Andy has been training well and he could definitely be one who comes back in,’’ he said. “He's got a spark about him in training. I take my hat off to him.
“Over the last month or so he's been on the bench but he's come in and been bubbly and been supportive of his team-mates.
“He came on and scored a goal at Swindon and was very close to starting on Tuesday.
“He can play in a number of positions – down either flank cutting in or through the middle.
“He's got a massive part to play this season for us.’’
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