Final Score: Hartlepool United 2 Leyton Orient 1
GOAL number five for Luke James – and the teenage striker doesn’t seem to score simple ones.
Hartlepool United hadn’t been level with Leyton Orient for long and a point looked on the cards when James popped up when it mattered.
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Four minutes into five additional stoppage-time minutes and Steve Howard nodded the ball down into his path. Onto it in a flash, his low volley bounced into the net via a deflection.
The defender’s touch didn’t matter, he reckoned it was going in anyway. Victoria Park was delirious; James was on the deck as his team-mates piled on top of him.
Pools were off the bottom of League One. It’s not that long ago that they were eight points adrift.
Now they are above Portsmouth and eight shy of the relegation cut-off point.
There is still some way to go, but the confidence is there that they can push it all the way.
How important in the weeks to come James’ goal will prove remains to be seen.
For now it means everything.
His spectacular debut goal last January against Rochdale was followed by two decent efforts against Carlisle and the winning goal against Scunthorpe at Victoria Park earlier this season.
“I’ve got five senior goals now and they have been good ones, but I’d take a tap-in every week,’’ admitted the 18- year-old. “Every goal you score, no matter what it is, gives you one of the best feelings.
“It’s been a roller coaster year for me with injuries and goals. A big year and all the lads have helped me to be a footballer and progress.
“I feel like I’m part of the squad and team now. When I was coming into it a year ago I didn’t know them – now they all know me well enough and that can only help because we all understand each other’s games and strengths as well.’’ James was introduced with nine minutes to go. His pace and willingness to chase lost causes will always make him popular.
But boss John Hughes is wary of pushing him too far into the relegation fight.
James scored two for the reserves last week. He’s suffered his share of injuries and setbacks since being noted on his arrival 13 months ago.
“Luke is someone we look after,’’ admitted Hughes. “I say to the supporters, I know why he’s a favourite. He works hard every day, a pleasure to work with and gives his all out there. But don’t put too much on him in terms of expectations.
Andy Monkhouse celebrates the victory with fans
I’ve seen players like that who, before you know it, have burned out.
“Let him enjoy his moment, getting the winning goal, then we will bring him down to earth in a couple of days.
“He played right wing for the reserves the other day and scored two goals from there.
You might not see that and see him there and say he’s no right winger – but trust us, we know what we are doing with substitutions and it’s worked.’’ Pools are now unbeaten in five, three wins and two draws see them full of confidence.
This team is a different one to that which faced Orient earlier in the season. In October when Pools lost at the Matchroom Stadium, the one goal Orient scored was always going to be enough.
Pools weren’t good enough to come back. Perhaps the Os felt the same would happen this time.
Martin Rowlands’ early penalty – awarded for the harshest of handballs against Neil Austin – put them ahead and, with their centre-halves dominant, Pools didn’t really threaten.
They had possession, efforts and chances, but nothing really asked too many questions.
Then, on 88 minutes, Evan Horwood whipped a corner over, Peter Hartley lost his man and his header flew into the net.
A point would have been welcome, but, as Hughes said last week, draws are no good for Pools in this predicament.
So Horwood delivered another sweet ball into the area, Steve Howard nodded down into James’ path and he fired in.
Pools could have done with Howard to help them break down Portsmouth last week, his presence on Saturday following his arrival as a secondhalf substitute, meant the Os defenders were pinned back, wary of his physical threat.
Now, Pools are a threat to the teams above directly above them. Staying up is still some task, but it’s a scrap Hughes and Co are up for.
“This gives us momentum, psychologically, mindset, all the things you talk about. It puts you in a different mindframe – go and enjoy it,’’ insisted Hughes.
“We’ve done a lot and it’s good we gave them two days off last week after Tuesday’s game. We came at them strong towards the end and it worked for us this time.
“I can go against you, only works if you win...
“We are chipping away at the gap. Enjoy the fight, embrace it and want to prove people wrong. That’s the fuel we are playing on. They are all looking over their shoulders saying ‘here they come, here they come’.
“And that’s not getting carried away. Even if we get beat next week, we pick up, dust ourselves down and go again.
cup finals – 14 of them to come, that’s the mindset.’’