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Chesterfield 1 Hartlepool United 1
AMID last season's constant low points, Hartlepool United's nadir came at Chesterfield. Losing 6-1 in the FA Cup was humiliating.
As this season's upturn in fortunes continues, they slugged it out with the League Two leaders from start to finish in yesterday's enthralling game. It could be the platform from which Colin Cooper's side attack the second-half of the season.
Even when they played the last 22 minutes a man down after Andy Monkhouse was sent off they kept pressing for a winner. And it so very nearly came with the last kick of the match as a stunning, dipping volley from Luke James was pushed from under the bar by goalkeeper Tommy Lee. If Pools had won it, no-one could have said they didn't deserve it.
Prompted from midfield by the outstanding Matty Dolan and, with the game's stand-out attacker in James Poole, few teams will play as well at the Proact Stadium as Colin Cooper's side.
It's five draws from six and just one win in ten for Pools. Such a run last season was the norm and a worry. Under Cooper it's nothing of the sort. Soon they will be rewarded.
"On the whole it was excellent,'' said the manager. "The things we have spoken about we did well. We played some really nice football throughout the team. "We started well and the lads who come on for one reason or another helped out enormously. Energy and work-rate were good.
"We gave the league leaders a very good game and they have been very complementary about our team, which is nice to hear.'' Cooper has long spoken of the need to start games well and Pools had the first chance, when Jon Franks turned and unleashed a shot that Lee pushed over.
But, until the final ten minutes of the half, they were forced back.
The Spireites delivered their share of decent and accurate balls into the danger area, with former Pools' regular Ritchie Humphreys getting forward from left back.
Only some great defending from Jack Baldwin kept Pools level when he positioned himself on the line to clear an effort from Tendayi Darikwa. The right winger was lively and gave his side the lead on 30 minutes. Picked out by Armand Gnanduillet and, with Neil Austin standing off, he steered a volley across Flinders into the far corner.
For the fifth time in a row, Pools had to come from behind. From a winning position this season, they have only dropped two points, but have yet to win a game from a losing position.
Little wonder Cooper admitted: "We are frustrated that we allow teams to get in front. We have said when we get in front we go on to win.
"We are showing character, but I think there is much more than showing character in this dressing room.''
As the first half progressed, Pools came into it. Poole started picking up possession in the areas he enjoys playing in. Floating between the home midfield and defence, he exerted some influence as Pools pressed forward. But it was from a direct route that they were level. Home centre-half Sam Hird badly misjudged a long ball and Poole was in behind him, racing into the penalty area.
As he prepared to shoot, Poole was bundled over by the defender. A certain penalty, clear red card.
But referee Gary Sutton somehow didn't even have as much as a word with Hird.
Matty Dolan, during his best performance for the club, made no mistake from the spot.
After being allowed to escape, Hird fouled Poole again five minutes later on the halfway line. Following Baldwin's majestic clearance, it was then the turn of Christian Burgess to head away from danger, as he kept out Darikwa's effort. Monkhouse was booked on 62 minutes, taking an easy tumble in the area looking for a penalty. He was then the victim, caught by a stray - but not violent - arm when Darika challenged. With a sense of injustice raging, Monkhouse took out his frustrations on Drew Talbot, catching the defender late. Game over for the left winger, who has, on the whole, matured this season.
"The red mist came down, it still did for me as a player aged 38, but there has to be a switch to stop it,'' insisted Cooper.
"He has been humble enough to apologise. The rest of the group did well for 20 minutes or so to earn a point."
James dropped to the flank, Poole remained up top and Pools ended up seeing the game out without too much worry. Flinders' positioning was spot on when he was needed and they were always a counter-attacking threat, with Dolan at the heart of everything they did.
He wasn't afraid to shoot, causing some scary moments for keeper Lee, bouncing one shot inches wide from long-range with Lee beaten at the foot of the post. Cooper revealed afterwards that deals to keep both Dolan and Burgess on loan from Middlesbrough for the remainder of the season were well advanced.
Dolan's last game is due to be the New Year's Day game with Bury at Victoria Park,with Sunday's trip to Morecambe the last one for Burgeess after a half-season loan. He added: "We looked good and felt good today, the frustrating thing is to come back from behind.
"I felt as though they looked ready to step on to it. The two central midfielders were exceptional. That's Matty's best performance in a Hartlepool shirt by far.
"We had a lot of little points that show good things for the club. If we get our noses in front we will get two or three. "Chesterfield are top for a reason - Paul Cook has done a terrific job and has some very good footballers. I appreciate his nice comments. We can compete and we did more than that today.''
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