THEY say you learn from every game, well the majority of them anyway, and even in the most insipid of defeats, Colin Cooper came away with something to chew on.
Following a solid run of results and some impressive performances, not to mention four games without defeat to push them to the cusp of the play-off zone, Hartlepool United failed to perform against the division’s bottom side.
Cooper, the most meticulous of managers, admitted he may have made a mistake in changing his team.
Pools have appeared settled with their formation of late, and have fielded the same starting XI for the last three games.
But wary of the effects of a week on the road – Tuesday’s game at Southend didn’t see the players make it home until almost 5am on Wednesday – Cooper opted to make a couple of changes.
In truth, he could have made plenty more or none at all and it may not have made much difference, such was the flat nature of his side.
He admitted: “We spoke in the week about freshening things up. Everyone’s learning and for me as a manager, if the team is rolling do I need to change it? I don’t believe in rotation for the sake of it.
“But it was an opportunity for someone like Jack Barmby to have a run and I felt it was the right time to bring back Michael Duckworth.’’ Barmby failed to make the most of his chance, picked ahead of Andy Monkhouse, while Duckworth was luckless.
On his return from a double hernia operation, the right back was on his way to hospital after he went over after just five minutes.
Thankfully, X-rays didn’t show a break, as was feared, and he travelled home with his team-mates.
Perhaps the worry of seeing Duckworth in a bad way as he went over on his left ankle, and the six-minute delay as he was treated and taken off, affected Pools.
They never got started at all against a team limited in ability, but willing in effort.
It was the Cobblers’ attitude and workrate which went some way to knocking Pools off their stride.
When Oxford won at Victoria Park earlier in the season, it was built on similar ethics.
Their strikers closed down from the front and the wide men stopped Pools’ full-backs from enjoying possession.
It was a scheme Chris Wilder – then Oxford boss, now at Northampton – adopted again and it worked.
Pools weren’t able to build from the back and, in midfield, professional niggler Ricky Ravenhill closed down Bradley Walker at every opportunity.
But Pools’ formation – more of a 4-2-2-2 set up than a 4-4-2 diamond – didn’t help. Too often they were too narrow, with Luke Williams and Barmby both tucking inside through a congested middle.
Their undoing was two goals conceded in quick succession either side of halftime.
Darren Holden was fouled by Leon McSweeney, as Leon McSweeney fouled Darren Holden.
As the defence packed the area, and waited for Holden to be bizarrely booked, left-back Joe Widdowson crept unmarked and unchallenged around the back, was picked out by Chris Hackett’s delivery and headed back into the area for Mathias Doumbe to score.
Hartlepool’s Sam Collins exchanges opinions with Northampton midfielder Ricky Ravenhill
Surely there would be a positive response from Pools after such a flat 45 minutes.
Instead they were instantly two-down. Again Hackett crossed, this time from open play, and Brennan Dickenson stooped to head in.
Still there was little response.
It was only when Simon Walton bobbled a shot against the post – which led the hapless referee Darren Bond firstly and wrongly to award a corner, before opting for a drop ball – then Luke Williams made Matt Duke make a save.
Williams goes back to Boro to try and get some goals for his parent club. Boro could also do with Pools’ assistant boss Craig Hignett in his prime to get out of their current slump.
But Williams leaves Pools better for his month of regular football and Pools see him off in a better position than when he arrived.
“Unfortunately Middlesbrough have informed us that Luke is going back there,’’ mused Cooper.
“He’s a great lad, and played some exceptional football for us, but that’s the nature of loan players.
“I argued our case that I felt he would be better off staying here and playing games, but he’s going back in their first team squad. For him, I’m pleased, for us, I’m gutted.
“I joked after the Newport game that him scoring would attract attention, but has it worked out like that?
“He’s back in their first team squad, we thoroughly enjoyed having him and I’m really sorry to see him go back, but he is their player.’’