SIX games to go and, as the saying goes, there’s nothing but pride to play for. Colin Cooper and Sam Collins, manager and captain of Hartlepool United, disagree.
Two weeks ago, Pools beat Bristol Rovers 4-0 at Victoria Park, in what was an exhibition performance at times.
Since then three defeats in a row, the last two of them at Victoria Park, have dropped Pools right out of play-off contention.
They are ten points adrift.
Even if they had picked up maximum points from home games with Mansfield and Cheltenham they would still have been four short.
But that four would have kept the interest going.
Instead, for the first time, Cooper is openly talking of next season and shaping a squad to maintain a real challenge next time out.
Last time Pools were in the bottom division they bounced straight back. The core of experienced and determined players meant they were always too good not to return to League One.
This time it’s been about developing and laying foundations for the future.
Cooper would have loved to have taken his young side into the top seven. The feeling of disappointment from the last two games will now go towards seeing where Pools go in the coming weeks, and who is with him for next season.
Nialle Rodney is leaving when his latest monthly contract ends this week, while Collins is one of many out of contract in the summer.
The centre-half admitted: “There’s a lot of positives to come from this football club and we are all out to see the season off as best we can.
“A lot of the lads here are playing for something, whatever your situation here, playing for new deals, trying to impress the manager – you have a lot to think about.
“I’m one of the players whose deal is up, so we’ve got to see. We all want to win games, as that’s what we get paid for, then see where we finish.
“It looks like we won’t get to the play-offs, but if we can finish in the top ten with the young squad we have got, then it’s progress.
“A lot of the players might be finding it a bit tough now physically.
“It’s so hard for them, but they will only get better and stronger and kick on next year.’’ Collins was also sporting the signs of a physical test.
Mansfield’s Matt Rhead landed the sort of blow to Collins’ cheekbone that many of the pugilists at the Metro Radio Arena failed to manage on Saturday night.
The shiner and damaged cheekbone didn’t affect him one bit, however, and the 36- year-old continues to set a high standard in the middle of the back four.
Collins and Simon Walton were the two older heads in the side and both earned praise from Cooper.
While some of the younger players faded and looked a little jaded, Cooper admitted: “I said after the game to the team that you can tell the lads who have been around the block didn’t look like it was a stretch for them – Sam, Simon, and also Christian Burgess.
“We’ve ultimately been suckered and I’m looking for a spark up front that wasn’t quite there. Jack Barmby has been very creative, but wasn’t quite there, Brad (Walker) has been outstanding and looked tired.
Simon Walton and Billy Daniels scrap for possession
“The young lads looked like things have caught up with them a little bit. We are still trying to do the right things, but it didn’t quite happen.’’ Pools did start promisingly, but the early exuberance soon faded.
Cheltenham started with a midfield diamond formation, matching up with Pools. However, they changed tack and Robins’ boss Mark Yeates felt that alteration gave them a foothold to win the game.
David Noble hit the inside of the post at the start of the second half, and Pools conceded when a ball – a nothing ball said Cooper – floated over from the left, wasn’t dealt with and Jamie McGlashan nipped in to score.
Pools’ day in front of goal was summed up when Luke James managed to head away a Burgess shot. It was that sort of day.
Cooper concluded: “I have said to them all that the challenge is six games to finish as high as they can. Their challenge is to show where they want to be next season.
“I’m thinking about next season and have for a while.
Everyone in the dressing room today has to think about the challenge.
“I asked if they want to be here and understand that where we are at the moment is short of where we want to be. I don’t want to be huffing and puffing next year.’’