The rejuventation of Hartlepool United

BIG IMPACT: Neale Cooper

BIG IMPACT: Neale Cooper

First published in Hartlepool The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

Hartlepool United's fortunes have greatly improved in recent weeks, especially their home form. Sports Editor Nick Loughlin offers five reasons for the positive change.

1: New manager

Neale Cooper's stock remained high in Hartlepool after he left in 2005. His infectious nature and bubbly outlook won everyone over during his first spell in charge and it's been the same since his return at the turn of the year. It's as if he's never been away.

His personality is far different to his predecessor. And just like was the case in 2003 when he replaced Mike Newell, so Cooper and Mick Wadsworth are at opposite ends of the character spectrum.

Whereas Wadsworth quoted Winston Churchill and Shakespeare - and making good copy for reporters - Cooper tells jokes and makes his players laugh. On Saturday, as Antony Sweeney was conducting a TV interview, Cooper donned a hard hat and safety goggles while walking behind the camera.

Cooper is delighted to be back in Hartlepool, his passion for the club and town knows no bounds and he understands what the supporters want and demand. It's no coincidence that with the football club a happier place, the wretched run of home form has been turned around.

2: Different system

Pools started the season well, going nine without defeat. They played a fairly rigid 4-4-2, trying to be more adventurous than last season's oft-used 4-5-1.

Now it's 4-3-3 with a back four and Paul Murray offering a defensive line, two other midfielders free to roam and three up front who will interchange all day.

At Brentford, the first game after Wadsworth's departure, Micky Barron said Pools would be more fluid and wouldn't be playing in straight lines. Each player had a clearly defined and set role, while the shackles have now been removed.

Andy Monkhouse, James Brown and Luke James interchange left, right and centre up front, Antony Sweeney supporting them, backed up by Gary Liddle.

Sweeney got 14 last season, while breaking from deep, but struggled for goals this season.

Now, since his screamer at Sheffield Wednesday, he has of four goals from five games. No coincidence that he's scoring goals under Cooper, who gave him his chance in the first place when he was a key performer.

3: The emergence of Luke James

There's a lack of pace in the squad, James Poole aside. But Poole hasn't kicked a ball since the win at Oldham on Boxing Day because of a hamstring strain and James is as nifty as they come.

Barron knew all about James, he was signed on a professional deal long before his scholarship ended, and was given a chance against Colchester as a half-time sub on December 17. At Sheffield United on New Year's Eve he showed no fear when used as a substitute when Pools were three-down. There's been more scouts at Victoria Park than your average jamboree in recent weeks - 21 against Bournemouth, six more in the win over Notts County.

The 17-year-old has brought more than pace to the team, his infectious nature has rubbed off on others. When he gets clattered by a big centre-half, he goes back for more and gets on with it. How long before the big money bids start to come in?

4: Training is more relaxed

Wadsworth referred to the training ground as his 'natural habitat'. That was where he did his work, where he coached and organised the players and no-one could argue that there wasn't a response as Pools became well disciplined.

But the same drills repeated to the same players day in, day out only have an effect for so long before it the sergeant major routine becomes monotonous.

Now, Cooper has his say on the Maiden Castle training pitches, but allows first-team coaches Barron and Ritchie Humphreys to have a bigger input. The pair are part of the furniture at the club, and the rest of the squad have responded. It also gives the pair a big chance to develop their own coaching careers.

Cooper has his own sessions, he loved surprising the players with one of his favourite drills introduced for the first time earlier in the month, but training is now a more rounded affair.

5: Player form

There's not only the impact and impression James has made, the rest of the players have returned to form as well.

After a nine-game unbeaten start to the season, Pools hit the wall. Those who were playing well in August and September struggled in October and November and December. One home loss led to another and another and another and...

Losing nine in a row was an embarrassment, but once the rot was stopped with an edgy win over Rochdale, so the form returned. During that run, the defence would concede a slack goal after half an hour and it was game over because they were incapable of scoring.

Now they have not shipped a goal at home since January 2, keeping four clean sheets and scoring nine times - some turnaround. Those who were out of form and short of confidence, are back on top of their game.

Look at how Sam Collins and Peter Hartley mullered Lee Hughes and Ben Burgess last weekend.

The play-offs are some way off, Pools would probably need to win 11 of their last 15 games to make it. But with no fear and a positive outlook they have nothing to lose by going for it.

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