WITH 20 minutes of their FA Cup second-round tie at Exeter City remaining, Hartlepool United were down and out. Trailing by two goals, the road to Wembley had become more of a dead-end. So, while they will start as long-priced outsiders when they head into their replay at Victoria Park tonight, Dave Challinor’s side have already upset the odds once just to set up the rematch.

With Nicke Kabamba’s equaliser following hot on the heels of a long-range cracker from Nicky Featherstone at St James’ Park, Pools’ spirit was clear for all to see. ‘Never say die’, to reprise a mantra from the club’s recent past.

Exeter, second in League Two and unbeaten in eight games in all competitions, remain formidable opposition. But having proved their mettle in the first meeting, Pools are not about to be cowed as they return to home soil.

“The comeback in the first game was very positive,” said Challinor, who was involved in some memorable FA Cup giant-killing moments as a player with Tranmere. “It was a great result, and it can fill us with more confident to take into this game.

“The spirit here is good, and looking at it clinically, in the early part of the season, we didn’t pick up points when conceding first. When you look at that, is it something to address?

“Having spent time with players and staff and been in training scenarios, I would not put it down to a lack of spirit – maybe nous, technical ability or whatever that might be.

“They have showed a lot of resilience and determination in training sessions we’ve done, and that’s now gone into games. They’ve never got down on themselves or each other. We’ve given them freedom to express themselves, and there’s goals in the team, and threats across the pitch.”

The winners of tonight’s game will head to League One promotion hopefuls Oxford United in the third round, perhaps not the glamour tie both clubs would have hoped for, but a game that offers the tantalising prospect of a potential passage into round four.

It is always difficult not to look too far ahead when faced with an FA Cup replay, and while he is keen to ensure his players take nothing for granted, Challinor admits the prize of facing another Football League team at the start of next month is an appealing one.

“The third-round draw was a difficult one,” he said. “We are in a draw for the third round when we haven’t gone through the round we’re already in. But regardless of who we were drawn against, Exeter was always going to be a tough ask.

“Exeter is a good one to look forward to, and we want to give the supporters something to cheer. Winning makes a big difference with the prize money. We hope we can get into the next round, and then we’ll have to go to Oxford to try and win a game to get into another draw.”

Preparations for a possible trip to the Kassam Stadium have already begun, although one cheeky request has already been turned down.

“We know Carl Robinson and Derek Fazackerley at Oxford pretty well, and we would normally use their training facilities when we travel,” said Challinor. “The first message was, ‘Can we train there on the Friday if we get through?’ They weren’t very complimentary about it!”

Hartlepool (probable, 4-4-2): Killip; Richardson, Raynes, Kerr, Kitching; Mafuta, Featherstone, Hawkes, Donaldson; James, Toure.