LET’S get one thing straight before we dive head first into a bit of analysis and discussion. Hartlepool United have done remarkably well this season.

History was made last summer when the width of a crossbar was the difference between Pools remaining in non-league and making the jump back up to the Football League when Brad James fingertipped Matt Buse penalty off target. Unbelievably, that remains the goalkeeper’s final contribution in senior football since last June but that is another story entirely.

If you were to cast an eye back to the beginning of July with little over four weeks to go until the start of the season, the bookmakers, the pundits and many more had written them off before a ball was kicked and earmarked them as a team that would be heading straight back down to the fifth tier. The odds were stacked against them and perhaps rightly so as Dave Challinor and co scrambled around to assemble a squad fit enough to consolidate their EFL status.

The Northern Echo: Former Hartlepool United manager Dave Challinor lifts the National League Trophy.Former Hartlepool United manager Dave Challinor lifts the National League Trophy.

But fast forward nearly ten months and what have Pools done? Secured their safety with five games to go, reached the fourth round of the FA Cup, made it to the last four of the Papa John’s Trophy and beaten eight teams in the divisions above them in cup competitions. Pretty good going for a side that had six contracted players at the beginning of July.

Heading into the final two games, there is a sense that there should be a feeling of celebration and achievement. Instead, we are watching a side limp over the line until the end of the season having gone seven games without a win in the league. Fans aren’t quite riding the wave of what should be another season in League Two and it’s gone down like a bit of a damp squid. But they do have two games to change that.

It may be a true testament to what the competition of sport can do to players and staff alike at a club. Once the cup competitions ran their course, the play-offs were out of reach and survival was achieved, what else did they have to play for? Pride? In the words of club legend Gary Liddle, he admitted that is the case and that the last few months haven’t been good enough.

Graeme Lee and his coaching staff have maintained that they would not let the season peter out but the following the weekend’s 3-0 defeat to Swindon, assistant manager Micky Nelson was quick to question whether his players have actually got their flip flops on and are ready for their beach holidays.

The Northern Echo: Hartlepool United in League Two action against Swindon Town.Hartlepool United in League Two action against Swindon Town.

Without trying to make allowances for some of the players, there may well be a level of understanding once you cast yourself back to October 2020, the beginning of the National League season.

The various twists and turns of a physically and mentally challenging and tormenting season garnered the ultimate reward on that fateful day in Bristol back in June. But where teams have the best part of 12 weeks to get themselves ready for the new season, Pools had half of that amount of time. Meaning that what would have been a six week break away from the training regime and fitness maintenance would be condensed into one.

If you were looking for evidence as to whether Pools players are suffering from being burnt out, then you don’t have to look much further than that.

Now of course, the age old argument that they are professional athletes and they are specialists within their respective fields of sport will be levelled and rightly so. But just like any walk of work or life, people aren’t going to work to the best of their ability when they are fatigued.

For the likes of Ben Killip, Jamie Sterry, Timi Odusina, Gary Liddle, David Ferguson, Luke Molyneux, Mark Shelton, Nicky Featherstone and more, they have been playing for nearly two consecutive years. And still over achieved in everything they did.

It’s absolutely fair to acknowledge that a considered lack of effort isn’t acceptable and failing to maintain the integrity of sport by letting games slip by isn’t good enough. But only time will tell (particular the summer months) to see if we see an invigorated side come next season and the difference we will see on the pitch.

The Northern Echo: Hartlepool United manager Graeme Lee. Hartlepool United manager Graeme Lee.

The team has been chopped and changed in recent weeks with players playing for contracts next season. That’s not to say it’s played a big role in their recent downfall but it is a constructive method to trimming the fat in the squad.

Of course in football, your only as good as your last game. The feeling towards the squad could be wholly different come 5:00pm next Saturday when the season reaches it’s conclusion having ended the season on a high.

But while no one wants to see their team lose and limp over the line, it feels hypersensitive to diminish the works of a constant 18 month to two-year period based on the end of season run-in when their ultimate aims have already been achieved.