Hartlepool wrap – Hartlepool United 0 Oxford United 1

Top of the league. I suppose it had to happen at some point, and, let’s face it, it was probably going to happen this month. We’ve had a month of comparatively easy games, which is never a guarantee of success, but if you’re going to be successful, then you should be picking up points against teams at the bottom. As a club we’ve never handled expectation well, so ideally I’d like to be hiding in the rushes of the play-offs before taking over top spot on the final day of the season, but it’s very difficult to pretend to not be the best team in the division when you are. In football you can’t judge how others are doing so when you hit the front, you just keep running.

Are we the best? I still think there’s a gear to find to be absolutely certain; we’re the 7th highest top scorers in the division (scoring less goals than Morecambe in 17th). Our success is based on a tight defence rather than prolific goalscoring – which is a bit of a surprise when you consider Roofe and Hylton’s deification and that we’re playing attractive attacking football. With Jake Wright struggling with a back injury, we’re light at the back with just Mullins and Dunkley. I quite enjoy Dunkley’s blood and thunder style, but he’s not as assured as Wright. As injuries and suspensions kick in we may find ourselves a bit threadbare. We’ve already got away with it once – Mullins’ sending off at Braintree meant he only missed the JPT game at Dagenham which he probably would have missed anyway – but there are only so many meaningless games we can waste suspensions on, and there will be less of those as the season hots up after Christmas.

Which all sounds harsh when we’re sitting on top of the table and playing so well. It is, but promotions, even titles, are a harsh unrelenting business. If we keep this up for the rest of the season we’ll have 92 points – our second largest points haul ever, but but not enough to win the League 2 title in 4 of the last 9 years. Maybe I’m getting greedy; 90+ points will always get you promoted, which is still the real objective. One goal wins mean that we have pressure for a full 90-plus minutes; the accumulative effect of tight victories could become debilitating. We need to find a rhythm where we can rely on a comfortable lead and relax, mentally at least.

December brings new and different pressure – a generally better calibre of opposition, disruption of cup games, the peculiar pressures of Christmas – Boxing Day in particular – and the possible distraction of a New Year treat in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup.

The good news is that we’re on top of the table and that’s because of excellent form played in a fantastic style. Also, it’s come at a good time; we don’t have another league game for two weeks allowing this new pressure to soak in a little. And, unlike the Wilder-years, going top mid-season feels like the consequence of the process we’re following, not an end product.

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2 thoughts on “Hartlepool wrap – Hartlepool United 0 Oxford United 1

  1. I'd agree with all of this. You're absolutely right that we have another gear yet, but I think if I have a concern, it's that there are occasional hints of fragility in our game that, if exploited could cause us problems. We saw that fragility, naked and raw in that six minute spell against Barnet… a cautionary moment, and a hark back to our games at the start of last season.But what encourages me, is that Michael Appleton appears to notice these things too, and is constantly busying around and strengthening, and keeping things moving forwards. Even keeping Cameron Gayle on a retainer was a smart move – an insurance policy in case we have staffing problems between now and the January window. These are things Wilder never did… his work was always reactive, panicky changes – waiting for a problem to arise before doing something about it – and usually when he did, it was ineffective. Appleton seems to be trying to pre-empt, nipping them in the bud before they become a problem.

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  2. If we've spotted it, then I suspect Michael Appleton has, I agree he seems to have found a sweet spot where he's able to tweak the formula to find improvements before they get out of hand rather trying to going through a process of frantic trial and error.I'm a Wilder fan, but I can see that there were times he seemed almost completely out of control of the situations he found himself in – it was only his doggedness that fixed things rather than planned improvements.

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