After their FA Cup fourth qualifying round exit against Chester, Hartlepool boss John Askey stressed how ‘there are ways to lose games’ and yet Pools found another way at the EBB Stadium.
Whilst not comfortable, Hartlepool’s improved second half performance had been rewarded thanks to a superb moment of individual brilliance from Emmanuel Dieseruvwe after the striker’s overhead kick put Askey’s men in front.
It was a lead they held heading into the final 10 minutes where, quite literally, a moment of madness unravelled all of their previous endeavour.
A cheap turnover in possession inside their own half allowed Kwame Thomas to equalise at the back post from Ollie Harfield’s inviting low cross before Aldershot were gifted a second goal immediately from the restart through Josh Stokes.
And here are some of the key talking points from another difficult afternoon in the National League.
Hartlepool’s weakness targeted
Hartlepool’s defensive struggles are of no secret. One quick glance at the National League table will tell you they hold the worst defensive record in the top half of the division.
And it’s a record which is creating a problem for them on a weekly basis in how opposition teams are setting up to face them.
The main achilles heel in Hartlepool’s defending has been dealing with balls into the box and set pieces – Aldershot’s first goal coming from another cross into the box.
But it was a theme which Aldershot targeted from the get-go. Tommy Widdrington’s side sent balls into the channels from minute one to allow both Ryan Glover and Jack Barham to get in-between Hartlepool’s wing-backs and outside centre-backs.
Barham, in particular, was the focus in the first half as Aldershot looked to hit on young defender Zak Johnson a number of times.
Pools escaped, thanks to the linesman’s flag, inside five minutes when a cross was headed in at the near post but it continued to be a source of vulnerability for Hartlepool who were a little fortunate to go in level at the break.
The second half, too, saw plenty of overloads in the wide areas with a number of near misses when it came to balls in the box before it eventually told as Thomas turned in from Harfield.
More often than not Hartlepool should have an extra body available to them in defence, given the set up, and yet they continue to struggle with this particular aspect – something opposition managers are targeting and gaining joy from.
Injury to Zak Johnson
Askey’s problems won’t be helped by another potential injury issue to Johnson.
The Sunderland loanee has featured regularly since agreeing a short-term loan deal but was forced to limp off with what appeared a groin problem in the first half.
Johnson had been in a tussle with Barham before going down off the ball. And with Askey loaning out both Kieran Burton and Edon Pruti, two players who could feature in that left-sided centre-back role, Pools may face more headaches in defence.
Hartlepool’s second half improvement
For all there was a weakness in defence which encouraged Aldershot’s strong finish to the first half, there hadn’t been much in the game up until that point.
Askey’s side lacked a little bit of improvisation in the final third but this was a steady enough away performance for the majority of the opening 45 minutes, albeit with areas to improve.
And that improvement came after the break as Pools resembled much more of a threat with the likes of Tom Crawford and Joe Grey busier and more prominent in their forward runs.
Dieseruvwe’s wonder goal helped with that, of course, as it enabled Pools to play more on the counter-attack as Aldershot pressed for an equaliser.
And Askey’s side did have chances to extend their lead with Grey, in particular, seeing a good opportunity saved by Jordi van Stappershoef.
After their agonising struggles against Chester in the FA Cup this was a better performance, but it’s one that was forgotten about the moment Aldershot took the lead.
READ MORE: Pools ratings in late Aldershot defeat
Before we get to that, Dieseruvwe deserves praise for what was a stunning goal to give Hartlepool the lead.
The striker added his ninth goal of the season in just 16 appearances since joining on a free in the summer – already proving to be an exceptional piece of business.
Having gone seven without a goal, Dieseruvwe now has three in his last two league games with this, more than likely, the best he will convert all season.
After Nicky Featherstone’s corner was deflected up into the air Dieseruvwe, with his back to goal, leaped an incredible height to execute the perfect overhead kick over the defence. It was as though time stood still for a moment as the ball looped into the far corner with everyone inside the EBB Stadium in awe.
But despite it being a goal worthy of taking points from any game, Dieseruvwe’s moment of magic would produce nothing in terms of points for Hartlepool.
Hartlepool’s inexplicable 43-second collapse
And that’s because Askey’s side produced 43-seconds worth of madness to throw away all of their previous endeavour.
With Aldershot committing bodies forward Pools did hold a threat on the break, but there are times when safety must come first, particularly at 1-0 up and entering the final 10 minutes of the game.
The home side had sent a number of testing balls into the box which Pete Jameson did well to deal with as they continued to ramp up the pressure.
With that came a high press from Widdrington’s side as their full-backs were firmly inside the Hartlepool half.
And when Terrell Agyemang poked a half clearance the way of Grey, there is an argument to say there was a counter-attack on had Grey been able to bypass that next line of press to return to Agyemang.
However, as Askey referenced post-match, there is also a strong case to suggest Grey, at that moment in time, should have just sent the ball forward into an area to allow Pools to get out and regroup.
It was somewhat naive from the young forward, who had performed well in the second half that aside, as Aldershot were able to pinch the ball away from Grey with Harfield who then crossed for Thomas to equalise.
But if the first goal can be put down to naivety, the second is inexplicable.
Askey referenced how it was the kind of goal you seldom find in kids football, let alone at the professional level, and you can understand the anger.
The immediate thought-process for Hartlepool should have been to try and keep possession and take the wind out of Aldershot’s sails who, naturally, had their tails up off the back of Thomas’ leveller.
Instead, from the kick-off, Alex Lacey floated an aimless ball barely into the Aldershot half which was cut out into the path of Lorent Tolaj. With one touch he flicked into Thomas who then turned the ball into the empty space left by Lacey for Stokes to run clear and turn the game on its head.
It was an incomprehensible way to lose the game and one which, rightly, left Askey seething at full-time.