Hartlepool United 3
Franks 8, 54, Fenwick 76
Brunt 30, Lee 90
THREE turned out to be a luckier number for Sky Bet League 2’s bottom side than it did for Argyle’s fans, whose sole consolation for their 775-mile round-trip in the dead of winter was that it was paid for in a sponsorship deal with mobile phone network 3UK.
Two goals from Pools’ Jonathan Franks, one early in each half either side of a leveller from new Pilgrim Ryan Brunt, and another by Scott Fenwick condemned Argyle to a seventh successive winless game since Christmas.
Pilgrims’ substitute Olly Lee’s late header, well into injury-time, made the last few seconds interesting, but it was too little, too late.
A blip has become a streak.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had given full Pilgrims’ debuts to forward Brunt and Drew Talbot, signed on loan from Chesterfield 24 hours previously, who lined up on the right side of a four-man midfield in a tweaked Argyle shape.
Out went the 3-5-2 that has served for much of the season and in came a flat back four, with Kelvin Mellor and Carl McHugh on right and left flank respectively, flanking Curtis Nelson and Tom Flanagan. Behind them, goalkeeper Luke McCormick had recovered from the finger injury that had forced him to leave the previous week’s 1-1 home draw with Morecambe at half-time.
With Brunt partnering Reuben Reid up front. Lewi Alessandra dropped back to the left side of midfield, with Lee Cox and Bobby Reid in between him and Talbot.
Peter Hartley who, apart from 45 minutes at York, has been out of action since mid-December with a hip problem, returned to the club he used to captain as a substitute.
Hartlepool, going for a second home win in succession for the first time in their miserable season, showed no changes to the line-up that had paved the way to a 1-1 basement draw at Tranmere Rovers seven days earlier.
The reward for the manager’s faith in his up-against-it troops was an early breakthrough to further raise their previously zero-level confidence.
As Argyle figured out a way to cope with a lazy wind and a pitch that had cut up badly during the warm-up following heavy overnight rain, Aaron Tshibola suddenly broke past Mellor on the Pools left.
Once his low cross went into the area, and with the Pilgrims’ new-look back four facing their own goal, the odds favoured the home side and Franks paid out with a crisp low finish under McCormick’s body.
It took a while for Argyle to draw the sting out of their rejuvenated hosts but they gradually edged their way back into affairs, with Bobby Reid looking to unlock the Pools back line either on his own or by setting up colleagues.
It was his namesake Reuben who set up the Pilgrims’ leveller, however, holding the ball up well before flicking it on to Brunt. The former Bristol Rovers man had plenty to do, but did it, firing a low left-foot shot past Hartlepool goalkeeper Scott Flinders.
It was the first league goal scored by the Pilgrims away from Home Park since their 3-2 win at Northampton on December 13, more than five and half hour previously and the first scored by Brunt for the best part of two years.
Parity restored, Argyle looked to further assert themselves but were hampered by the home side’s ability to continue to cause them problems out wide.
Scorer Franks raised anxiety levels with a low whipped-in ball from the right that reached Fenwick at the far post, but his on-target shot was brilliantly pouched by McCormick on the goal-line.
The Pilgrims started the second half with real intent. A typical bustling run by Reuben Reid, after Alessandra’s thoughtful ball forward, was thwarted, but was the precursor for a mini-siege of the Pools’ goal that required all hands to the pump.
Despite the promising re-start, Argyle soon went behind again, with Franks again finishing off some enterprising approach play following a throw-in on the Argyle right. This time, Fenwick combined with Michael Woods, who served up the perfect pass for Franks to fire home.
The goal put Argyle on edge. Nelson and Flanagan were both booked in the same passage of play with Flanagan somewhat lucky to stay on before right-back Michael Duckworth was inches away from making it 3-1 with a snap shot that flew wide.
Flanagan became extremely lucky to stay on a few minutes later for a second heavy challenge, before he was withdrawn in favour of Hartley and Argyle went to 3-5-2 with a triple substitution midway through the half that also saw Talbot and Brunt replaced by Lee and Ben Purrington.
Immediately, Alessandra warmed Flinders’ hands with a drive that was parried away, but, again, the promise of better things was cruelly dashed.
With Argyle’s defence drawn to their left, Fenwick stole up on the opposite flank almost unnoticed and, when he was picked out by Duckworth, only had to keep his cool to beat McCormick, which he did.
To their credit, the Pilgrims kept going, and Reuben Reid was denied from reducing the deficit when Flinders tipped away his right-foot shot before Lee’s header from Nelson’s cross gave the visitors’ a few seconds’ hope.
Remarkably, other results in Sky Bet League 2 mean the damage to Argyle’s play-off aspirations from this chastening defeat was limited. They remain well in contention even after picking up just three points from the last 21 available.
Which is as welcome as it is bizarre.
Hartlepool United (4-3-3): 1 Scott Flinders (capt); 2 Neil Austin, 20 Dan Jones, 21 Michael Duckworth, 26 Scott Harrison; 4 Matthew Bates, 14 Michael Woods, 31 Aaron Tshibola; 7 Jonathan Franks, 17 Scott Fenwick, 29 Rakish Bingham. Substitutes (not used): 3 Darren Holden, 8 Brad Walker, 9 Marlon Harewoood, 11 Jack Compton, 13 Jonathan Maxted (gk), 16 Nicky Featherstone, 19 Jordan Richards.
Booked: Woods 57.
Argyle (4-4-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 20 Tom Flanagan (29 Peter Hartley 68), 16 Carl McHugh; 27 Drew Talbot (3 Ben Purrington 68), 17 Bobby Reid, 4 Lee Cox, 7 Lewis Alessandra; 28 Ryan Brunt (21 Olly Lee 68), 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 6 Ollie Norburn, 19 Nathan Thomas, 25 Aaron Bentley.
Booked: Nelson 63, Flanagan 63.
Referee: Chris Kavanagh.
Attendance: 3,291 (264 away).