Should He Stay or Should He Go?

BILLY'S CONTRACT asks the inevitable question

I see in some quarters that the natives are starting to get restless regarding Craig Hignett's tenure as manager of Hartlepool United. I for one was pleased when he was first appointed as I felt that he was the natural choice for the job.

It was widely believed that during Colin Cooper's reign as manager that Hignett was the brains behind the organisation and to a lesser extent the same applied over at Middlesbrough when he became Karanka's right-hand man. Fuel was added to that statement as when he left each club both Pools and Borer went into a slump.

In the press he says all the right things and talks the talk. However, after a poor display from the team he is similar to Ronnie Moore in that he will publicly blame the players for their faults and mistakes but won't shoulder any of the blame himself for his own limitations.

Despite a promising 2-1 victory over Yeovil in his first game as manager, results were slow to go his way. Then in early March Hignett's side clicked and hit a purple patch picking up 18 points in nine games, drawing two and losing one. And scoring 16 goals in the process whilst conceding 6 in the against column. This was promotion form and looked like the shape of things to come, particularly for those who witnessed the football lesson and 5-2 thrashing that Pools handed out away at Morecambe.

Little did we know that the points gained in this run served to keep Pools in the Football League. Thereafter in a six match run, Pools only managed to pick up three points for the rest of the season, and even those were acquired from a desperate bottom-of-the-table York City side who not only played three quarters of the match with ten men but also had Scotty Flinders in goal as well!

On this losing run of 5 matches Pools conceded two goals in each game with the exception of Plymouth who lashed 5 past us.  

Problem One: Retained list
Close season was a strange one: signing three non-league players and not the experienced dominant midfield player as everyone had hoped for. Scott Harrison was handed a fully deserved free transfer only to be re-signed again a few weeks into the start of the new season, and at this time of writing is still performing no better than he had previously. Likewise Brad Walker, who also falls within that same ilk.

Matthew Bates is another high earner at the club who should at the very best have been put on a 'pay as you play' contract due to his ongoing injury problems. There are at least another four players who are currently at the club who in my opinion should have been released. Stuart Parnaby was handed a 'created' job behind the scenes on the medical side with little or no experience in that field apart from being a patient for most of his career, permanently being hospitalised through injury. Jobs for the boys? With the savings made on wages against these four/eight players alone Pools could have invested in a decent midfielder.
"things cannot continue in the current vein otherwise we will be playing Darlington 1883 sooner than we expected"

Problem Two: Tactics
As the new season unfolds Hignett readily admits that he does not know what his best starting eleven is or what is his preferred system, 4-4-2, 5-3-1 or 4-3-3. Away form is currently better than home performances and to date Pools have yet to secure a home win. This is because Hignett/Fleming set the side up with one up front (Padraig Amond who is not a target man) and play as an away side hoping to hit the opposition on the break. I could not believe that this formation was employed when we faced third-bottom Orient at the Vic. This must have given the Londonders such a boost. We might as well have told them that we are scared witless of them. As well as scoring three goals the O's enjoyed more possession and in the second half played as if they were the home team and I can only recall Pools having two scrambled shots during the that period.

Aside from not knowing which formation to employ, I am not sure if Hignett knows in what role to deploy Liam Donnelly. In the space of half a dozen games Donnelly has played, and very well to be fair, in four different positions but does Hignett see him as a right/left full back, a midfielder or a centre half? It would not surprise me if Hignett puts him in goal ahead of Carson for the Stamford match.

Problem Three: The case for the Defence
Basically I can offer no case for the defence, particularly the back four. At time of writing Pools have let in more goals than any other team in the division and in the main it is due to individual basic mistakes. The defence has been shuffled and changed on numerous occasions. They have been shouted at, abused and forced to watch videos of their own poor performances but still they do not seem to improve. All of them are capable of making the most horrendous mistakes; it's like having a back four of Chris Smallings.

To be brutally honest I would say that most of them are not good enough as they all have their own particular failings, and three of them would be on my free transfer list next June. On the (further) down side the normally competent Trevor Carson has started to make Scotty Flinders type errors, but hopefully it is only a passing phase.

Problem Four: Leaders 
We have no natural leaders in the squad. No shouters, brawlers or bollockers: players who are not only prepared to take the game by the scruff of the neck but also, when needed, to take their team mates by the scruff of the neck ...and elsewhere, and not bothering who they upset in the process. Oh, for a Billy Bonds!

Problem Five: The Midfield
Hand on heart, when was the last time you saw an assured midfield performance from Pools? Probably when Tinks, Ritchie and Trigger were running the show. Our midfield is adequate at best but lacks pace, and attacking option, and does not dictate games. Worse still, it fears to cross the invisible force shield that is on the halfway line. One thing it is good at doing though is passing the ball back to the keeper.

Problem Six: The Management
The only thing we hear from Hignett in the press these days is the shameful touting of Nathan Thomas, who will only be allowed to leave the club for £1million. By coincidence Gary Coxall has stated that they are looking at bringing in two new players, hopefully a pair of nasty B------ds, in the January transfer window. Let's hope that these targets will come to the club based on the sale of the currently-crocked Thomas, who looks like he will be out for some time. Hignett has made a couple of loan signings in Tom Heardman from Newcastle and Bradley Fewster from the Borer but we have seen little or nothing of them. If they are no better than what we currently have in the squad why bother signing them in the first place?

Pools currently have a squad of 34 players on their books and to my mind we would struggle to get a decent first eleven from that number. The better players from the reserves should be sent out on loan to gain experience and I don't mean, with all due respect, to the likes of Whitley Bay with whom Josh Nearney is currently plying his trade. Reserve players with potential should be offered to National League sides or good non-league sides like Spennymoor or even Darlo. Lewis Hawkins had a spell with Spenny last season and came back to Pools a better player for it.

Craig Hignett is currently still on a learning curve. Word has it that he was hoping to attain a play off spot this season and although that is still not impossible I cannot see that happening. He has publicly stated that he wants, as indeed we all do, to see Hartlepool United play football the right way but there has been little evidence of that so far.

Lady luck also plays a pivotal role in a manager's destiny. So far this season Pools have had, including the manager himself, five sending-offs. Some could be classed as dodgy refereeing decisions but the blatant hand ball that Toto Nsiala gave, leading to a fifth minute minute penalty against Luton and his subsequent dismissal, cannot be factored into any manager's pre-match plans. At another point in the season Nsiala's moment of madness could have led to his manager losing his job.

Unless of course Pools lose to Stamford in the FA Cup, I would give Hignett more time redress the situation and put things right but things cannot continue in the current vein otherwise we will be playing Darlington 1883 sooner than we expected. To compare Craig Hignett's managerial record with some of his predecessors, listed below for the stattos among our readers are percentage win ratios for each manager. The nearest comparison to Hignett's current managerial record is that of Martin Scott who, at the time of writing, had managed two more games than Craig Hignett.

*Neale Cooper43.64%
Danny Wilson43.61%
*Chris Turner32.2%
Colin Cooper29.23%
Martin Scott28.2%
*First time around with the club