Alex Cooke sees Andy Monkhouse deny Swindon a deserved win, and top spot, with an equaliser for a determined, if defensive, Hartlepool United side.
Swindon Town will have to wait – wait for Jed McCory’s takeover to be completed – and wait to go top of League One after poor finishing let yet another former player steal a draw in a game Swindon easily led thanks to Simon Ferry’s fine 15th minute opener.
Andy Monkhouse’s 75th minute equaliser came in the middle of Hartlepool’s only spell of pressure during a match which Swindon deserved dominated but failed to kill off, due to a mixture of wasteful finishing, good goalkeeping and the odd moment of farce.
The early signs for Swindon looked good. Throughout the opening moments, Town seemed the more alert, vibrant side. Andy Williams and Adam Rooney easily taking the ball off Pools’ shaky backline and driving toward goal. Early chances came with Williams leaping uncontested to flick wide a Nathan Thompson free-kick and Rooney plucking a ball from the air and tormented former loanee Sam Collins before a drive which ‘keeper Scott Flinders flicked over.
Hartlepool, by contrast, seemed like a side designed to retain possession but too immobile to actually win it. They flitted between a solid 442 and a looser 4141. Former Sheffield Wednesday man Ritchie Humphreys planted himself in central midfield while perma-tanned spheroid Simon Walton shielded the back four. They passed, without moving, they altered the angle of attack, without actually attacking, and yet this former Premier League pairing frustrated Town early on with their doughy, resilient middle.
So it was little surprise that Swindon’s goal came on the counter attack. Nathan Thompson, in one of his best performances, sprung forward through the middle of the pitch, drawing the Pool’s midfield out before feeding Williams in the vanguard, and while many brayed for the difficult through-pass to Ferry, he instead paused and fed Gary Roberts on the right flank. This allowed Roberts to slip a simpler ball into the feet of the on-rushing Scot, who finished neatly.
It was a goal which showed mobility, incisiveness and neatness. Sadly Town rarely repeated this level of ingenuity, except once just before half time. Alan McCormack had driven forward once from defence, bustling through the stodgy midfield before exchanging passes with Rafa De Vita and pulling the ball just wide.
Although the Town shots and Hartlepool blocks piled up, at the half-time whistle, Town had restricted Hartlepool to long range shooting, testing Foderingham just once, but hadn’t dominated possession, nor excelled in attack. But, at that point they hadn’t needed to.
With Gary Roberts linking well with Thompson, it was less the vitality of Matt Ritchie which Town missed, more the drive, strength and aggression of Danny Hollands. Without his running overwhelming and overloading the Pools’ centre-backs, their ponderous midfield shield were rarely dragged out of position. Instead they passed from flank to flank with impunity, only for their limited widemen and forward to lose the ball quickly in the final third.
The second half initially saw Hartlepool be a little bolder in attack. But after winning a corner, the midfield again sloped back deep into their own half. Again Swindon struggled to break this stoic barrier, and when they did Flinders provided more than able. The former Barnsley ‘keeper might have drop the ball twice in the first half, but after the break he denied Roberts and Rooney, including in a remarkable double save. He also pulled off a superb stop from a close-range Rooney header, although it did seem to be straight at the stopper.
Hartlepool continued to be patient throughout. At times their passing across defence seemed like a parody of Paul Hart’s 451 shuffling across their own 18-yard box. At one point, they had seven player behind the ball, despite being in possession, in their own half, and 1-nil down.
However, even this super-density of defenders couldn’t stop Williams and twice he wiggled through to go agonisingly close. Aden Flint also missed with a header from a corner, and Roberts hit a rising drive which was in turn deflected over.
What Town needed was an injection of energy, what they got was James Collins. The former Shrewsbury striker replaced Rooney but looked lost outside the box and uncoordinated in it, kicking thin air once and shinning a shot feebly wide when almost clean through. It was exactly the kind of hapless performance which brought opprobrium down on Rooney early in the season but hardly raised a groan.
Hartlepool’s own substitute, Andy Monkhouse, was proving far more effective. His arrival at the top of Pools’ 442 coincided with five minutes of Hartlepool pressure. Time and again the ball was lofted into Town’s box only to be cleared by the reliable Flint and Darren Ward. Eventually a deep cross was knocked back across goal by Evan Horwood for Monkhouse to tap home.
Even the introduction of Miles Storey couldn’t re-invigorate Swindon. Hartlepool remained resolute in their desire to play passing, if slightly suicidal, football while Town looked increasingly weary, and bereft of ideas. Swindon simply weren’t going to score again, no matter how long the game went on for, and so despite four minutes of injury time, and Flinders’ obvious time wasting, Swindon Town will just have to keep on waiting.