Town 2-1 Hartlepool
Craig Mackail-Smith’s late winner gave the Hatters a first home win under Nathan Jones and just a fourth home win of the season at Kenilworth Road.
The striker lofted a shot over Hartlepool keeper Trevor Carson after coming off the bench, netting his first goal since scoring a penalty against Mansfield back in September.
Cameron McGeehan’s penalty gave the Town a chance of their first home victory since November, slotting home after a handball in the area on the hour mark.
But the visitors, who have not won at Kenilworth Road since 1967, equalised through Adam Jackson just five minutes before Mackail-Smith’s winner broke the winless spell.
Nathan Jones recalled goalkeeper Mark Tyler for his 295th Hatters appearance, while Danny Green, Joe Pigott and Alex Lawless also returned to the starting line-up having been missing last week.
The Town dominated the early possession, but it wasn’t until the tenth minute when the first chance came. Green and McGeehan combined down the right to give the latter a chance to cross, forcing a Pools defender to knock behind for a corner with no Hatters player on hand to head home.
From the resulting set-piece, Green delivered deep to meet the head of Scott Cuthbert, who looked certain to score only to see Carson tip superbly away before the ball was scrambled clear.
Billy Paynter was just inches away from poking his side in front at the other end, coming close to tapping in Carl Magnay’s teasing ball from the right as the game kicked into life 20 minutes in.
The same man had a sniff moments later, but the Town regained their composure to form their own half-chances, and Stephen O’Donnell had the best of those as his snapshot from another inviting Green corner drifted harmlessly wide with the Hatters upping their game.
And the pressure almost paid dividends. Olly Lee slipped Jack Marriott through on goal, beating the offside trap, and while he had just the keeper to beat, the striker couldn’t force a shot away and the chance came to nothing.
The Hatters continued to press forward, largely thanks to hold-up work from Pigott, who earned a free-kick on the edge of the area in a promising position which Green could only thwack high and wide.
Despite the hosts’ chances, Hartlepool could, and perhaps should, have been ahead five minutes before the break. The ever-threatening Paynter burst through the Town offside trap, delivering a ball in from the right which O’Donnell let run across his body to an almost devastating effect as Nathan Thomas poked wide from no more than ten yards out.
That opportunity gave confidence to the Monkey Hangers, yet Jones’ side still maintained a probing threat on the break. O’Donnell was the latest to speed through, meeting Green’s ball and streaming through on goal, only to be felled by Thomas who was booked with defenders around to cover.
It was Hartlepool who started the second period stronger though, with Nicky Featherstone jostling past McGeehan only for his shot to be easily grasped by Tyler, who was seldom tested up until that point.
Yet the Hatters should have been ahead moments later. McGeehan took his turn in miserly twisting his way past defenders before taking the ball on his left foot and shooting narrowly wide with half the ground thinking his 20 yard strike was in the back of the net.
Neither team were able to stake a claim for dominance, but it required some exceptional defending from Alan Sheehan to keep the game level. Thomas once again went on a mazy run, feeding Jake Gray whose shot required an exceptional block from the Town centre half.
And that block proved even more crucial when the hosts broke the deadlock just a couple of minutes later. Pigott was hauled down just outside the area and Green’s subsequent free-kick was adjudged to have struck a Hartlepool hand and the spot-kick was awarded.
That left McGeehan to confidently strike home into the bottom corner, far out of the ‘keeper’s reach to send the Town into the lead.
But that advantage lasted just five minutes. A corner from the left caused the Hatters defence all sorts of problems, leaving Jackson to thump a header past Tyler and square the game up once again.
There were more jittery moments soon after, with McGeehan robbed by Brad Walker in his own half, allowing the Pools man to stride through, only for his run to be ended by Cuthbert poking the ball away.
The visitors sensed a winner in Bedfordshire, and a spell of patient football almost provided it when Paynter was teed up 20 yards out, curling a shot narrowly wide of the upright.
The Hatters threw on Mackail-Smith and Ryan Hall in a bid for a late winner, but Hartlepool’s decision to keep men behind the ball seemed to be paying off as chances dried up to the frustration of the home faithful.
And just when hope seemed lost, the Town netted their winner. Lee’s ball over the top caught out the visitors’ backline, allowing substitute Mackail-Smith to finish expertly, sending the Hatters in front for the second time in the contest.
With five minutes added on at the end of the 90, Hartlepool pushed for their equaliser and came close to getting it too when Gray struck straight at Tyler. But that was that, giving the Hatters a far from straightforward victory, their first at Kenilworth Road for seven matches.
Hatters: Tyler, O’Donnell (sub Ruddock 86), Cuthbert, Sheehan, Howells, Lee, Lawless (sub Hall 72), McGeehan, Green, Marriott, Pigott (sub Mackail-Smith 80)
Subs not used: Justham, Smith, Okuonghae, McCourt,
Attendance: 7,880 including 193 travelling from Hartlepool.