FOOTBALL truly is a funny old game.
Not that Danny Wilson, the Sheffield United manager, was laughing after watching opponents who had previously won just once in the competition all season condemn his team to their first home defeat of the campaign.
Wilson conceded United could have “few complaints” after two goals from Steve Howard helped Hartlepool record a result which even John Hughes, celebrating three points for the first time since taking charge of the visitors last month, admitted had seemed improbable beforehand.
For Ritchie Humphreys, whose strike restored Hartlepool’s advantage after Michael Doyle had clawed the hosts back on level terms, it was a memorable occasion for altogether different reasons.
A lifelong United supporter and raised only a short walk away in Heeley Green, Humphreys rose to prominence across the city with Sheffield Wednesday after being discarded at Bramall Lane.
“It’s a special afternoon for me because, after 35 years, I’ve finally fulfilled my ambition of scoring a goal here at this stadium,” he said afterwards. “United are my club and a fantastic club, as is the other one just down the road from here.
“I hope the Blades fans forgive me celebrating but my friends, family and both parents were here. Not only that but, given the position my team now are in, it means a lot to score fullstop.”
“I used to sit on The Kop and I can remember being a mascot and walking out with Keith Edwards,” Humphreys added. “I’ve already had lots of text messages off mates who follow United and I don’t think they’re too happy with me.
“My wife actually told me beforehand that this might be my last chance to score here. At my age, the chances of me playing in the Championship again are very slim and we’re both sure that, irrespective of what’s just happened, United are going to be there next year.
“Let’s just hope we’ve got two Sheffield teams in that division next season because the city certainly deserves that to be the case.”
Despite trooping off the pitch to a chorus of boos United, who slip to second in the League One table ahead of tomorrow’s derby with Doncaster Rovers, remain well placed to deliver their half of the bargain.
Nevertheless that will be provide scant comfort for Wilson having seen his selection woes compounded by the knowledge that Harry Maguire, United’s teenage defender, is suspended for the meeting with Dean Saunders’ third-placed side after being cautioned shortly before claiming a late consolation.
“Harry has been booked after getting wiped out,” Wilson, who felt Maguire should have been awarded a penalty following a challenge in the Hartlepool box, said. “People might say he shouldn’t have got involved but the way he was squared-up to I don’t think he had any choice.
“Really, he didn’t do anything and it’s inconsistencies like that which bother me.
“But it doesn’t change the fact that it leaves us with a problem we’re going to have to solve.
“We’re very short now in that position and I was looking up into the stand to see if there were any of the old boys here we could possibly bring back.”
Wilson, closing in on the signature of Motherwell’s Jamie Murphy, will use the forthcoming transfer window to try and address some of the imbalances within his squad.
But with new financial legislation, including Salary Cost Management Protocol, limiting his room for manoeuvre, tough choices must be made about who can be sacrificed to prevent United from falling foul of the governing body’s spending guidelines.
Asked whether his priorities, known to include a winger and another striker have now changed, Wilson replied: “We’re still thin on the ground in the same areas so things still need to be done there.
“We’ll have to see what we can do. What’s possible and what’s not because there are rules we must adhere too.
“Ideally we’d like to bring in people on a permanent basis but, really, it’s whatever is feasible given the situation.”
Howard exploited the uncertainty in a United defence missing Tony McMahon and Neill Collins to turn home Evan Horwood’s cross during the early skirmishes.
A terrible surface not conducive to producing the type of spectacle which would thrill the purists meant it was the more prosaic talents of Dave Kitson and Doyle, not the poetic approach favoured by Kevin McDonald and John Cofie, which was likely to swing the contest back in United’s favour.
And so it proved when, having declared his intention to contribute more going forward earlier in the week, Doyle fulfilled that promise by clawing them back on level terms with a thunderous drive from range.
Scott Flinders, who produced a fine save to deny Nick Blackman during the build-up, will have been disappointed not to have parried the United captain’s shot wide.
But, with Dave Kitson only inches away from turning home Ryan Flynn’s centre following Howard’s intervention, United deserved their equaliser.
Hartlepool, though, deserved to triumph overall.
Still bottom of the rankings but now 11 points adrift of safety, they restored their advantage when Humphreys connected with another fine Horwood cross before Howard completed his brace after some good work from substitute James Poole.
“First and foremost, the pitch suited us,” a magnanimous Hughes said. “But take nothing away from my lads.
“We knew United would come back at us because they’ve got character. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be where they are. Hopefully winning here will give us some belief and help the lads come in to training with a smile on their faces for once.”
Cofie, like Kitson struggling to impose himself due to a lack of quality service, saw a shot blocked after combining with Blackman while Sam Collins superbly smothered an attempt from United’s leading scorer.
Maguire reduced the deficit during the closing stages after Matt Hill had challenged Flinders beneath Jordan Chapell’s lofted pass but there was no time left to salvage a draw.
“In conditions like that you have to roll up your sleeves and have a go,” Wilson said. “And they did that better than us.
“We constructed some chances and had we done better with them then things might have been different but, the fact is, we didn’t and we can have few
complaints because we defended poorly.”