When David Weir first arrived at Bramall Lane, he probably viewed the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy as an irritating addition to the fixture calendar.
But, four months and a flurry of disappointing results later, the Sheffield United manager acknowledged this second round tie with Hartlepool had suddenly become hugely significant.
Weir’s team entered last night’s contest searching for their first win since ending Scunthorpe’s hopes of a prolonged run in the competition a month ago and, more importantly, having taken only a handful of points from 10 League One games.
So the sight of United failing to record what would have been a morale-boosting and much-needed victory will have caused both him and his board of directors much concern ahead of a potentially season-defining sequence of fixtures coming up in League One.
James Poole was responsible for ensuring Hartlepool’s courageous effort did not go unrewarded, firing home the evening’s only goal towards the end of a first half which United controlled for long periods without ever making their advantage pay.
Jose Baxter impressed with his poise and positional sense while Lyle Taylor produced an enthusiastic shift before being replaced by Joe Ironside early in the second-half.
However, while Conor Coady hit the woodwork with a curling shot during the opening skirmishes, confidence has inevitably taken a battering at Bramall Lane in recent weeks.
United’s tendancy to over-elaborate in the final third rather than take a more direct route to goal contributed to their difficulties here, although the visitors’ industry and organisation should not be under-estimated.
Weir’s charges demonstrated lots of application, but too little pizzazz as the pressure on his shoulders was cranked up another notch.
A sparse home crowd delivered its own verdict when referee Mick Russell brought proceedings to a close.
Hartlepool arrived wrestling with problems of their own, although, despite being too close to the League Two relegation zone for comfort, emboldened by a 4-1 victory over Mansfield Town three days earlier.
Unlike Weir, who made the maximum number of changes permitted under tournament rules, Colin Cooper’s selection was more conservative, with Bradley Walker and Darren Holden the only changes to the side which started at Field Mill.
Nevertheless, United began the match in more convincing fashion when Coady shaved the Hartlepool crossbar following Taylor’s second minute cross.
Hartlepool, despite being full of endeavour and bright ideas, lacked the cutting edge to make several promising opportunities pay until Poole’s dramatic intervention.
At the other end, United continued to threaten, with Baxter only inches away from releasing Taylor after spotting the former Falkirk centre-forward peeling off his marker before seeing a shot of his own deflected wide.
However, neither was able to fashion a clear-cut opening as the host’s troubles in front of goal continued.
League Two Hartlepool, who had earlier wasted a glorious chance to take a 12th-minute lead when Luke James miscued badly from the edge of the penalty area, continued to provide stubborn opposition.
Jamie Murphy went close from long range and Taylor scuffed a volley as the visitors’ limited United to a series of speculative shots from distance.
Moments of genuine quality, some notable exceptions apart, were few and far between.
Baxter, full of tricks and delicate touches, showcased the darker side to his character by harrassing Hartlepool’s midfield while Taylor, making a rare appearance in the first-choice 11, was clearly determined to make the most of the reprieve.
Indeed, his persistance was responsible for forcing the defensive slip which nearly sent Murphy scampering through during the closing stages of the first period.
But, just as United seemed destined to break through, Poole’s 38th-minute volley thrust put them straight on the back foot.
The 24-year-old’s execution was perfect, a flashback to the days he spent on the books of Manchester City.
The defending which allowed Poole to direct the ball beyond a despairing Mark Howard, wasless so, and the inquest into how a Holden’s routine throw had caught United napping continued as both sets of players trooped down the tunnel at half-time.
Centre-forward Marlon King, who is set to miss Sunday’s meeting with Coventry City due to international commitments, had enjoyed precious few sights of goal until Murphy hooked the ball into Scott Flinders’ penalty box, forcing Christian Burgess to clear.
Hartlepool, by contrast, continued to grow in self-belief, with Simon Walton, Andy Monkhouse and Holden combining to make inroads along United’s right flank.
Baxter, though, was alert to the danger and conceded a corner which was comfortably collected by Howard before testing Flinders’ handling following an exchange with Coady.
As United’s sense of urgency grew, so Hartlepool began to concede ground.
Ironside was crowded out after controlling Baxter’s searching cross, Harry Maguire gave Flinders a scare when his centre nearly sneaked beneath the crossbar and substitute Ryan Hall’s foraging forced Michael Duckworth to break sweat.
Baxter, United’s most creative performer, saw a first-time effort hacked away to safety after Ironside had made a nuisance of himself on the byline before King tried his luck only for Flinders to save.
The keeper also saved as Neill Collins went close at the death.
And then United departed to a chorus of boos.
Sheffield United: Howard 6, Westlake 5, Maguire 7, Doyle 6, Taylor 6 (Ironside 56, 6), Baxter 7, Collins 7, Coady 6, King 6, Lappin 6, Murphy 6 (Hall 56, 6). Not used: Hill, McGinn, Willis.
Hartlepool: Flinders 6, Austin 6, Walton 7, Poole 7, Monkhouse 6 (Richards 83), Compton 6 (Franks 79), Duckworth 6, Holden 6, James 6 (Rodney 85), Burgess 7, Walker 6. Not used: Rafferty, Sweeney.
Goal: Poole (38).
Referee: M Russell (Hertforshire).
Booking: Poole (67).