Second Division: Cooper's lucky shoes fail to add inspiration

Hartlepool United 1 Bristol City 1
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The Independent Football

Neale Cooper took many things from his time at Aberdeen with Alex Ferguson: an instinctive ability to read the game, a knack for man-management and a temper.

The kick he aimed at a nearby bag when what seemed an obvious penalty was rejected split the sole of his shoe. "And you know what?" said the man who has taken Hartlepool as high as they have ever been. "These are my lucky shoes."

They were not especially effective in the first leg of this Second Division play-off semi-final. Not only was Steve Phillips, in the Bristol City goal, unpunished for bringing down Eifion Williams, he was equal to virtually everything Hartlepool could hurl at him. Phillips made the PFA Second Division team of the year and here was why, as Cooper counted 19 shots aimed at him.

Ironically, the equaliser was the product of an error. Phillips raced off his line, shouting for his full-back Louis Carey to leave the ball, only to be beaten to it by Hartlepool's centre-forward, Joel Porter, who clipped it into an empty net. Cooper, his temper cooled, embarked on a one-man pitch invasion.

For his counterpart, Danny Wilson, this would have been a queasy sort of day, not helped by his native Wigan's defeat in the Challenge Cup final. The Bristol City manager had seen his side defend admirably and, unlike last season's play-offs, in which they were beaten by Cardiff, they actually managed a goal.

It was headed home by Tony Rougier, a Trinidad international playing for a new contract. After moving from the Madejski Stadium, Rougier had struggled to settle in Bristol. If City make it to Cardiff for the final, he will miss his country's international with Scotland.

Although Hartlepool have not won a play-off game in seven attempts, Rougier may still end up playing Scotland. On Wednesday they will face a team which, despite finishing three places and nine points behind City, boasts the best away record in the division. Wilson remarked that if the atmosphere at Victoria Park was intense, it would be "four times" that at Ashton Gate.

To those who had watched Hartlepool's struggles for survival, which came to an end with the arrival of Chris Turner as manager in March 1999, Victoria Park was unrecognisable. The stands were full, the weather was sultry and there was decent football on offer. Porter, who had played in an Australian Grand Final in front of 38,000, thought there was more noise made by a crowd a fifth of the size.

This time last year, Hartlepool had won promotion and been booed off, not just because they had lost 4-0 at Scunthorpe, but because they ought to have won the Third Division championship instead of finishing second. On Saturday their players were given a vivid send-off by everyone except the club president, Peter Mandelson, who contrived to be elsewhere.

With its marina and retail parks, Hartlepool has tried hard to reinvent itself but the speed of its football club's revival can be seen from the advertising around the ground. Mason and Martin Funeral Directors, Hazel Window Cleaners and Hudson's Taxis were all represented. They would not be out of place on a Northern League ground. But should Cooper's campaign prove successful, will Hartlepool be able to resist increasing their rates when Leeds United come calling?

Goals: Rougier (5) 0-1; Porter (75) 1-1.

Hartlepool United (4-4-2): Provett; Barron, Nelson (Clarke, 90), Westwood, Robertson; Williams, Tinkler, Sweeney (Danns, 85), Humphreys; Boyd, Porter (Robinson, 80). Substitutes not used: Konstantopoulos (gk), Strachan.

Bristol City (4-4-2): Phillips; Carey, Coles, Butler, Hill; Rougier (Murray, 82), Doherty (Burnell, 52), Tinnion, Woodman; Roberts (Wilkshire, 89), Peacock. Substitutes not used: Stowell (gk), Lita.

Referee: P Taylor (Hertfordshire).

Bookings: Hartlepool United: Porter; Bristol City: Coles, Burnell.

Man of the match: Phillips.

Attendance: 7,211.