As football games all over Europe were being called off left, right and centre due to fears of the Coronavirus spreading rapidly, especially in the United Kingdom, the National League decided to go against the grain and allow the full fixture list to play out out this weekend.
One by one, the virus whittled down the number of games that were scheduled, yet Sutton against Hartlepool was passed fit to play. The two sides were hunting for points; Sutton to establish themselves as a National League side for next season and secure safety, Hartlepool to try reignite their play-off hopes after a shock 1-0 defeat to relegation candidates Ebbsfleet United last time out. The second highest attendance at Ganders Green Lane this season of 2126 turned out in force for this National League clash.
Story of the game
Sutton got off to a dream start only two minutes in, after stiker Isaac Olaofe got his first goal for the U's somewhat fortuitously. Hartlepool goalkeeper, Ben Killip, looked to clear the ball from his area, when the clearance cannoned off Olaofe's leg and and rolled into the back of the net, giving Sutton the perfect start.
Sutton came close again with winger David Ajiboye, who was proving a tricky customer for the Hartlepool back line to deal with. His pace was causing all kinds of problems for his opposition, and on the 9th minute his mazy run span the Pools' defence inside out before breaking into the box with only the keeper to beat, but Killip redeemed himself for his earlier mistake and made a fine save to stop Sutton doubling their lead.
The remainder of the first half played out as a fairly tetchy affair, with Hartlepool looking for a way back into the game. Dave Challinor's side went in at halftime looking like the team more likely to score next, but they lacked the cutting edge to really create anything of note in the first half.
Hartlepool started the second half the same way they finished the first. Their hard work was rewarded on the 58th minute when centre midfielder Gavin Holohan, fresh from signing a new two year deal on Friday, topped off a good week for himself as he the Irishman played a delightful sequence of passes with winger Luke Molyneux, before placing the ball into the top left hand corner, freezing Sutton goalkeeper Nik Tzanev to the spot, with the satisfyingly placed shot a worthy equaliser to make it 1-1.
The two sides continued to trade blows as the match entered its final stages, with Sutton the more likely team to land the knockout punch. Harry Beautyman, who has 15 goals from midfield this season, grew into the fixture with ten or so minutes left of the match; his creativity and range of passing was almost key in unlocking the Pools' defence.
Sutton remained on top for the dying embers of the contest. They thought their persistence had sealed all three points in stoppage time, when winger Ajiboye directed a shot past goalkeeper Killip and it looked to be a certain goal, before Hartlepool defender Gary Liddle, who was making his 299th appearance for the club, sensationally flung his head at the ball to direct over it the bar, saving a point for the Pools in the process.
Thoughts of Matt Gray
The Sutton United manager spoke after about the crazy 24 hours prior to the match and shared his thoughts of his sides impressive performance.
When asked about what the preparations had been like following the disturbance of the virus on the footballing world, he said,
Yesterday, we planned as normal. In the morning, we did not know any news about the Premier League and the FA until we came in at lunchtime. But once they made their stand on things, I thought the National League was soon to follow, but that wasn't to be.
He continues, "The players want to play; it's their job, it's my job and we were looking forward to getting out for another 90 minutes."
Gray believed his side could have gone on and grabbed all three points," I wasn't too happy with the goal, and I wasn't too happy with the first ten to fifteen minutes of the second half. We got stronger and stronger as the game went on, and we had chances to go and win it. If anyone was going to go on and win it, I thought it would be us."
What the result means
For Sutton, they have in all intents and purposes guaranteed their place in the National League for next season after reaching 50 points, with there being a slim chance of them pushing for an elusive playoff spot.
For Hartlepool, they would have been disappointed with their performance. There is still an expectation to get into the playoffs, however with teams around them having games in hand, it will be a hotly contested race heading into the final few weeks of the season.
The National League continues to regularly monitor what to do on the pandemic of the Coronavirus, and it will be interesting to see when or if they will soon follow other the other League's choice of postponement.