Nicky Featherstone and Emmanuel Dieseruvwe struck as Hartlepool threatened to force an unlikely comeback against Rochdale who raced into a 3-0 lead at the Suit Direct Stadium.
Cian Hayes, Jimmy Keohane and Ryan East scored three unanswered goals for the away side as John Askey’s men produced, arguably, their worst 45 minutes of the season before Featherstone breathed life into Pools when striking deep into first half stoppage time.
An improved second half saw Dieseruvwe head his 11th goal of the season to set up a grandstand finish – one which might have seen them snatch a point only for the in-form Dieseruvwe to miss a golden opportunity deep into stoppage time as Hartlepool dropped into the bottom half of the National League table.
In January this was a fixture in the Football League, two clubs who have been synonymous with league football, in fact.
But the year 2023 has been a one to forget, as both tumbled out of the Football League – Hartlepool for a second time in six years and Rochdale for the first time ever.
But when it came to wondering who looked better equipped, and more likely to make a return to the promised land of English football’s top four divisions, Rochdale, despite arriving into the game below Hartlepool, were a cut above in the first half.
Hartlepool’s situation has been bordering on the line of desperation for some time now, if it hadn’t already crossed into that territory.
But the first 45 minutes against Rochdale were as chastening as it can get for supporters and manager Askey.
It looked, for all intents and purposes, as though this was a league club taking on a non-league side. Jim McNulty’s team looked more like Manchester City, or a vintage Brazil in their all yellow away kit, as they stroked the ball around at will against a hapless Hartlepool.
Askey had hinted at the need for change following the midweek defeat at Halifax and it came with four changes as Zak Johnson and Josh Umeah were reinstalled to the starting line-up along with goalkeeper Joel Dixon and Matt Dolan, who came in for his first start since Hartlepool’s final game in the Football League back in May.
But it could not have been further away from working for Askey as Pools were behind within less than 180 seconds.
Tom Crawford and Dieseruvwe tried to press goalkeeper Louie Moulden inside his own area, with the Dale stopper clearly instructed to play out from the back no matter what, who had to quickly race to clear his lines with that resulting long diagonal ball beating everyone in blue and white, including loan defender Joe Mattock who was making his home debut, to allow Hayes a clear sight of goal on the angle.
Hayes was confronted by an on-rushing Dixon who was neither here nor there as Hayes simply prodded the ball into what almost seemed like an open net.
It was the worst possible start for a club just in desperate need of anything positive after what has been a difficult week on and off the field.
Things quickly got worse for Pools, however, as Umerah was forced off with an injury after just six minutes.
The visitors were slick in possession and looked far beyond what their 13th place in the National League table suggested heading into the game.
Jesurun Uchegbulam had the beating of Luke Hendrie far too easily down the Hartlepool right as his low cross was nervously cleared by Johnson into the path of Hayes at the back post who flashed a follow-up back across goal and mercifully away.
The lively Hayes was involved again when skipping inside of David Ferguson to cross with Dolan scrambling clear before Hayes then whipped an effort just wide of the far post after Ferguson cheaply lost out to Kwaku Oduroh.
Hartlepool simply could not get the ball as Rochdale completely dominated proceedings, playing through their thirds and bypassing the Pools midfield with ease.
Askey made a tactical switch to move Dolan into midfield alongside Featherstone but Harvey Gilmour was quick to breeze by both and create half a chance for Oduroh as the ball pinballed around the Pools box.
Hartlepool had to wait until midway through the half before testing Moulden when Dolan, ambitiously, tried his luck with a free kick from over 25-yards away.
It was, however, an effort which provoked Hartlepool’s best spell in the half as Dieseruvwe dragged an effort wide before Crawford then brought a good save from Moulden from Hendrie’s cross.
Johnson met a corner from Featherstone which Moulden gathered before Rochdale doubled their lead with just as much simplicity as their opener as a ball was clipped forward to Kairo Mitchell who flicked on ahead of Johnson into the path of Keohane who was in acres of space ahead of Hendrie and he scuffed an effort by Dixon into the bottom corner.
The discontent rained down from the home supporters as Crawford tried to find a way back into the game when striking from distance, but it was an attempt more in frustration than with any consideration.
Play was stopped 10 minutes before half-time for a medical emergency in the Town End, as Askey gathered his players around the home dugout for a dressing down.
With referee Dale Baines given the all-clear to continue the game Pools half threatened heading into half-time when Featherstone found Joe Grey in space, but nobody in blue and white contested his teasing ball towards the back post.
At that point, Hartlepool needed to get into half-time and regroup but before they could, they found themselves even further behind when East was able to pick up possession inside the Pools half and drive towards the edge of the area before thinking ‘why not’ as he fired one into the bottom corner from distance.
It felt as though Pools were dead and buried before Featherstone, who may have been making his final appearance for the club with his short-term deal soon set to expire, gave Askey’s side the slightest flicker of hope in the sixth minute of first half stoppage time.
The midfielder finished very well after Grey had manoeuvred the ball his way in what was otherwise as bad as it gets from Hartlepool in the first half.
Askey brought on Terrell Agyemang at the break with the midfielder showing a little bit of spice for Pools, who did start the second half on the front foot and at least threatened to make the game more of a contest.
But for all Pools enjoyed more possession than they had in the first half, they weren’t able to really test Moulden in the Rochdale goal – Harrogate loanee Mattock wasting their best opportunity when heading over from Crawford’s back post cross.
The away side seemed happy to allow Hartlepool to have the possession in the second half, Dale somewhat sporadic in their attacks after the break with East firing a rare opportunity straight into the hands of Dixon.
But McNulty’s side did threaten to add a fourth when Ian Henderson latched onto a long ball forward only for Mattock to make a crucial last ditch challenge.
Crawford brought a smart stop from Moulden when firing a low free kick through a crowded penalty area with Dieseruvwe and Chris Wreh unable to force a fumble before Askey’s side made a fist of things in the final five minutes when Dieseruvwe nodded in his 11th goal of the season from a fine Hendrie cross to set up the grandstand finish.
Wreh almost completed a dramatic comeback when picking up a loose ball from Dieseruvwe to shift onto his left and bring a good save from Moulden before Dieseruvwe missed an opportunity which will haunt him throughout the rest of the Halloween weekend.
Ferguson and Featherstone linked superbly on the left to force a low ball into the area which Moulden missed, with the ball spinning the way of Dieseruvwe who had an empty net to tap into from no more than a couple of yards, but this time Hartlepool’s talisman got his radar wrong as he missed the ball with the chance, agonisingly, going begging.
Seven minutes of added time provided Pools with further hope to find an elusive equaliser with Brody Paterson almost making something happen at the back post but, ultimately, despite a much-improved second half, Askey’s side fell to a third straight defeat, with plenty of time to sit on what has been a week to forget for the club.