Pools Ladies produced their most powerful display of the season to thrash title-chasing Norton & Stockton Ancients in a thrilling encounter at Dyke House on Sunday.
Their final game of the campaign was also Andy Stuart’s last in charge after he took the decision to step down - and from the first whistle his players looked determined to make sure he signed-off in style.
Norton arrived in Hartlepool for the local derby boasting an unbeaten record in the league having won an impressive 13 of their 14 previous league outings – and aware that a point would be enough to clinch the title.
However, there was little doubt about which way the contest was going to go from the moment Pools won a penalty with less than two minutes on the clock.
Jess Dawson was brought down on the left fringe of the area and the match official pointed to the spot despite complaints from the visitors that the foul occurred outside the box. Caitlin Bates ignored the protests, composed herself and drilled a low penalty in to the bottom left corner of the net to give Pools the perfect start.
Norton almost responded with an immediate equaliser when the league’s top scorer Nyci Thorns escaped down the left of the penalty area but she drilled a powerful effort just wide of the near post.
Dawson saw a snapshot fly just too high before Bates crafted a great chance for Jade Pye, twisting and turning on the right to deliver a cross right on to the instep of the striker but she sent her shot just off-target.
Nerves were evident on both sides but on 16 minutes Pools calmed theirs by doubling the lead. Bates’ ball over the top sent Dawson away and she showed great pace and power to hold off a defender and then produce a great low finish past the keeper to make it 2-0 to cue wild celebrations.
Pools keeper Becca Smith had to be at her best to tip over a shot at the other end and a minute later it proved crucial when Bates added a glorious third for the hosts. She scampered on to a ball through the middle, turned skilfully inside the last defender before unleashing an unstoppable strike past the keeper to convert her 26th of the season and make it 3-0.
Norton rallied and grabbed a goal back on 24 minutes when Pools gave up possession in a dangerous area and Shannon Reed took full advantage to produce a fine finish and give the visitors a foothold back in the game.
However, the Pools forward line was causing constant problems for Norton and Bates almost had her hat-trick on the half-hour mark when she bullied her way in to space on the edge of the area but this time her dipping shot was finger-tipped over the cross bar.
Seven minutes before the break it was 4-1 to Pools though. Norton once again struggled to deal with Pools’ attacking down the flanks and Jenni Duffy-Smith’s ball in from the left fell kindly for Pye who clinically steered it in to the bottom right corner of the net.
Norton knew they had to start the second half quickly and had a chance within five minutes only for Smith to produce an excellent save and the rebound was blasted wastefully wide.
Pools remained a threat at the other end and Bates almost got through on goal again but the keeper did well, while Dawson struck a shot just wide as she raced through and clipped an effort round the advancing shot-stopper.
However, Stuart’s side marshalled their opponents well for the remainder of the half and saw the game through to secure a third-place finish and inflict Norton’s first league defeat of the campaign.
“It was emphatic,” admitted Stuart afterwards, who will step down as Manager but remain as Chairman next term.
“We had a point to prove to ourselves because we weren’t particularly great in our first game against Norton but today we had a good chat in the dressing room beforehand and they were told what was expected of them.
“We wanted to compete, impose ourselves on them and show all the people watching how good we are because I believe we’re a better team than Durham and we’re a better team than Norton if we can apply some consistency.
“Norton will probably win the league and fair play to them if they do – but they were completely overrun and outplayed today by a very good Hartlepool United team.
“I couldn’t have asked for any more. After six years in charge the girls promised me they would deliver and they didn’t let me down, every single player was brilliant.
“It’s been a difficult, emotional day because I have had lots of messages from people wishing me well. I have took a long time putting this team together and we have a good relationship – I think that showed when they ran to celebrate the second goal with me.
“Everything comes to an end though; a new man will come in and we’ll support him. This team is very talented so I hope he can deliver on the goals I will be setting him next season.”
Full Time: Hartlepool United Ladies 4 Norton & Stockton Ancients Ladies 1
Pools: Smith, Bartlett, Stuart, Robinson, Garside, Duffy-Smith, Rowbotham, Basnett, Bates (Hammond-Garrington 84), Dawson, Pye (Ingram 70).
Subs not used: Portas, Lambert.