ORIENT will rue miss opportunities as they left Victoria Park empty handed after losing 2-1 to relegation threatened Hartlepool United.
Martin Rowlands gave The O’s the lead early on from the penalty spot and it looked like it might be enough for another three points on the road, but late goals from Peter Hartley and substitute Luke James saw the home side snatch the points at the death.
It could have been so different as Orient got off to the perfect start. Following a frantic first five minutes, The O’s grabbed the advantage with their first move of note. Lee Cook cut inside the penalty area and fired a cross in low across the face of goal that was handled by Neil Austin. The referee pointed to the penalty spot and despite having his effort saved last week against Tranmere Rovers, Rowlands despatched his penalty high into the top corner to give Orient the lead with seven minutes gone.
The goal knocked the wind out of the home side but they wanted a penalty themselves on 14 minutes for another handball against David Mooney but it was not given, the first of several decisions that irked the home fans.
Hartlepool then enjoyed some long spells of possession without really threatening Jamie Jones in the Orient goal but it was The O’s who almost stretched their lead with 21 minutes on the clock.
The lively Cook won a free kick on the left and picked himself up to take it. The former QPR man crossed to the front post towards a stooping Mooney, but the leading goal scorer headed just over.
Orient continued to pressurise and six minutes later Scott Cuthbert stepped out of defence and fed Gary Sawyer on the left with a raking pass. The left back picked out Shaun Batt with his cross and the Millwall loanee made good contact with his header but Scott Flinders made a terrific save to push the ball out for a corner.
It was a physical contest that at times looked like it was in danger of boiling over with a number of firm tackles flying in but Orient kept their composure and again nearly made it 2-0 just before the break when the tireless Charlie MacDonald fired over from another Cook cross.
The second period started in similar fashion as Hartlepool retained the ball neatly at times but Orient looked the more likely to score as they probed on the break.
Rowlands almost bagged his second ten minutes after the restart when he jinxed past two Hartlepool defenders and hit a shot that bounced awkwardly in front of Flinders who spilled it but to his relief it bounced away from the onrushing Orient forwards.
The O’s were dealt a cruel blow on the hour mark when Gary Sawyer left the field on a stretcher, forcing Russell Slade to reshuffle his pack as captain Nathan Clarke replaced him and moved to right back, with Moses Odubajo switching to the left hand side of the defence.
Jonathan Franks was the main threat for the home side and he almost levelled with 67 minutes gone after he did well to bring down Evan Horwood’s long pass and spun inside the penalty box but his shot found the side netting.
Horwood was involved again five minutes later when his free kick almost caught out Jones who had to scramble and claw it behind.
United adopted a more direct approach as the game wore on but they looked vulnerable on the break and it looked as if The O’s would put the game to bed.
First Clarke set free Batt on the right who fired a cross in to the box that was not dealt with by the Hartlepool back line. It dropped to Mooney who shot across the goalkeeper but it rolled just wide.
Jimmy Smith replaced Mooney with ten minutes to go and the substitute was involved straight away as he crossed from the left towards Batt who opened up his body and aimed for the top corner but just got too much on it as it bent wide.
With two minutes left, the home side found themselves back in it. The skipper Hartley escaped his marker and rose to head home a pin point corner from Horwood.
The goal rejuvenated the home side and turned the atmosphere up a level as the home crowd sensed blood and sure enough they snatched all three points in stoppage time.
Another long ball fell to the feet of the substitute James who hit a low volley from just inside the box that deflected in off Scott Cuthbert.
Hartlepool United: Flinders, Austin, Collins, Hartley (c), Horwood, Walton (Howard – 60), Baldwin, Humphreys, Franks (James – 79), Poole (Monkhouse – 60), Wyke
Subs: McHugh, Luscombe, Ruthterford, Holden
Orient: Jones, Sawyer (Clarke – 62), Cuthbert (c), Baudry, MacDonald, Odubajo, Cook, Rowlands, James, Batt (Vincelot – 89), Mooney (Smith – 79)
Subs: McSweeney, Griffith, Grainger, Omozusi
Crowd: 3773 (146 away)
Referee: S Duncan