HARTLEPOOL put the final nail in the Dragons' play-off coffin at the Racecourse on Easter Monday, despite coming off second-best in most departments.

It was Wrexham's fourth successive loss and leaves them requiring a minor miracle to finish the season in the top eight, let alone the play-off places.

Manager Denis Smith reserved most of his post-match anger for referee Trevor Parkes, who had dismissed Smith from the bench in a Carling Cup defeat at Crewe Alexandra in August after red-carding Brian Carey.

The Dragons boss was less than impressed by Parkes' general handling of Monday's encounter.

'I thought the best team lost and I thought the defeat was helped along by the referee,' he said. 'When I saw it was him before the game, I knew we'd have problems because he's cost us one game already this season.

'He's cost us two now and under the circumstances that's frustrating because I thought we were by far the better team.'

It was hard not to feel some sympathy for Smith who, through varying circumstances, was denied the services of experienced professionals Darren Ferguson, Brian Carey, Steve Roberts and Andy Dibble. He then saw two more, Jim Whitley and Carlos Edwards, forced out of the game before half-time.

Until then, his team had gone out with a spring in their step, setting the tone in the second minute with a diving header from Chris Armstrong that rebounded from a post.

Their passing was crisp and accurate and the visitors often found themselves chasing shadows as the home side dominated the exchanges.

But a series of missed first-half opportunities assumed greater significance once Edwards and Whitley limped off within two minutes of each other. For the first time, United began to get their act together.

Neil Danns got forward to test Mike Ingham, whose reactions were good, but when the keeper turned Hugh Robertson's free-kick for a corner on 41 minutes, the Dragons were punished.

No one in a red shirt attacked the corner forcefully and, although Craig Morgan had a chance to clear his lines, Darrell Clarke thumped the ball into the net to give the visitors a lead they barely deserved.

Hartlepool increased their lead after 63 minutes by playing the percentages once again when a poor clearance fell nicely for Danns, whose first-time effort found the bottom corner.

Two minutes later, Jim Provett went down smartly to save a Steve Thomas free-kick.

The home side were finally rewarded for their dogged determination when, with 19 minutes remaining, Paul Barrett volleyed an all-too-rare goal from Armstrong's cross.

Ingham kept Wrexham in the hunt for a point with a superb save from another Robertson free-kick, but his team-mates were unable to profit from nervous defending in the final few minutes.

And Smith claimed the outcome was tough on his makeshift side.

'People will look at the result but I'm angry that we've not won or at least claimed a draw because we deserved that,' he said.

'We were so much on top, but then we lost Jim and Carlos in the space of a couple of minutes. You begin to think someone up there doesn't like you.' Wrexham welcome back Darren Ferguson from suspension for the trip to Colchester United on Saturday.