Rene Howe equals scoring record in vain as depleted Torquay United slip to defeat
OK, so they gave Bristol Rovers an almighty fright with only ten men and, of course, Rene Howe spectacularly equalled that goal-a-game club record, but Torquay United proved at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday that you cannot play for 20 or so minutes out of 90 and hope to win a football match.
When defender Aaron Downes – he had done much to turn Rovers round during a loan spell there last season – headed in Kevin Nicholson's free-kick in the 59th minute, United's ten men had wiped out a two-goal deficit and we all wondered whether we were about to see something that might put that Aldershot fightback in the shade.
But in the end it was simply too much for United, who played from the 30th minute without dismissed defender Joe Oastler, to see through.
Rovers, so badly rattled at the start of the second half, pulled themselves together in time to clinch a deserved 3-2 npower League Two victory with striker Tom Eaves' second goal of the afternoon in the 76th minute.
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The truth is that the Pirates could and should have won much more easily. What on earth happened to United in that horrible first half?
As manager Martin Ling admitted afterwards, they started sloppily, especially in defence and midfield, where too many players left all their "basics" in the dressing-room.
Rovers were given too much room and time to work. United wanted too many touches of their own. Their passing was inaccurate, their movement hesitant. They looked like a team waiting for someone else to do the job.
Their mood was summed up after less than four minutes when goalkeeper Michael Poke, instead of sticking a decisive boot through the ball, suddenly thought he might be able to pick it up, got closed down and was booked for handling outside his area.
United had reverted to their 4-1-4-1 formation of last season, with Ling keen to try and make his team at least hard to beat in a Westcountry derby. But no tactical thought could save them from not doing their jobs properly.
They had struggled to get out of their own half with any real intent when Rovers hit them with two goals in the space of two minutes. Or, rather, United gave them a couple of helping hands.
In the 15th minute Matt Lund cut out Lee Mansell's forward ball and headed it upfield towards Eaves. Downes might have handled the situation, but he hesitated when he realised that Poke was on his way, but Poke never got there and Eaves' touch beat both of them.
Two minutes later Rovers won a free-kick just over 20 yards out, slightly to the right. Lund whipped his right-foot shot round United's "wall" and inside the near-post.
Cue "post-mortem" examination of defensive geography. Right-back Oastler had been under pressure from Rovers' left-winger Fabian Broghammer from the first whistle.
Cautioned when he flattened Broghammer crudely in the 20th minute – the talented but badly-shaken German soon had to go off – Oastler then took out substitute Lee Brown. It was not nearly as bad a challenge as the first, but referee Scott Mathieson took it in context and sent off Oastler. Ling switched Mansell from midfield to full-back.
United were lucky to make it to half-time only 2-0 down – Poke had to save from Gary Kenneth, Eliot Richards and Eaves before the interval.
The half-time whistle was almost a relief for Gulls' fans who had witnessed one of the worst 45 minutes from their team in a long time. At half-time Ling sent on Danny Leadbitter, who made a spirited, pacy contribution at right-back, for midfielder Damon Lathrope and switched to a 4-3-2 formation.
Poke immediately had to save with his legs from Eaves, who had given Downes the slip before shooting, but United's Australian centre-back and his partner Brian Saah were among United's few successes on the day, and they kept putting their bodies on the line to great effect.
With nothing to lose but some reputations, the Gulls upped their game big time. Nathan Craig fired just over from 30 yards after a welcome smart build-up. In the 53rd minute Craig Easton gamely chased the ball down the right and crossed to the far post. Howe, who had had precious little to work with and even less support, muscled Lund off the ball, turned and curled a 16-yard shot past Neil Etheridge for his tenth goal of the season.
It was also his seventh in seven games, equalling the record held by 1950s marksman Sammy Collins and Carl Airey from 1988. Four minutes later Howe drew a foul from Kenneth, outside the area. Nicholson whipped the free-kick into the goalmouth, Saah drew defenders with a run across the six-yard box and Downes was unmarked to head home.
It was Downes' third goal of the season. It also looked as if something remarkable might be on the cards, but it was too much to expect that United's ten men could continue to carry the fight to Rovers for the last half-an-hour.
Sure enough, they could not. Rovers regrouped and, after Joe Anyinsah and Dave Clarkson went close, they topped some growing pressure in the 76th minute.
Poke parried a Richards shot from the edge of the area, but the ball fell for Wayne Brown and Eaves could hardly miss the substitute's inviting short low cross in front of goal.
Poke continued to make further good saves from Lee Brown and Eaves, but there was always a chance that United would get one more chance to save themselves, and it came in the 85th minute.
Howe forced a corner on the left, Mansell flicked on Nicholson's flag-kick, but Ryan Jarvis, who had replaced Billy Bodin, could not react quickly enough to stab the ball in.
The League Two leaders, Gillingham, are next up at Plainmoor tomorrow night, and United will have to play for much nearer 90 minutes to beat them.