Torquay United beat league leaders Gillingham in Plainmoor thriller
Torquay United's popular left-back Kevin Nicholson scored a spectacular long-range winner five minutes from time to extend the Gulls' unbeaten home record and beat League Two leaders Gillingham 2-1 in a see-saw contest at Plainmoor last night.
It was Nicholson's first goal of the season, and it took a deflection on its way into the net from 30 yards, but it still sealed a spirited fightback after Martin Allen's Gills, undeniably impressive early on, had taken the lead through Deon Burton in the 53rd minute.
But Martin Ling's United hit back only three minutes later with midfielder Nathan Craig's first senior goal, and that provided the springboard for a morale-restoring victory.
All that was missing, just three days after a disappointing 3-2 defeat at Bristol Rovers, was for Rene Howe to break the club's goal-a-game record.
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Howe couldn't quite stretch his run to eight successive scoring games, although he came mighty close to it in the second half, but all that really mattered was three points which pushed United ever close to the Play-Offs.
Ling recalled Danny Stevens on the left wing for midfielder Craig Easton, reverting to a 4-3-3 formation, and promoted Danny Leadbitter at right-back for the suspended Joe Oastler.
Allen sprung a bit of a surprise by leaving out his leading scorer Danny Kedwell, going instead for the extra pace of Deon Burton and Robbie Findley up front.
Gills posted Callum Davies just in front of his back-four, to cancel out the threat of Gulls skipper Lee Mansell.
It was 19 minutes before United produced their first shot of any consequence, but it was a good one – Billy Bodin cut in from the right, beating defender Joe Martin in the process, and then fired just wide of the near-post from 20 yards.
A minute later, with the Gulls starting to play with a bit more confidence, the visitors only half-cleared a Kevin Nicholson cross and Nathan Craig drove over from 25 yards.
Stevens jinked in from the left, passed inside to Mansell, whose full-stretch shot was stunningly parried by Gills goalie Stuart Nelson, the ball then rebounding off Martin for a corner.
A Findley header into the goalmouth sparked off a 'pinball' incident in which United just managed to clear their lines. But in the 42nd minute United made and missed a great chance.
Howe broke away down the middle and slipped Bodin through with Nelson to beat from 16 yards, but he couldn't do it, the Gills' goalie saving low to his right when a goal looked odds-on.
Gillingham had to take Martin off in first-half stoppage-time, Allen sending on Andy Frampton in his place.
But in the 53rd minute Gillingham took the lead – with a big 'assist' from the home defence. Saah and Leadbitter got in each other's way on what should have been a routine header in their own area, the ball dropped for Burton and he accepted the gift gratefully, volleying in unopposed from ten yards.
It seemed like quite a setback in the circumstances, but United hit back immediately.
Only three minutes later Leadbitter was fouled. Craig took the free-kick, whipping the ball in with such venom that it sailed over Nelson and into the top left-hand corner.
It was the young Welshman's first goal in League football. Suddenly, you could have been watching a different game.
United piled it on. Stevens had a 20-yarder deflected just wide. Then, in the 66th minute, Howe latched onto an upfield pass by Mansell, beat Flanagan with a clever touch and turn and Nelson pulled out an exceptional save to tip Howe's shot onto his left-hand post and behind.
It was Tom Cruise for Leadbitter with eight minutes to go, not a change to win the match but understandable in the circumstances. Yet in the 85th minute Cruise helped, a little, as United took the lead for the first time.
He won a throw on the right, United worked it across the field to Nicholson and the Gulls' left-back unleashed a 30-yard shot to earn his side victory.
Torquay United (4-3-3): Poke; Leadbitter (Cruise 82), Saah, Downes, Nicholson; Mansell, Lathrope, Craig; Bodin, Howe, Stevens. Substitutes (not used): Jarvis, Rice (gk), Easton, Yeoman, Thompson, McKenzie.
Goals: Craig 56, Nicholson 84.
Booked: Downes, Leadbitter.
Gillingham (4-1-3-2): Nelson; Fish, Flanagan, Barrett, Martin (Frampton 40+3); Davies; Dack, Payne (Strevens 71), Whelpdale; Findley (Weston 63), Burton. Substitutes (not used): Kedwell, Montrose, Forecast (gk), Freiter.
Goal: Burton 53.
Referee: B Malone (Wiltshire).