Torquay United saw their automatic promotion hopes dashed by a late, late equaliser from Crewe’s Nick Powell in an end-to-end encounter at Plainmoor. The Gulls had looked to be holding out for a vital win – made even more important by Crawley Town’s shock loss to struggling Hereford – but Crewe had clearly failed to read the script for the Gulls’ final home game of the season. Though galling for Gulls fans, this game had it all – a thunderbolt opener, a missed penalty, a last-minute equaliser and two disallowed goals.
Both teams were desperate for the three points: Torquay needed a win to overcome promotion rivals Crawley, while Crewe’s play-off hopes rested on them bettering Oxford’s result. The Railwaymen were certainly the form side: their previous two fixtures heralded wins against Cheltenham and a draw at relegation-battling Macclesfield. Torquay, meanwhile, seemed to have lost their way following a home stalemate at Southend and a disappointing 2-0 loss to AFC Wimbledon.
Heavy rain in the early hours of the morning had threatened to postpone this crucial fixture, but Torquay had announced otherwise via a statement on the club website. Just as well – the rain soon eased off and the action emphatically contradicted the bleak weather.
Crewe, roared on by a healthy away following, began the better of the sides. Alex’s line-up read like an amalgamation of the league’s best young attacking talent: winger Billy Bodin (familiar to Torquay fans after a loan spell at Plainmoor earlier in the season) was joined by Nick Powell, a player rumoured to interest Premier League clubs and 22-year-old AJ Leitch-Smith has netted 7 times in 29 starts this season. Crewe were certainly not lacking someone to finish their countless early waves of attacks.
However, Torquay slowly awoke t0 recover a foothold in the game and began to take control. Ian Morris twice fired in low shots from the right, causing Crewe custodian Steve Phillips to be called into meaningful action for the first time. Minutes later a Torquay free-kick lead to centre-back Mark Ellis ambitiously attempting an overhead kick. His effort flew comfortably over, but Torquay’s pressure was mounting. Before the half was out, Eunan O’Kane curled a cross beyond beyond the reach of Rene Howe and Kevin Nicholson tested Phillips with a powerful set-piece. Crewe were by no means on the rocks, though, and Powell impressed with an overhead kick that landed on top of Bobby Olejnik’s net before the half-time whistle punctuated a free-flowing first-half.
If fans were hoping for a more open second half as players began to tire, they were not to be disappointed. Just three minutes of the second 45 had elapsed when Morris sent a low drive Phillips’ way. The former Bristol City keeper looked to have it covered until an unseen divot flicked the ball up in front of him. Phillips could only parry the shot, with his save just evading Torquay skipper Lee Mansell as he slid in for a rebound.
Torquay continued to look more likely to break the deadlock, and minutes later they almost had the opener. A half-cleared set-piece found the head of the retreating Mark Ellis, who somehow managed to loop a header over Phillips from distance. Unfortunately, his effort also narrowly cleared the crossbar.
However, the Gulls didn’t have to wait long for the goal that seemed to be coming. Crewe defender Matthew Tootle’s clearance lacked height and fell to United winger Danny Stevens just outside the box. The former Tottenham Hotspur trainee sent a first-time effort crashing home to the delight of the 3,000-plus Torquay fans. With news of Crawley slipping up at home to Hereford spreading like wildfire on the terraces of Plainmoor, the home fans were buzzing at the thought of overtaking their promotion rivals with just one game left.
A lead established, United now set about defending their advantage, hoping to catch Crewe on the counter-attack. Torquay’s players would have been fairly confident of hanging on to the win - twelve 1-0 victories this season depict a miserly defence that is rarely breached. Indeed, Gulls goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, along with centre-backs Brian Saah and Ellis, were in fine form, repelling most attacks that came their way.
The action inevitably become more frantic as Crewe searched for a much-needed equaliser. Doing so, however, they left themselves exposed at the back, a point almost proven by Rene Howe on the hour mark. The targetman’s audacious lob almost left Phillips blushing, but the second goal so badly needed never materialised. Howe did find the net – again after a chased-down clearance rebounded to the frontman, leaving him one-on-one with Phillips – but it was disallowed for offside.
Powell always seemed to be Crewe’s biggest threat and it was the 18 year old’s free-kick soon afterwards that had Olejnik scrambling to push over his bar. Although ten minutes or so of relative calm followed, disaster soon struck as Torquay’s challenges became increasingly desperate in their eagerness to hold on. Brian Saah, not wanting to commit himself, backed off AJ Leitch-Smith, who given time and space, sent Powell through on goal from an acute angle. Ellis threw himself to ground, felling Powell with an outstretched leg, and few were surprised when ref Dean Whitestone pointed to the spot.
Although the points seemed to be slipping from Torquay’s grasp, the Plainmoor faithful was more hopeful than fans of most clubs would be in the same situation. The reason for this slight optimism was Olejnik’s penalty-saving prowess – the Austrian had recently stopped Izale McLeod’s spot-kick to preserve a vital clean sheet at Barnet, and as a youngster at Aston Villa, Olejnik saved two penalties and scored the winner himself in a Reserves League Cup final.
Sure enough, Olejnik guessed the right way and got a strong hand to Harry Davis’ well-placed effort, somehow keeping it out to huge cheers from two-thirds of the ground. Spirits among the home fans were now even higher, but they were to be cruelly shattered four minutes into injury time.
After a further scare as Powell headed against the bar from a corner, the Gulls had seemingly learned their lesson, tightening up defensively since conceding the penalty, and some fans had even begun to head for the exit when the ball broke to Powell inside the area. His powerful effort just about beat the despairing Olejnik to level the scores with just 15 seconds of injury time left on the clock. Cue complete shocked silence from the home fans – the jubilation shown by Crewe’s fans and players only made things worse.
With Torquay supporters bracing themselves for the final whistle straight after the restart, United launched one last attack down the right. Inevitably, what seemed like every player barring Olejnik piled into the Crewe penalty area for the mother of all goalmouth scrambles. After a prolonged period of ping-pong, and with several players falling to the ground, the ball eventually ended up in Phillips’ net, but Dean Whitestone perhaps unsurprisingly saw reason to disallow the effort - much to the chagrin of supporters in the Family Stand, who claimed that no fouls had occurred. The final whistle blew soon after, and it was clear that Alex were the more pleased with the draw. Their efforts had merited a share of the spoils, but two points dropped means that Torquay have to better Crawley’s result and equal Southend’s next weekend if automatic promotion is to be achieved.
Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson, Stevens (Rowe-Turner 82), Mansell, Lathrope, O’Kane, Morris (Jarvis 85), Howe (Atieno 87). Subs not used: Rice, MacDonald.
Crewe: Phillips, Mellor, Davis, Dugdale, Tootle, Bodin (Clayton 66), Westwood, Murphy, Moore, Powell, Leitch-Smith. Subs not used: Martin, Bell, Miller, Brown.