A dramatic West Country derby in the sunshine at Plainmoor ended in an entertaining draw thanks to Torquay’s late leveller. Bristol Rovers raced into a two goal lead before managing to squander their advantage to a determined Torquay late on.
This game had even more meaning than previous derbies. Manager Paul Buckle had left Torquay in the summer to join Rovers, raiding his old team for Chris Zebroski and Scott Bevan, and also signing former Gulls Mustapha Carayol and Craig Stanley. Buckle’s sacking in January took some of the sting out of the game, but Rovers were still keen to avenge a 2-1 loss to Torquay at the Memorial Stadium earlier in the season. Torquay, meanwhile, had a chance to gain ground on the likes of Southend and Cheltenham at the top of League 2.
A great atmosphere set the scene for an entertaining match, with an impressive crowd of over 3,900 (Torquay’s third-highest this season) considering Plainmoor currently only has three stands in action. The hosts began in good fashion, and almost took the lead when a long ball from Kevin Nicholson picked out Howe, the matchwinner against Aldershot in Torquay’s previous game. Howe held off the Rovers defence and rounded Scott Bevan, but in doing so he had taken the ball too far wide and the chance was gone.
Damon Lathrope forced Bevan into a good save soon after, being teed up on the edge of the area by Danny Stevens. This shocked the Pirates into action, with Zebroski looking dangerous and Carayol warming Bobby Olejnik’s hands with a low drive just past the twenty-minute mark. Torquay were losing their stranglehold on the game and it soon got worse. Danny Stevens’ under-hit pass put Kevin Nicholson in danger, and a poor challenge by Carayol left the full-back writhing in pain. Despite his best attempts to carry on, Nicholson was clearly injured and had to be replaced by Lathaniel Rowe-Turner. The new man’s first action was almost to watch Rovers celebrate as Carayol again went close with a powerful effort.
The teams remained deadlocked until the very end of the half. Many fans had joined the half-time queues or turned away from the action when Matt Harrold ran from midfield and, unchallenged, let fly from range. The shot already looked to be troubling Olejnik when it took a fatal deflection of Lathrope, looping the ball over the Austrian. It was a cruel blow for United, who barely had time to kick-off before the interval, but they had failed to heed the warnings of Rovers’ increasingly dangerous attacks. The away fans were rightly elated and it looked as if Mark McGhee’s good start to the job was set to continue.
Rovers continued to dominate after the break, Carayol again threatening before a poor finish found the side-netting. Torquay failed to create chances, often resorting to hoofing the ball long to target-man Howe. Against weaker opposition this may have been effective but in centre-back Cian Bolger, Rovers had a behemoth of their own who dealt with most of the aerial threat. United’s failure to break their visitors down forced manager Martin Ling to replace Danny Stevens with loan signing Ryan Jarvis. Stevens had been rushed back from injury and may have not have fully recovered from an injury sustained in Torquay’s 1-0 win at Crawley a week prior to this game.
The change either inspired or coincided with a brief upturn in Yellow fortunes. Eunan O’Kane picked out Howe, who forced Bevan into a crucial save with a deflected cross that would otherwise have found Ian Morris.
But as is so often the case in football, United had not taken their chances and were about to punished. A Rovers clearance found Chris Zebroski who, on the counter-attack and isolated, seemed to pose little threat. However, Zebroski benefited from lenient defending from the hosts, being allowed to run half the length of the pitch unchallenged before rounding Mark Ellis and firing past Olejnik. It was an impressive run and finish from the former Torquay striker, but it showed that the Gulls had overcommitted in their desperation to draw level, leaving themselves open at the back. It was a poor goal to concede and the three points now looked to be in the bag for the Pirates.
Ling again turned to his bench, introducing Kenyan forward Taiwo Atieno in place of holding midfielder Damon Lathrope. It was a positive move and encouraged more attacking emphasis. Almost immediately afterwards, Howe’s scrambled shot was parried by Bevan. Home fans howled at the agony of another missed chance, but skipper Lee Mansell was on hand to fire in a rebound, while the giant Bevan again saved this effort Mansell managed to force the ball home at the second attempt. It was scrappy, but United didn’t care – they were back in the game.
The goal gave the hosts a new-found belief and they continued to pour men forward, again leaving themselves open to the inevitable counter-attack. When Rovers did manage to break away, on 81 minutes, Craig Stanley missed a golden opportunity to restore the two-goal lead, firing wide from a central position. McGhee may have been ruing his decision to withdraw Harrold, who would have almost certainly done better. Bizarrely, Harrold’s replacement, Joe Anyinsah, lasted just fifteen minutes before being replaced himself by Elliot Richards amid rumours of a rift between player and boss.
As United continued to press with no reward, Stanley could have been forgiven for thinking that his miss would be meaningless as Rovers looked to be holding on. Joe Oastler forced Bevan into his finest save yet with a powerful volley that looked destined for the top corner, but with just seconds remaining United were level.
Eunan O’Kane picked the ball up on the half-way line and, in apparent desperation, launched a long ball into the box. Torquay fans groaned as O’Kane slipped in the process, but his hopeful punt found Howe and Mansell, who combined to lift the ball over Bevan and into the net. Torquay were ecstatic – two late goals had seen them come back from the dead, and despite a poor performance Plainmoor was rocking. There was some confusion over who had got the goal – the announcer proclaimed Howe to be the match-saviour, but Mansell was claiming it as his after the match. It was too late for Rovers to respond and the final whistle blew on a gripping but exhausting derby that saw plenty of drama.
Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson (Rowe-Turner 34), Mansell, Lathrope (Atieno 70), O’Kane, Morris, Stevens (Jarvis 59), Howe. Unused subs: Rice, MacDonald.
Bristol Rovers: Bevan, Woodards, Bolger, Parkes, Paterson, Stanley, Gill, Dorman, Carayol (Lund 70), Harrold (Anyinsah 76 (Richards 90), Zebroski. Unused subs: Macey, Hunter.