A Good Friday bumper crowd of 3,934 Torquay’s third-highest home attendance of the season, helped inspire the promotion-chasing Gulls to another crucial win – but they were made to wait. Rene Howe’s 73rd minute goal was the one moment of quality required to separate the teams, but Torquay also missed several clear chances in an entertaining second half.
Some Torquay fans, in light of Accrington’s recent defensive crisis and nothing-to-play-for mid-table standing, would have been expecting the Gulls to easily dispose of their Lancashire opponents, and they would have been encouraged by Stanley’s nervy start. The Accrington players must have been intimidated by the sight of home fans outnumbering travelling Stanley supporters in the Away End, a paradox caused by an overspill of Gulls in the Popular Stand.
However, the avalanche of goals never arrived as Accrington recovered to match Torquay across the park, resulting in a competitive first-half that resulted in few clear chances as the sides cancelled each other out. In a rare moment of quality, Gulls left-back Kevin Nicholson volleyed narrowly wide from the edge of the area, and visiting goalkeeper Ian Dunbavin had to make an important catch from Rene Howe’s cross with Torquay’s Ian Morris ready to pounce. The rest of the half consisted of over-hit long balls and promising moves from both sides that always seemed to peter out at the crucial moment. It was not the most exciting of first halves.
Indeed, the biggest cheer of the half accompanied the rare sight of Torquay’s tiny 5ft 4 in winger Danny Stevens somehow managing to win a header on the half-way line. It was quite an achievement in a game where he was by some distance the smallest man on the pitch.
Thankfully, as has so often been the case at Plainmoor this season, the second half saw more goalmouth action, excitement, and, importantly, a goal. After their side’s impressive start after the break, Accrington fans could have been forgiven for thinking their team would end up grabbing the points – Gulls centre-back Mark Ellis had to make important blocks to deny both Bobby Grant and substitute Ian Craney. As the home fans began to turn on their underperforming players, it looked like being Stanley’s day.
However, Accrington failed to take their chances and were almost punished immediately afterwards. Eunan O’Kane’s corner found Mark Ellis unmarked, but the defender volleyed over with the goal at his mercy. The let-off encouraged away keeper Ian Dunbavin to take as long as possible over his next few goal-kicks, resulting in the ignomony of being booked for time-wasting just over five minutes into the second half.
If Torquay fans thought that miss was bad enough (and it was bad), they were wrong. Just eight minutes later Ellis was presented with an even easier chance, but once again contrived to miss when it looked easier to score. Another Torquay corner was cleared away, and the home support were surprised to see Ellis remain on the edge of the area for a while afterwards. However, the defensive stalwart’s attacking instincts were spot on – a cross back into the box allowed Danny Stevens to wriggle free of the Accrington marking and toe-poke the ball past Dunbavin into the path of Ellis. From just eight yards out, Ellis somehow thundered the ball against the bar when a simple daisy-cutter across the floor would have sufficed – the goal was gaping.
It was the kind of chance that doesn’t come around very often, and Torquay were almost made to pay for their woeful finishing when Ian Craney outpaced the centre-back pairing of Ellis and Brian Saah and flicked a rising effort over the onrushing Bobby Olejnik. The Austrian custodian was relieved to see the ball land harmlessly on top of the goal, but it was a warning sign. Deciding that changes were needed if Torquay were to win the game, manager Martin Ling withdrew holding midfielder Damon Lathrope for the more attacking Ryan Jarvis.
It was an inspired substitution. Jarvis had been on the field just six minutes when he chased a seemingly lost cause by the corner-flag. His unexpected pressure forced Accrington centre-back Michael Liddle into a mistake, allowing Jarvis to seize possession and find targetman Rene Howe on the edge of the box. Even after evading two challenges with a mixture of luck and skill, Howe still appeared to pose little threat to Dunbavin’s goal, but the former Peterborough frontman produced a brilliant curling effort that eluded the visiting goalkeeper’s despairing grasp. It was a goal out of nothing, and Accrington were devastated to have conceded from a basic error after defending well for much of the match.
Stanley boss Paul Cook had only renewed Sunderland loanee Liddle’s temporary contract the week before, and he must have been wondering why he had bothered as the mistake began to look like the turning point in the game. It was – whereas Torquay had previously been under huge pressure to score a late winner, Howe’s goal gave them something to defend and Stanley had little time to bounce back.
Howe was withdrawn on 80 minutes to a generous reception, but Torquay continued to search for a second goal to seal the points. With just three minutes of normal time remaining, Jarvis had a golden opportunity to cement his reputation as Torquay’s super-sub. Danny Stevens ran at makeshift Accrington right-back Craig Lindfield, a player usually employed as a forward. The reluctant defender had been pressed into service after a defensive crisis at the club, but was powerless to prevent Stevens nutmegging him before combining with Eunan O’Kane on Torquay’s left flank. O’Kane’s pull-back was met by the onrushing Jarvis on the penalty spot, but a badly-placed divot was enough to send the on-loan Walsall man’s shot over the bar.
Despite the miss, the Yellow Army remained confident of another three points in the bag come full-time. The Torquay players’ relaxed nature almost proved costly, as Will Hatfield forced Olejnik into a fine save late on. It was a timely reminder that the game was not yet won, and with the aid of further fresh legs in Lathanial Rowe-Turner, Torquay held on for another vital win.
With promotion rivals Southend and Crawley both slipping up, this victory could prove to be the difference between automatic promotion and the play-offs come the end of the season. Accrington’s efforts almost saw them come away with a hard-earned point, a result that would have been admirable in the circumstances – the centre-back pairing of Peter Murphy and Liddle, a left-back by trade, are both just 22 years old, and their inexperience was not aided by forward Lindfield being forced into an unfamiliar role. As it was, the Gulls secured an incredible twelfth 1-0 win of the season – promotion form indeed.
Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Ellis, Saah, Nicholson, Stevens (Rowe-Turner 87), Mansell, Lathope (Jarvis 67), O’Kane, Morris, Howe (Atieno 80). Subs not used: Rice, MacDonald.
Accrington: Dunbavin, Lindfield, Murphy, Liddle, McIntyre, Barnett, Joyce, Hopper (Evans 67), Devitt (Hatfield 81), Grant, Amond (Craney 45). Subs not used: Nicholls, Guthrie.