Torquay’s promotion dream died a devastating death on Thursday night as they were beaten 4-1 on aggregate by a physically strong and efficient Cheltenham team, sending the Gulls crashing out of the play-offs at the semi-final stage.
A 2-0 loss in the first leg at Whaddon Road four days earlier, with top-scorer Rene Howe limping off less than 20 minutes in, left Torquay with a mountain to climb at Plainmoor as Mark Yates’ Cheltenham side prepared to shut up shop and possibly even extend their lead by counter-attacking the desperate Gulls. Having employed a 4-5-1 formation for most of the season, using Howe as a lone targetman, United manager Martin Ling needed to improvise a new system if his team were to score the two goals needed to equal the scores on aggregate and force extra time.
The Gulls had relied on a miserly defence to help grind out 1-0 wins throughout the league campaign, a scoreline that was achieved no fewer than twelve times this season, but without a proven goalscorer to choose from up front, United’s chances looked slim. At Whaddon Road Ling had partnered on-loan Ryan Jarvis with Kenyan international Taiwo Atieno, and despite the former rattling the bar with a powerful header, the decision had not paid off. The Gulls needed goals, but where they were to come from was unclear.
Torquay’s last home game of the season, with so much at stake for both clubs, was sure to whip up an atmosphere at Plainmoor, but the Yellow Army were hopeful, rather than expectant, of the two-goal victory needed. The feeling among fans was best summed up by the subtle message printed on the back of the match programme: “Come on you Yellows: Wembley is still possible”. It was almost as if supporters needed reminding that there was still a chance of progression to the final, however slim.
The hosts’ starting line-up showed that Ling had reverted to his favoured 4-5-1, with Jarvis filling the Howe-shaped hole in attack. Danny Stevens, having missed the first leg through illness, returned to the side hoping to cause Cheltenham’s former Wolves full-back Keith Lowe down Torquay’s left.
With an early goal needed to turn momentum into a concrete foothold in the tie, Torquay began brightly with a sequence of extended pressure ending with Stevens firing a volley just wide from 25 yards. However, Cheltenham, with the pace of Jermaine McGlashan and ex-Gull Kaid Mohamed on the wings, always looked dangerous on the break and McGlashan’s searing drive moments later narrowly cleared Bobby Olejnik’s crossbar.
Having been fired a warning sign by the determined Robins, Torquay redoubled their attacking efforts and playmaker Eunan O’Kane -reportedly the subject of a £200,000 bid from Swindon – brilliantly sidestepped a challenge before thundering an effort goalwards that Cheltenham custodian Scott Brown could only tip over. It was the first of many impressive saves by the former Welshpool Town stopper.
Minutes later Ryan Jarvis was presented with an angled one-on-one opportunity, but Brown was on hand to get his fingertips to the shot once more, sending the ball rolling agonisingly wide of Cheltenham’s left upright. Torquay continued to press with a series of corners, resulting in a thunderous Mark Ellis header forcing Brown into a sublime save when the effort looked certain to find the net. Cheltenham were clinging on to their two goal cushion, but every missed opportunity was proving costly as the first half slipped away.
A momentary lull in proceedings was immensely livened by Gulls’ left back Kevin Nicholson’s superb free-kick. A dead-ball specialist at his best, Nicholson cracked a powerful effort against Brown’s crossbar, shocking both fellow players and fans into frenzied action for the remainder of the half. However, it was Cheltenham who had the final chance before the break, with the lively Mohamed forcing Olejnik into an important stop. Half-time arrived with the game scoreless, a scenario that the hosts would have been hoping to avoid.
Although the Gulls began the second period with a brief flurry of half-chances, the desperation creeping in was highlighted by Danny Stevens taking aim from a ridiculous angle and range. It was the sort of shot that Cheltenham would have been quite happy to face all night. The arrival of the hour mark, with Torquay no closer to a breakthrough, prompted Ling to withdraw the protective instincts of Damon Lathrope for forward Taiwo Atieno. The new man provided another attacking option, but with fifteen minutes remaining Ling resorted to Plan B, throwing centre-back Ellis up front to utilize his aerial threat, with young defender Angus McDonald slotting in at the back.
The new man had been on the pitch just two minutes when Cheltenham’s counter-attacking tactics worked to devastating effect. As in the first leg, McGlashan’s pace advantage proved decisive as he raced onto Mohamed’s through ball, slipping a low shot beyond Olejnik and McDonald’s desperate sliding attempted clearance.
Unsurprisingly, the Away End were delirious, with Cheltenham’s progress to Wembley all but sealed. McGlashan, who had infuriated sections of the home support with his tendency to hit the deck under any contact, used his goal as an opportunity to anger the Yellow Army even more by running the length of the Pop Side, complete with taunting gesture. The inevitable abuse was lessened somewhat by Torquay’s disappointment – the tie was now surely out of reach. The sobering sight of Olejnik, stood stock still in front of 600 bouncing away fans in a stand thick with celebratory smoke, showed just how much it meant to the United players as well as their fans.
Atieno provided something to cheer about on 85 minutes, flicking O’Kane’s corner beyond the excellent Brown, but it was far too little, far too late to influence the outcome. Indeed, Cheltenham even thought it neccessary to further dampen home spirits by claiming a second leg victory with a winner just two minutes later. Despite being tipped for the top by numerous fans and pundits, Robins midfielder Marlon Pack had so far failed to show the hosts what all the fuss was about, but his incredible, swerving free-kick had Olejnik grasping at thin air and Torquay clutching at even thinner promotion hopes as their fate was finally sealed.
United gamely continued to throw men forward in a bid to net another consolation, but the agony of the final whistle was postponed by a pair of muppets idiotically invading the pitch in injury time. A lengthy, embarrassing grapple with far more stewards than neccessary followed, with Yellows skipper Lee Mansell angrily giving the “fans” his thoughts on the matter.
The final whistle of Torquay’s final game was greeted with inevitable disappointment, but many supporters stayed behind to applaud their team on a semi-final lap of honour. Despite falling at the final hurdle, 2011-12 has been a season of unprecedented success, considering a threadbare squad and a dismal start to the season with just three wins in the opening fourteen fixtures.
Although key players like O’Kane may be tempted away by the carrot of League One football, the club can look forward to another promising season in 2012-13 should Ling repeat his feat of bringing more quality signings to Plainmoor over the season.