Torquay United recorded their first league win of the 2012-13 campaign on home turf, defeating visitors Rochdale in the third league fixture of the season. Succeeding a thrilling, end-to-end 2-2 draw with Cheltenham, this game had it all and even more: 6 goals, a penalty, shots hitting the woodwork, a red card (and four yellows) and a blatant handball.
Both sides came into the match with two draws to their name; Torquay had earned a point at promotion favourites Fleetwood Town before conceding a late equalizer at home to Cheltenham, while Rochdale had also begun their season with a goalless draw, at home to Northampton, and, just like Torquay, had conceded a late equalizer at Chesterfield that spoiled an otherwise impressive display.
With midfielders Damon Lathrope and Lloyd Macklin having joined United’s growing injury list against Cheltenham, Torquay manager Martin Ling was forced to hand former Southend skipper Craig Easton and youth-team product Niall Thompson their first league starts for the club. Rochdale boss John Coleman, meanwhile, named an unchanged line-up from the team that faced Chesterfield four days earlier.
Despite being relegated from League One in 2011-12 after finishing bottom of the table, Rochdale boast a squad that is the envy of many of their new divisional rivals and in former Accrington boss Coleman, they have a manager who is vastly experienced in lower-league football. Making full use of the summer transfer window, Coleman has added ex-Birmingham striker Dele Adebola as well as his former Accrington charges Kevin McIntyre, Ray Putterill, Phil Edwards and Ian Craney.
Looking confident on the ball, despite being away from home and playing in the driving rain at Plainmoor, Rochdale dominated the early stages of the game, playing aesthetically pleasing passing football and even taking short goal kicks, to the chagrin of lone Torquay forward Rene Howe, who soon found himself overworked by the enthusiastic passing of the Rochdale defence.
The visitors enjoyed the first chance of the game, former Plymouth Argyle striker George Donnelly horribly miscuing from a promising position on the right-hand side of United’s penalty area. Rochdale didn’t have to wait long for the opener, however: just seven minutes had elapsed when Jason Kennedy’s low corner found ex-Manchester City midfielder Andrew Tutte, who fired beyond Michael Poke in the Torquay goal. The strike represented Tutte’s second in four days; at the age of just 21 the England youth international has already racked up over 60 Football League appearances.
To their credit, Torquay responded brilliantly. Good work from left-back Kevin Nicholson and captain Lee Mansell allowed winger Billy Bodin to dart in behind the visiting defence, and the Welshman slammed the ball past Josh Lillis from a tight angle. Just five minutes separated the goals, but despite the high-tempo opening, few could have predicted the nature of the game that would follow.
As the rain continued to fall on a sodden Plainmoor, the chances came thick and fast at both ends: Rochdale skipper Peter Cavanagh curled a beautiful, dipping effort onto Poke’s crossbar before a Tutte shot narrowly cleared the goal; at the other end Mansell and Ian Morris forced Lillis into spectacular saves, while Rene Howe failed to direct a free header from Bodin’s pacy cross.
A third goal was inevitable and it arrived on the half-hour mark, Australian centre-back Aaron Downes eventually finding the net after a prolonged one-man goalmouth scramble against the Rochdale defence in which Downes somehow beat Lillis and several men on the line.
The goal seemed to break Rochdale and within minutes it could have been 3-1. Flying winger Thompson, a highly-rated speed merchant, had already proven his worth using his pace to run at defenders, but he now appeared in a central position to thread a fine pass into the path of Howe. Unfortunately for Torquay, the former Peterborough frontman failed to convert his one-on-one opportunity and the ball was soon smothered by Lillis. Howe had wasted a great chance to put daylight between the teams – captain Mansell made sure the striker knew it.
If controversy was all that was lacking in a pulsating first half, Rochdale defender Ryan Edwards duly obliged in first-half stoppage time. A seemingly innocuous long ball was misjudged, and, realizing the ball was bouncing over his head, leaving Howe through on goal, last man Edwards jumped up and punched the sphere to safety, to the disbelief of the 2,700-strong crowd. Thankfully for Rochdale, referee Gavin Ward showed mercy and only awarded a yellow card, despite the deliberate and obvious handball and the fact that Edwards had denied Torquay a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The interval provided little respite for Rochdale and soon after the restart they were pegged back in their own half. Growing in confidence, Thompson was causing havoc on both wings, first testing Lillis with a curling effort from the left before moving back to the right touchline to send in a great cross that Bodin met, only to be denied by a heroic block from new villain Edwards before Howe’s ambitious overhead kick on the rebound went narrowly wide.
When Bodin cracked a powerful shot against Lillis’ crossbar moments later, a third Torquay goal seemed to be on the cards, and it duly arrived on 59 minutes. Kevin Nicholson’s long-range effort was too hot for Lillis to handle, and this time Howe took advantage of the rebound to fire into the bottom corner.
This goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Coleman’s men and morale was further damaged nine minutes later. Ironically, given all of their well-carved out chances, Torquay’s fourth goal was curiously simple: a long clearance out of the United penalty area found Howe with just one Rochdale defender for company. Outmuscling and outpacing his marker, the targetman bore down on goal before producing a deft, delicious chip to seemingly secure the points with more than 20 minutes still to play.
The goal should have put the result beyond all doubt, but a rare error from the otherwise outstanding Downes let the visitors back into the game and set up a far nervier ending than anticipated. The fatal mixture of a fine Rochdale move and some complacent defending from their hosts culminated in Donnelly preparing to pull the trigger from inside the box; Downes, the only Torquay player able to prevent the shot, allowed defensive instincts to take over and brought the striker to the ground with a late tackle.
Although he would have been better served letting Donnelly shoot from a narrow angle against the impressive Poke, rather than desperately trying to prevent a goal that would, in all likelihood, done little to change the destination of the three points, Downes had denied Donnelly a clear goalscoring opportunity and on this occasion referee Ward brandished a straight red card.
Succeeding penalty-saving expert Bobby Olejnik between the Yellow posts is, by all accounts, a challenging task, but Poke made it look easy by diving to his right to stop Kennedy’s penalty. The three-goal lead had been preserved, but with teenage rookie and Football League virgin Kirtys MacKenzie the only centre-back among Ling’s substitutes, the pressing issue of Downes’ replacement at the heart of Torquay’s defence needed solving.
Ling responded by understandably withdrawing the impressive Thompson with left-back Tom Cruise, but less fathomable was his decision to play the left-sided Cruise at right-back, moving that position’s previous incumbent Joe Oastler to partner Brian Saah in central defence.
The red card provided Rochdale with the hope necessary to launch a sustained late attempt to snatch a point from the jaws of defeat, and the visitors began to pile on the pressure against a tired Torquay team. Rochdale winger Ray Putterill, introduced early in the second half, had been largely contained by Oastler but now began to cause problems against the out-of-position Cruise, forcing Poke into an impressive stop before Putterill’s team-mates Kennedy and Craney also saw efforts repelled by Torquay’s no.1.
With five minutes of normal time remaining, Putterill finally reduced the deficit, firing home from close range after a lengthy goalmouth scramble. Despite time being against them, Rochdale gamely continued to pour men forward, resulting in a nervy finale for Torquay supporters, with much of the angst being unfairly taken out on midfielder Ian Morris, who was somehow blamed for 10-man United’s collective inability to break out of their half. As manager Ling admitted after the final whistle: “If Lee Mansell makes a bad touch or bad pass, they cheer. If Ian Morris does it, the crowd groans a bit…we need the fans to get behind everybody, not just the players they like.”
Torquay had to survive one more late scare when Kevin Nicholson was forced to clear a goalbound Kennedy effort off the line, but the hosts’ cobbled-together defence held on for a hugely impressive three points at the end of a thrilling, exhausting contest. This is only the second time United have hit four at home under Ling in competitive fixtures, but similar displays of attacking intent throughout the season will surely yield more high-scoring games.
The only black mark against a fine performance, Downes’ red card gives Ling a selection headache ahead of Saturday’s trip to Port Vale: MacKenzie, the only other centre-back in Torquay’s small squad, has no Football League experience and was only promoted to the first-team in April; Cruise and Oastler and more comfortable at full-back; and with transfer deadline-day looming, not to mention a lack of funds, Ling will do well to secure a late loanee to provide short-term cover.
Torquay United: Poke; Oastler, Downes (sent-off 73), Saah, Nicholson; Thompson (Cruise 74), Mansell, Easton, Morris, Bodin (Craig 80); Howe (Jarvis 75). Subs not used: Rice, Leadbitter, MacKenzie, Yeoman.
Rochdale: Lillis; Cavanagh, R.Edwards, P.Edwards (Craney 70), Pearson; Kennedy, Tutte, Grimes (Putterill 55), McIntyre; Donnelly, Adebola (Curran 70). Subs not used: Rafferty, Bennett, Barry-Murphy, Smith.
Referee: Gavin Ward.
Attendance: 2,731 (207 away).