Battling stalemate gives ten-man Torquay something to build upon
IT IS only in fairytales that ducks turn into swans in the twinkling of an eye, so a point for Torquay United after three successive defeats and 15 goals conceded in six matches was greeted with some relief at Plainmoor on Saturday.
Yes, the Gulls could and should have been in front by half-time, and they pressed for the lead just after the interval.
But the 69th-minute dismissal of Krystian Pearce – his manhandling of Mansfield Town forward Lee Stevenson was his second yellow card – was all United needed in the circumstances, especially as it prompted the Stags to finish the League Two game with four six-foot-plus forwards and a stream of crosses and corners which tested the home defence to the limit.
The quality that manager Alan Knill ultimately wants to instil was lacking at times – seventh-placed Mansfield were not that great, either – but what the home crowd did get was a much gutsier display than the one which had seen United lose 3-0 to York City a fortnight before, and they duly responded.
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Mansfield managed to mislay or forget – nobody was quite sure which – their first-team kit on the way from Nottinghamshire to south Devon, but it arrived just in time, after referee Mick Russell gave them a 2.40pm deadline before they would have had to pull on one of United's spare strips.
Mr Russell, as it transpired, was one of the busiest men on the pitch, especially in a first half in which he gave 21 free-kicks, 14 of them against Torquay.
But at least the Gulls were getting stuck in, and that approach helped them to take charge.
Knill had made three changes, recalling defender Anthony O'Connor in defence and Billy Bodin in attack after their international sorties, and young Leicester City loanee Jak McCourt in midfield.
Knill also tried a new 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bodin "in the hole" behind lone striker Karl Hawley.
It looked promising, as Hawley laid the ball off for Lee Mansell to have a goal-bound volley deflected just wide in the 13th minute.
Then former Swindon man Bodin beat a man on the edge of the area in the 20th minute, only to see his left-foot drive beat Alan Marriott, hit the inside of the right-hand post and stay out.
United are going through one of those spells at the moment.
Hawley, Bodin and Ade Azeez all went close to the breakthrough, and it was 49 minutes before Mansfield registered their first attempt on target, Martin Rice smothering Matt Rhead's header.
Referee Russell turned down loud appeals for a penalty when Hawley appeared to be barged over by Martin Riley as he went to finish Bodin's through ball in the 54th minute.
Kevin Nicholson, who had a fine match at left-back, also drove a 30-yard free-kick just over the beaten Marriott's bar. But that first goal just would not come.
Pearce had been booked for taking Rhead out early in the first half, and in the 69th minute a moment's hesitation allowed Stevenson to get in front of him on a dangerous counter-attack. Pearce pulled him back, and it was one of Mr Russell's easier decisions to show another yellow, and the inevitable red card duly followed.
United had to reshuffle in defence and midfield, Tom Cruise replacing Bodin, and Mansfield realised they had a chance of snatching all three points.
They aimed the ball at their big men from both flanks, and there were several scares as the ball flew across the heart of United's defence.
But nobody played better in those closing stages as Irishman O'Connor, on loan from Blackburn Rovers, especially one crucial last-ditch tackle to stop Ben Hutchinson scoring in the 89th minute.
United deserved at least to emerge with a point, and turnarounds in form are often built on results and efforts like this.