Sloppy Torquay United contribute to their own downfall and slip towards drop zone
Either Chris Wilder was just being kind or he was trying to gee up his old mate Alan Knill when he said: "I don't envisage Torquay doing down – they've got too many good players" after Oxford United punished another brittle display by the Gulls.
Whatever Wilder says, as things stand – Saturday's 3-1 loss at Plainmoor was Torquay United's eighth defeat in nine npower League Two games and their fifth on the trot at home – they are heading in only one direction.
The one department that Torquay have been able to rely on for most of this season has been the heart of their defence, but even that wilted worryingly as the fog drifted in over Plainmoor.
It would be harsh to lay all the blame at the feet of Aaron Downes, for the Australian has probably been Torquay's most consistent defender and a definite candidate for player of the year.
The Gulls have been asking for trouble for some time, failing so tamely up the pitch and then expecting their back four and goalkeeper Michael Poke to bail them out.
It was the same again on Saturday. Torquay, with new loan signing Joss Labadie bringing some much-needed presence to midfield, were half-decent for half-an-hour.
They went at Oxford as if they meant it, Billy Bodin lively on the left wing, and passed the ball with intent. But then Oxford, trying to pick themselves up from a 4-0 home hammering by Rotherham United in midweek, suddenly got their act together.
In the space of nine minutes before half-time strikers James Constable, recalled by Wilder, and Alfie Potter started pulling Downes, back from a hamstring injury, and Brian Saah about.
Twice Poke pulled off top-class saves to keep out the Oxford pair, with Potter firing a third chance wide.
Oxford's former Plymouth Argyle goalkeeper Luke McCormick did have to pull out a smart stop to deny Ryan Jarvis, after a one-two with Rene Howe, but the alarm bells were ringing for Torquay. Sure enough, it all went seriously wrong within minutes of the restart.
It was one thing to lose possession, as they did again deep in Oxford's half in the 50th minute, it was another to be beaten as they were by one long ball which followed.
It was not a great pass by any means, but Constable made the most of it, brushing Downes aside and then rounding Poke before rolling in his 12th goal of the season.
Four minutes later Constable found himself in a three-against-one minority as Downes, Saah and Poke all converged to deal with another long ball. Downes actually sorted that moment out, but, instead of clearing the ball, he tried to turn back inside near the by-line.
Constable nicked the ball off him and Downes' only resort, as Constable headed back into the area, was to pull him over.
There were no protests as referee Stephen Martin pointed to the spot, and Damian Batt sent Poke the wrong way with his penalty.
Torquay had to respond quickly, and they did. In the 58th minute, after McCormick tipped over Labadie's 25-yard free-kick, captain Lee Mansell delivered the corner from the left and Downes scored his fifth goal of the season with a downward header.
There was at least hope that Torquay, and Downes, could repair the earlier mistakes, and Mansell did have a goal-bound shot blocked from a good move between Saah and Bodin. They still had half an hour, as it turned out, to save themselves, but they never really played well enough, and certainly did not create enough chances, to do it.
Good passing buys time on the ball. But, with nerves jangling, too many passes were helped rather than drilled towards team-mates, who found themselves closed down and under pressure as a result.
Oxford sensed Torquay's discomfort and started to catch them on the counter.
Knill tried to inject some pace on the right wing, sending on Lloyd Macklin for Jarvis. Wilder pepped his attack, introducing striker Deane Smalley for left-winger Sean Rigg, switching the lively Potter to the left.
Constable and Josh Parker, who had replaced Tony Capaldi early on, both went close to killing the contest.
As the game moved into stoppage time, Torquay finally threatened an equaliser, the subdued Howe denied by McCormick and Saah firing wide on the turn. But the final word went to Oxford.
Simon Heslop, who had only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes, swapped breakaway passes with fellow substitute Smalley down their right and drove the ball across Poke and into the net.
There are now ten games left for Torquay to turn around this dreadful run, and the next two are away from home this week – Dagenham and Redbridge tomorrow and SouthendUnited on Saturday.
Any points in the East End and deepest Essex will feel like manna from heaven.