Torquay United hold out for draw as Martin Rice makes Football League debut at 26
They may have missed suspended leading scorer Rene Howe, but an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Michael Poke certainly did not hurt Torquay United as a stubborn rearguard action saw the Gulls cling on to a point on Saturday from a mistake-strewn encounter against Oxford United at Kassam Stadium.
Stand-out performances from Martin Rice in goal – the former Exeter City and Truro City player was making his Football League debut at the age of 26 – and from centre-backs Brian Saah and Aaron Downes were Torquay's trump cards in a 0-0 draw.
Rice's display means that manager Martin Ling can leave Poke to recover from his groin problem without pressure to hurry him back.
But after a punchless display in attack, Ling will certainly be glad to see Howe return against Southend at Plainmoor next Saturday after his one-match ban.
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Torquay forced Oxford goalkeeper Ryan Clarke to just one serious save in the whole match, and they had only two or three other efforts off target.
In terms of quality, it was a poor game from start to finish.
Oxford, who had lost 3-2 at home to Dagenham & Redbridge in midweek, are struggling for a club of their size and potential, and the natives are restless.
But the hosts had more than enough possession, pressure and chances to have won comfortably, and it was a mixture of Rice's saves, the determination and discipline of the Gulls' defence and some wasteful finishing which kept the scoreline blank.
Ling, who also lost winger Danny Stevens to a groin strain before the game, went back to a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Ryan Jarvis recalled as the lone striker.
But the tempo and accuracy in midfield which had gone unrewarded in the 1-0 defeat at Barnet was missing this time. Basically, they never got going as an attacking threat.
In fairness, neither did Oxford in a yawn of a first half.
Rice had to pull off a smart double save from James Constable after only two minutes, but from then on Oxford posed few real problems.
Nathan Craig was just wide with a 22-yard free-kick in the 33rd minute, and just before half-time Billy Bodin forced Clarke to that solitary save with a shot on the turn, and moments later a Jarvis header from Craig's corner was deflected over.
Tom Craddock has scored ten goals for the hosts so far, and he had looked some sort of threat until a rib injury forced him at the interval.
It looked like good news for Torquay at the time, but Jon-Paul Pittman proved a lively replacement – at least he brought a spark to a match in which both sides lacked any real pace.
Torquay thought they had snatched the lead in the 53rd minute when Jarvis rose at the far post to head in a Kevin Nicholson free-kick, but the goal was disallowed, apparently for offside.
The Gulls did look for a while as if they might get out of third gear, at least in attack, but it proved a short-lived improvement and Oxford began cranking up the pressure.
Sean Rigg, Peter Leven, Constable and Pittman all had chances to score, and it was hard to see how Torquay would have saved themselves if the hosts had put the ball in the net. But Rice pulled off a series of excellent saves – two from Constable in the 70th minute and Rigg in the 83rd were the highlights – and in front of him Saah and Downes were almost faultless.
Ling said a couple of weeks ago that he had not seen a better pair of central defenders this season than his own. Saah and Downes have done nothing to undermine that verdict since, and they even enhanced it at the Kassam.
Ling sent on winger Niall Thompson and striker Ashley Yeoman to try and pep his attack, but still Oxford kept pressing. Craig Easton headed off his line from a downward header by home defender Andrew Whing from Leven's corner, and five minutes from time referee Bob Madley turned down penalty appeals against Downes.
Constable was bowled over by Downes' aerial challenge, but crucially the Torquay defender won the ball convincingly and that made Mr Madley's mind up.
If Torquay had snatched a winner, it would have represented a burglary job on a par with Barnet's win in midweek, but they could and should have had it in stoppage-time.
Yeoman floated an inviting cross from left to right, but Thompson missed as he went to head the ball at the far post and Jake Wright rescued the home side at the expense of a corner.