Torquay fight back for a crucial point at Southend
It was "only" one point, but just how important even that return can be in npower League Two's increasingly claustrophobic relegation battle was underlined within minutes of the final whistle at Roots Hall on Saturday.
Torquay United walked off the pitch in Essex feeling reasonably pleased with themselves, rightly so after holding play-offs chasing Southend United to what most Gulls fans will rate as a "bonus" point, but then heard that it had also lifted them two places up the table.
New loan signing Joss Labadie's second goal in successive games gave Torquay's superior goal difference the chance to ease them to the top of a group of five clubs all on 40 points. They still have not won for 11 games, a run they must end pretty soon if they are going to haul themselves out of trouble, but three draws in the last four matches, all away from home, have lifted the mood over Plainmoor, which is where their fate will almost certainly be decided.
Their last eight games include five at home and three away, and after this latest determined display Torquay will surely tackle Chesterfield tomorrow and York City on Saturday with renewed intent at Plainmoor.
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Just as they had done with ten men at Dagenham and Redbridge in midweek, Torquay had to come from behind. They deal another blow to Southend's promotion-hopes and, if there is one thing that Alan Knill has instilled in the team since his arrival six games ago, it is some fighting spirit.
Saturday's performance was not perfect, but even individuals who may have struggled in one area did their best to make up for it in others, and you cannot win a relegation scrap without loads of that spirit.
Knill's three changes – the Gulls' boss brought in on-loan winger Jordan Chapell for his debut, Nathan Craig in midfield and Angus MacDonald for the suspended Aaron Downes at centre-back – looked modest in the face of Southend manager Paul Sturrock's shake-up. Angry at the way his team had gone down to AFC Wimbledon 3-1 at home in midweek, the former Plymouth Argyle chief dropped his goalkeeper Paul Smith, among others, re-signed defender Tamika Mkandawire on loan from Millwall and recalled five players, including the experienced striker Freddy Eastwood.
Among the men he brought in was on-loan Southampton winger Ben Reeves, and it was Reeves who stood out in a lively opening spell by the home side.
Reeves gave Torquay right-back Joe Oastler as much trouble as he could handle, and more, but he has played in the Premier League this season, so maybe he ought to stand out at this level. Although he was often at full stretch in defence, Oastler did keep going forward in support of young Chapell, which at least gave Southend something to think about down that side.
Southend's quick, accurate passing caught out Torquay several times, often on the counter, and it was from just such a situation that they took the lead after nine minutes.
Reeves supplied the crossfield pass for Eastwood on the right, and he cut back before hitting a left-foot shot, with a touch of curl, which nestled inside the far post, giving Michael Poke no chance.
Torquay should probably have got closer to Eastwood, but it was still a classy finish.
Leading scorer Rene Howe was having a lean time up front for the Gulls, his concentration wavering under the attentions of Mkandawire and the powerful Bilel Mohsni.
Howe picked up his 13th booking of the season for kicking the ball away in the 21st minute, but he did better in the second half, kept his temper in check and worked hard for the cause.
Chapell nearly announced his arrival with a 20-yard drive which goalkeeper Daniel Bentley just tipped over in the 26th minute, and that near-miss visibly lifted Torquay.
Knill had set up an "inverted triangle" midfield, with Labadie at the base and Craig and skipper Lee Mansell encouraged to push forward.
With Southend also eager to attack at every opportunity, it made for an open game, and Torquay played their part with increasing conviction.
Finally, during first-half stoppage-time, they struck. Billy Bodin left his marker, Sean Clohessy, for dead with a neat dummy and crossed into the middle, where the ball skimmed off Mkandawire's head.
Mansell was up in support, beyond the far post. He controlled the ball, drove it across the face of goal and Labadie was there to stab home from close range.
Southend must still have been favourites at the interval, but just as they had done at Dagenham down the A13 in midweek, Torquay got better and better as the second half went on. But they did have the odd scare.
Poke came up with two terrific saves, both with his legs, to deny Reeves and Kevan Hurst late on, Southend claiming that the rebound off Hurst in the 82nd minute was handled by Mansell.
The Gulls' skipper was sprawled on the ground at the time, insisted that the ball hit him in the chest, and referee David Phillips agreed with him.
MacDonald, who emerged with real credit from another gutsy display alongside the ever-steady Brian Saah in central defence, also foiled Britt Assombalonga with a goal-saving tackle after a mistake by Oastler.
But the Gulls' travelling fans were increasingly encouraged by the way their side kept going forward. Oastler fired just wide from 22-yards after Howe set him up and Bodin was always a threat on the left – he will be missed on international duty this week – and he nearly snatched the lead after a good move between Craig and Tom Cruise.
Torquay looked every bit as likely winners in the closing stages, and it took a great piece of defending by Mkandawire to deny them all three points in the 89th minute.
Bentley's poor clearance was seized on by Bodin, he beat Mohsni all ends up on the edge of the area, let rip, and only Mkandawire's alert and athletic covering block kept the score at 1-1.