Torquay United second best as Cheltenham cash in on impotent attack
After the lift, the letdown – the scoreline may have suggested a tight game, but Cheltenham Town beat Torquay United more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggested at Whaddon Road.
United's remit was to follow up last Monday's 1-0 derby win at Exeter City, and they gave the Robins a game for most of the first half. But, after Shaun Harrad fired Cheltenham two up in the 51st minute, the Gulls were lucky not to concede at least a couple more.
Rene Howe's 14th goal of the season in the 88th minute was some consolation, although the Gulls was helped by a fumble by home goalkeeper Scott Brown. But it would have represented a real steal if Lee Mansell had managed, as he nearly did, to hook home a stoppage-time equaliser.
Howe also picked up his tenth booking, which has been haunting him for weeks, this term, and he will now miss the next two home games against two of npower League Two's most ambitious clubs, Fleetwood Town next Saturday and Rotherham United tomorrow week.
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Perhaps the biggest disappointment was that Torquay really lost this match not in defence, where goalkeeper Michael Poke and centre-backs Brian Saah and Aaron Downes were their usual reliable and committed selves, but in attack.
United were so limited going forward, and gave Cheltenham's own defence so little to concern them, that the hosts could attack without real fear of being caught on the counter.
It took the Gulls until first-half stoppage time to force their first corner, and Brown ended up having to make only two serious saves in the match, one of which he messed up.
Only Gillingham and Fleetwood have conceded fewer goals on the road this season than Torquay (15 in 15 games), but the Gulls have also scored only 12 times away from Plainmoor and no defence, especially at League Two level, can be expected to keep clean-sheets when it is getting that much relief.
Cheltenham – their manager Mark Yates gave debuts to three of his five January signings – thought they had taken the lead through one of them, on-loan Swindon Town striker Paul Benson, after only three minutes, until an offside flag chalked that one off.
Around the quarter-hour mark, United had a warning of trouble ahead when Town defender Keith Lowe headed a clear chance wide from a free-kick by former Gulls loanee Kaid Mohamed.
Howe received a bit more support in the first half than he did in the second, but it was still a solo effort by United's centre-forward that saw him turn, run at the home defence and force a full-length save from Brown in the 18th minute.
In the 32nd minute Mohamed delivered a right-wing corner with pace and Lowe – yes, him again – powered home a header from six yards out.
Only a fine interception tackle by Downes denied Jermaine McGlashan from a Mohamed through ball just before the interval, but at 1-0 United were definitely still in it. Six minutes after the restart, the hill turned into a mountain.
Mansell got back to help Kevin Nicholson deal with danger man McGlashan, but neither stopped the right winger from crossing the ball and Harrad was there to take a touch, turn and give Poke no chance from ten yards.
Howe was cautioned for a barging foul on McGlashan that he had threatened from some distance away, and for the next half-hour Torquay reeled on the ropes.
Poke denied Harrad off his line and Russell Penn with an acrobatic save onto his own bar, while Harrad, again, Jason Taylor and Mohamed twice all went close.
Cheltenham were able to make a statement of intent, sending on the fresh attacking legs of Darren Carter, Duffy and new signing Byron Harrison in the closing stages. But just when it looked as if United would have nothing to show for their day in Gloucestershire, they at least grabbed something.
Ryan Jarvis fed Macklin on the right, he struck a low ball across the face of the penalty area, Howe hit the ball first time and was happy to see it squirm out of Brown's grasp and bounce gently over the line.
With five minutes of stoppage time signalled by referee Carl Berry, United suddenly had an outside chance of saving themselves. They nearly did it.
In the 93rd minute Nicholson hung a long free-kick from the left to the far post, Downes headed the ball down and Brown did well to deflect Mansell's finish past the post.
Yates was annoyed that his team had not been out of sight long before. How he would have reacted if United had snatched a point, goodness knows.
For Torquay, it could be an important and problematic week. Ling is still laid low, waiting for the results of new tests on a suspected viral condition. Howe is banned for two games, and the loan transfer 'window' opens on Thursday.