Gulls pay the penalty for failing to find killer blow
JUST when they had their weakened local rivals on the proverbial ropes, Torquay United hesitated, failed to throw the knockout punches and Exeter City, inspired by the introduction of the classy Alan Gow, earned a deserved draw at Plainmoor.
If the night had panned out the other way around – the Grecians on top in the first half and the Gulls in the second – United supporters might have gone home happier.
But it was City fans, relieved that their growing superiority had finally forced Gow's equalising penalty, who sang their way home.
The fact that United's third Devon derby of the season not only finished in another stalemate but via a penalty to either side – Rene Howe after 15 minutes, Gow seven minutes from time – was a true reflection of a match which seldom hit the heights.
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The pitch had plenty to do with that, and it almost certainly influenced City boss Paul Tisdale's team selection.
Already without suspended leading scorer Jamie Cureton, Tisdale still left out Gow, as well as the experienced Matt Oakley and young forward Jimmy Keohane.
He opted for a more combative midfield including former United man Steve Tully, Tommy Doherty and Scott Bennett.
But it should have been an extra lift for United when City's in-form centre-forward John O'Flynn went down with hamstring trouble and had to be taken off after only ten minutes. Keohane went on alongside Spanish striker Guillem Bauza.
There was nothing wrong with United's start.
Ryan Jarvis, with a glancing header from Joe Oastler's cross, and Lee Mansell, with a 25-yard drive which Doherty deflected just over the bar, both went close.
Skipper Mansell put in a typically industrious display.
Then, United put together their best move of the match, involving Kevin Nicholson, Jarvis, Billy Bodin and Nathan Craig, setting up Craig for a deep cross from the right.
Howe was there with a far-post header, but United immediately claimed a handball by Doherty had helped the ball off-target and referee Craig Pawson agreed.
He pointed to the spot and booked Bennett for dissent, before Howe composed himself and drove the spot-kick into the top right-hand corner...1-0.
Artur Krysiak had no chance with Howe's 12th goal of the season.
Craig had nearly caught out Burton goalie Dean Lyness with a long-range free-kick at the Pirelli Stadium last Saturday, and in the 20th minute he forced Krysiak to backpedal and tip another 35-yard effort over his bar.
City created one clear chance before the interval, Keohane pulling his shot wide after Bauza slipped him away on the left in the 27th minute.
But with Brian Saah and Aaron Downes in familiar resolute mood at centre-back – Downes did brilliantly to foil a dangerous break by Bauza just before half-time – United looked pretty secure at the back.
Doherty railed at referee Pawson as they left the field at half-time, but Tisdale's mind was already on more important things.
During the interval he swapped Gow for Bauza, and that change turned the match.
Although Nicholson crossed, Howe volleyed and Krysiak saved again in the 54th minute, Gow was already getting on the ball to obvious effect by then.
And when Tisdale sent on Oakley for Arron Davies two minutes later, all three of the men he had left out from the 3-0 home win over Southend were back on the pitch.
By the hour-mark it was clear that United had gone badly off the boil and needed a lift.
They struggled to keep possession, and their midfield dropped ever deeper, so when Saah, Downes & Co did clear the ball, City got it straight back.
Gow shot just wide, then beat both Downes and Saah in quick succession to force a corner and, in the 72nd minute, cleverly set up Keohane for a backheel shot which Michael Poke just kept out with an excellent save, at full-stretch low to his right.
United's attack had faded badly, and Ling sent on wingers Niall Thompson for Jarvis, hampered by a 'dead leg' sustained early in the match, and Danny Stevens for Bodin.
Craig, who had started on the right, moved into the middle, just behind Howe, but United simply weren't playing well enough to give the changes a chance to work.
Then, in the 83rd minute, Gow gave Thompson and Oastler the slip on United's right as he headed into the area, Oastler brought him down from behind and there weren't too many protests when Mr Pawson again pointed to the spot. He was in a good position.
Gow slammed home the penalty...1-1.
When four minutes of stoppage-time was announced, it went down much better with City's fans than United's increasingly worried supporters.
But there were no further twists, although United shouted, a tad optimistically, for a penalty when Stevens burst between two defenders and went down.
A draw was the right result anyway.