Histon 1-0 Torquay United: Gutsy Gulls hang on for Wembley
A MIRACULOUS reaction save by goalkeeper Michael Poke crowned a nerve-shredding rearguard action by Torquay United to reach the Blue Square Premier Play-Off Final against battling Histon at the Glass World Stadium yesterday.
The Gulls' magnificent fans, who bellowed non-stop support in the face of Histon's never-say-die pressure, matched the bravery of Paul Buckle's team.
United will go back to Wembley, for the fifth time, to take on Cambridge United on May 17 after fighting tooth and nail from the moment that Histon stalwart Neil Andrews fired the Stutes ahead after only 16 minutes.
At that stage, with United bending under Histon's opening onslaught, it looked as if the club's dream of returning to the Football League might turn into a nightmare.
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But the longer the match went on, the sterner United's resistance became.
Chris Robertson and Kevin Nicholson were both outstanding in the Gulls' defence.
But just when they thought they had finally quenched Histon's fire, United had to survive the longest four minutes of stoppage time that any Gulls fan can remember.
But Poke's brilliant save from Histon skipper Mat Mitchel-King finally did the trick.
It was obvious before kick-off what sort of game Histon wanted.
They had soaked the pitch, to the point where there were puddles in at least two areas of midfield.
It was a surprise that referee Steve Rushton did not ask the groundsman to fork away what remained of the surface water before the game started.
Even the warm-ups started to cut the pitch up.
Histon boss Steve Fallon made two changes.
Back came goalkeeper Danny Naisbitt after a one-match suspension, while Neil Andrews was also restored to midfield in place of Craig Pope.
Buckle named an unchanged starting eleven.
But on the bench he recalled fit-again striker Elliot Benyon and defender Mark Ellis, in place of forwards Matt Green and Iyseden Christie.
Around 700 Gulls supporters, including TV personality Helen Chamberlain, were in great voice long before the start.
And lining the bridge overlooking the ground were hundreds of Cambridge United fans, still celebrating their extra-time victory over Stevenage Borough in the other Semi-Final at lunchtime.
Histon supporters were drowned out by incessant chants of 'Yellow Army'.
Once again Setanta Sports' TV coverage clearly dictated the start, for it was past the scheduled 5.30pm kick-off time before the teams even took the pitch.
If United expected a bombardment from the Stutes, they were not disappointed.
The Gulls were put through a torrid opening spell, from the moment that Nicholson hooked a Jack Midson cross away to stop Jamie Barker scoring by his left-hand post.
With Histon pouring on the pressure, Mansell.and Carlisle missed the ball between them, Knight-Percival delivered the cross from the left and Midson blazed a great chance over at the far post.
A Mitchel-King cross also went begging as United, playing into the wind, struggled to contain the home side and clear their lines.
The pressure told after 16 minutes.
United failed to clear one of a stream of long throws hurled into their area by left-back Gareth Gwillim, the ball dropped for Andrews 15 yards out and his right-foot shot took a deflection on its way past Michael Poke…1-0.
As the rain fell, United's problems grew when Blair Sturrock went down awkwardly in a tackle.
He resumed after treatment, but then signalled that his right knee was too badly hurt and, after only 21 minutes, off he came and on went Benyon.
Todd also picked a split lip, but that wasn't bad enough to stop United's Welsh defender.
There was no let-up for at least half-an-hour – Wroe headed a Gwillim cross only just wide of Poke's right-hand post for a corner.
And that flag-kick was followed by two more in quick succession – Poke flapped at both of them – and Midson finally headed over to give United's hard-pressed defence a moment's respite.
Through it all, Robertson was always reliable at centre-back, registering a series of decisive headers.
But it still took United until the 31st minute to threaten a goal for the first time in the match.
Chris Hargreaves' headed pass got Tim Sills in on the left, he held off Matt Langston, cut in and Naisbitt had to pull off a good double-save from the Gulls' centre-forward.
Then, with United getting a foothold in the game at last, Naisbitt and Lanre Oyebanjo both came up with important touches from Benyon crosses.
A rare Robertson miskick in midfield invited another bout of Histon pressure which saw the ball bobbling dangerously around the Gulls' penalty area.
And a half which put United and their fans through the mill ended when Andrews let fly with a 25-yard volley just over the bar with Poke struggling to cover.
The interval gave United little relief, for Histon resumed their onslaught from the restart.
In the 52nd minute Murray missed a wonderful chance to level the tie, but he volleyed over, unmarked, at the far post from Gwillim's free-kick from the left.
Langston was having a good afternoon in the air against Sills – not often that happens – but Benyon's work rate and eye for an opening just about kept United in the game as an attacking force.
Robertson and Nicholson were rocks in the United defence.
And, with pressure little really to cheer about, the Gulls fans kept up wonderful support behind Poke's goal.
Jamie Barker headed another Gwillim free-kick straight at Poke in the 66th minute.
Three minutes later Sills managed to beat Langston in the air, glancing a Nicholson free-kick wide of the right-hand post.
It forced United's first corner of the match, with 20 minutes to go.
Then Benyon had a shot blocked by Langston, Stevens drilled a low cross to Carlisle on the right and his goalbound shot deflected behind off Patrick Ada.
Sills got in an important defensive header as Gwillim curled over yet another free-kick.
Histon tried their first substitution in the 72nd minute, sending on Josh Simpson for Barker.
United stuck to their task manfully during the second half, fighting for every header in defence and watching Benyon chase every lost cause.
Stevens went into Mr. Rushton's book for a mistimed tackle on Oyebanjo.
On went Lee Hodges for Stevens with four minutes left.
Just when United thought they had snuffed out Histon's resistance, they had to withstand another barrage of pressure as the match moved into four minutes of stoppage-time.
Todd and Hargreaves twice got in brave headers as Gwillim swung over more high balls.
Then, following a half-cleared Gwillim corner, the ball fell for Mitchel-King 12 yards out.
His volley was headed for the roof of the net until Poke threw up his arm and deflected the ball onto his bar and away.
Even then it wasn't quite over.
United had to defend for their lives for several more minutes, throwing themselves at shots, headers, crosses, free-kicks – anything that came into Poke's goalmouth – to keep their brave opponents at bay.