Misfiring Torquay United unable to hold on as Burton strike late for a draw
There was a horrible air of inevitability about Burton Albion's 89th-minute equaliser, so uncertainly did Torquay United defend Rene Howe's early fifth goal of the season at Plainmoor.
The longer the second half went on, with Torquay clinging to their lead with decreasing conviction, the more that Gulls fans started hoping that their team might get away with an npower League Two win they would not have deserved.
Immense performances in the heart of their defence, with Aaron Downes and Brian Saah outstanding, kept in-form Burton at bay through any amount of scares. But, just when it seemed that Lady Luck might be on their side, her smile finally turned to a scowl.
Centre-back Zander Diamond's glancing header was tipped on to the post by goalkeeper Michael Poke – the third time the visitors had hit the woodwork – but this time the ball rebounded kindly and Calvin Zola could hardly miss from a couple of yards out.
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Few in the ground, even the most diehards United fans, begrudged Burton their point. They had surely worked hard enough for it.
What the match told us was that Torquay – who were poor at Rotherham United the previous weekend, bright when they beat AFC Wimbledon 1-0 away in midweek and then below-par again this time – are developing the old Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome.
As manager Martin Ling had said in his previews, this was a big chance, after a confidence-restoring away win, to come home, register back-to-back victories and close the gap on the early League Two leaders.
They even had a good start to get them going. In the 11th minute skipper Lee Mansell found Nathan Craig wide on the left. The young Welshman's cross touched two retreating defenders on its way to the far post, where Howe scored with a firm right-foot shot from four yards.
That turned out to be the best it got for United.
They did have one or two reasons to remain cheerful. Downes should have scored one of his trademark set-piece headers in the 33rd minute, when he powered a Kevin Nicholson corner over the bar from inviting range.
In the 70th minute, from a good break by Howe down the right, Nicholson made ground to support and drew a full-length finger-tip save from Stuart Tomlinson with one of his 25-yard left-foot "specials". But that was about it from an attacking point of view.
In the first half, Poke had to pull off a series of eye-catching saves from Zola and Jack Dyer, twice each, while Diamond fired over from close range when he was odds-on to score.
It said something about United's mood that it was a real disappointment when an ankle injury to Craig, who has only just broken into the side, robbed them of one of their best hopes of getting a grip. Winger Danny Stevens took over from Craig in the 43rd minute.
Home supporters naturally hoped that United would shake themselves up in the second half, but they were disappointed.
The Brewers' boss, Gary Rowett, sent on former Torquay striker Billy Kee in the 57th minute, and he forced a save from Poke with his first touch, a 22-yard free-kick.
Downes was lucky not to concede a penalty when he appeared to haul Zola to the ground, but the Congo-born target man was a threat all afternoon and Downes did a manful job to keep him under some sort of control.
United were often second-best in midfield, reacting to situations rather than dictating them, and Howe had little service or support up front.
Ling sent on rookie winger Niall Thompson for the subdued Billy Bodin in the 72nd minute, and he did lift things a bit, producing several bursts of pace down the right which might have produced a goal on another day.
But Burton also introduced their quickest winger, Cleveland Taylor, and he gave them the lift they needed to keep going in the closing stages.
Taylor volleyed just over the angle of post and bar after Poke punched only half-clear, and it was virtually one-way traffic before Burton finally and deservedly forced that 89th-minute equaliser by Zola.
In stoppage-time, Burton might even have won it, Joe Oastler doing well to deflect a goal-bound Taylor shot just wide.
Two points dropped it may have been for United, but on the balance of play a point was something of an achievement. Consistency is still an elusive commodity.