United let point slip away to stoppage time penalty
ALMOST the only consolation of this numbing defeat, apart from a promising first start for Ashley Yeoman, is that Torquay United have ten days to get over it.
Some losses – the timing of them as much as the way they happen – knock the stuffing out of everyone. This result was one of those.
Even a point, apparently secured by Rene Howe's 90th minute equaliser, would have been a poor result.
After all, and with all due respect, Wimbledon were and still are bottom of the table.
They were without their injured leading scorer (Byron Harrison), they had to cobble together a new centre-back pairing after a 3-0 home defeat to Oxford three days before and United had outplayed them in a 1-0 win at Kingsmeadow in September.
But for the Gulls to lose the match, from 2-2 with four minutes of stoppage-time left, left nearly everyone at muddy Plainmoor in shock.
It rubbed salt into the wounds that it was the fourth successive match in which United have conceded late goals to squander victories or valuable draws.
At least they'd battled bravely with ten men before Bradford City finally broke through in the 85th minute at Valley Parade last month.
But manager Martin Ling, whose commendable politeness afterwards concealed a seething frustration beneath, was quick to refer back to the last-gasp goals which had allowed Northampton and Plymouth to snatch 1-1 draws before and after Christmas.
Wimbledon turned up on a winless run of eight matches, and they could hardly believe their luck when winger Toby Ajala used time and space to cross from the right for Paul McCallum to head home after only five minutes...0-1.
United were level three minutes later, fit-again skipper Lee Mansell forcing in his second goal of the season after Danny Stevens had poked a loose ball out of the reach of 42-year-old former Scotland goalkeeper Neil Sullivan....1-1.
For the next 20 minutes United looked and were the better side, Yeoman lending lively support to centre-forward Howe.
Yeoman, Joe Oastler and Nathan Craig all went close.
It was against the run of play when, in the 32nd minute, United could not clear a Stacy Long chip into a crowded goalmouth and the ball fell kindly for the unmarked Mat Mitchell-King to score from 12 yards...1-2.
On a difficult surface, dominated by one large patch of mud just inside the Ellacombe half, United were trying to pass the ball, but they offered insufficient threat in the one decent area of the pitch, out wide.
It was a surprise when Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley made a double substitution at the interval, taking off forwards Jack Midson and scorer McCallum and sending on Jason Prior and Luke Moore.
But the effect was the same – Ardley kept to a 4-1-4-1 formation and the object was to hold what they had.
Gulls fans hoped for, indeed expected, a real bombardment in the second half.
They hardly got that, for United didn't play well enough after the interval, yet they still created enough chances to have won the match, Howe, glancing a Kevin Nicholson corner wide, and Craig Easton after great work by Yeoman down the left. Both should have scored.
And in the 72nd minute no one got on the end of an inviting low cross from the left by substitute Saul Halpin.
Ling had sent on young Niall Thompson and Halpin in the 62nd minute, when it was clear that the Craig-Stevens pairing wasn't working on the wings.
The longer it went at 1-2 the more optimistic and confident Wimbledon became, and in the last 15 minutes they looked like scoring more than an increasingly flat United.
So it was a huge relief when United did manage to equalise.
They had not given up at least and, after Sullivan saved well from Nicholson, Howe forced a corner on the right.
Nicholson aimed his inswinging flag-kick beyond the far post, where Howe and Aaron Downes were waiting.
Howe, who had become a dad at the weekend, got there first to head home...2-2.
He celebrated in style, for it was also his 11th of the season and his first for ten games.
Ah well, we thought, a point is better than nothing.
But, worryingly, it was Wimbledon who set about stoppage-time with more intent.
It was they who were pushing for the winner when Downes, rightly just announced as United's man-of-the-match, went to clear from just inside his area, missed the ball and caught Rashid Yussuf.
Referee Ollie Langford pointed to the spot and, as Michael Poke dived to his left, Long belted the penalty down the middle...2-3.
It was only United's second defeat in 12 home games this season, but a truly damaging one.
On and off the pitch, they will need all those ten days to recover and regroup.