Ajala 18, 63
Forest Green 3
Guthrie 38, 79
ALL those with a Yellow heart inside the Launa Windows Stadium went to sleep on Saturday night wondering how United had given up such a commanding position on an infuriating afternoon in the Vanarama Conference.
Early goals from Ryan Bowman and Toby Ajala had the Gulls coasting against Forest Green Rovers, but the visitors showed a glimpse of their future resilience by pulling a goal back through Kurtis Guthrie seven minutes before the interval.
When Ajala restored the two-goal advantage, a United victory almost seemed certain but Rob Sinclair thundered home a controversial free-kick on 75 minutes and then Guthrie snatched an unlikely point for the visitors moments later.
United boss Chris Hargreaves understandably stuck with the same side that won 3-2 Barnet in midweek, with the two-goal hero from the Hive Stadium, Louis Briscoe, passing a late fitness test on a sore calf.
Forest Green manager Adrian Pennock was considerably more ruthless, making five changes from the draw with Eastleigh. Out went David Pipe, Chris Stokes, Luke Oliver, Luke Rodges and Sam Wedgbury to be replaced by Dale Bennett, James Norwood, Marcus Kelly, Sinclair and Danny Coles.
The perfect start was handed to United in peculiar circumstances, as Courtney Cameron cut inside from the right to have a pop with his favoured left-shot. The effort was half-blocked by the Forest Green defence and looped invitingly toward goal.
Bowman still had plenty to do in beating the stranded Sam Russell but he executed a superb back-header to loop the ball over the Rovers custodian for an opening goal on just four minutes.
While the visitors pleaded for an offside decision, Bowman wheeled away to take the applause for a masterful finish and Yellow tails were firmly up, as Ajala swept forward from the next attack to have a crack from distance, but, this time, Forest Green managed to clear.
Briscoe then came to the fore, muscling his way through the midfield to conjure space for a shot from 25-yards and Russell could only watch in hope as a viciously swerving strike rocketed inches past the post.
The Gulls were creating chances at will, but not converting, as Bowman waltzed down the right and squared for Ajala, who wanted too many touches before firing off his shot, allowing Eddie Oshodi the time to make a goal-saving challenge.
The enigmatic winger soon made amends, however, pinching the ball from a hesitant Oshodi before steering an assured side-foot finish beyond the advancing Russell and inside the far corner.
Rovers were completely shell-shocked by the pace and precision of United’s attacking play, but the visiting dug-out must have been furious at Oshodi’s lack of effort to pressurise Ajala after such a disastrous lapse.
Forest Green finally settled into the game with a decent spell of possession but their lack of pace in the final third was completely exposed by the speed with which United countered.
It was a point emphasised by the assured Durrell Berry feeding pass down the line for Cameron, who then slipped the ball into the channel for Bowman. In a flash, the Gulls were bearing down
on goal but the low cross just evaded the far-post run from Briscoe.
The rain began pounding down on an already-soft surface 10 minutes before half-time and Rovers were soon right back in the game, as a wonderful in-swinging cross from Norwood picked out the run of Guthrie, who glanced a tidy header past the stranded Rice.
Tempers began to fray in the monsoon, as the Popside rose in anger at a cynical challenge from Oshodi in blocking the run of Bowman. Players from both sides swapped handbags before referee Nick Kinseley rightly showed a yellow card.
Half-time arrived with a welcome cup of tea and a change of shirts, but the pattern of patient possession from Rovers, matched by the speed of United’s counter, continued on the greasy surface.
The twisting feet of Ajala was causing a constant problem for full-back Dale Bennett and one particular saunter inside ended with a pass back out wide for Bowman to attempt a first-time strike, but the shot was comfortable for Russell.
It was the final involvement for Bowman, as he limped off moments later with a muscle strain. Duane Ofori-Acheampong was the natural replacement to maintain the physical power in United’s forward-line.
Luke Young then came to the party with a smart swivel 25 yards from goal and the fizzing shot again had Russell rooted to the spot, as the ball dipped a fraction wide of his far post.
The next effort from United’s captain came after Courtney Richards had won the ball in midfield, allowing Young to shift the ball to his left side for a shot that Russell did well to tip over the bar.
The Gulls had wrestled back control of the game and a bouncing cross from Ajala led to a fabulous first touch by Briscoe to open his body for a fearsome strike that Forest Green deflected a foot wide.
Aaron Downes met the subsequent corner with a strong header that Russell did well to save on his line but there was no stopping Ajala, as he pirouetted eight yards from goal before sliding a low shot into the gaping net.
It was a goal United’s growing pressure fully merited and the natives inside the Launa Windows Stadium were beginning to really enjoy their afternoon. Forest Green, meanwhile, had the look of a beaten side.
Pennock turned to his replacements for renewed hope, removing Elliott Frear for Christian Jolley, but the immediate impact was minimal, as the Gulls continued to cruise through the afternoon.
Set-piece situations so often prove the salvation for a struggling side and Mr Kinseley handed Forest Green their opportunity with an extremely harsh free-kick awarded against Krystian Pearce, who appeared to win the ball on the edge of his own box.
Sinclair ignored the home protests to rifle a fierce strike past the wall and beyond the despairing dive of Rice. The game was back in the balance and Hargreaves turned to the blistering pace of Niall Thompson in place of a tiring Cameron.
Sadly, United had completely lost their composure, and a loose pass from Richards was intercepted and fed right to Norwood, who lashed over a low cross for Guthrie to expertly flick a deft finish past Rice.
All the pressure was now on the Yellow goal but United rode the storm to then break down the right through Briscoe, and his sweeping cross only just lacked the pace to pick out Ofori-Acheampong lurking at the back post.
Briscoe then came off for Ashley Yeoman to strut his stuff in the final five minutes, although the next Yellow act was to applaud outstanding defending from Berry in denying Guthrie a clear run on goal.
United kept throwing men forward in the desperate search for another goal and a rampaging Young forced Russell into one final save after a bustling run into the box, but the frustrating truth was that all three points had been thrown away.
United (4-4-2): 1 Martin Rice; 29 Durrell Berry, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Thomas Cruise; 11 Courtney Cameron (15 Niall Thompson 77), 8 Luke Young (capt), 16 Courtney Richards, 10 Toby Ajala; 9 Ryan Bowman (24 Duane Ofori-Acheampong 53), 7 Louis Briscoe (14 Ashley Yeoman 86). Substitutes (not used): 23 Jordan Seabright (GK), 30 Oneil Odofin.
Booked: Berry 37
Forest Green (4-4-2):1 Sam Russell; 6 Dale Bennett, 15 Eddie Oshodi, 26 Danny Coles (capt), 10 Marcus Kelly; 7 James Norwood, 12 Clovis Kamdjo, 19 Rob Sinclair, 18 Elliott Frear; 11 Lee Hughes, 17 Kurtis Guthrie. Substitutes (not used): 2 David Pipe, 5 Luke Oliver, 20 Jon Parkin, 21 Paul White (GK), 28 Christian Jolley.
Booked: Oshodi 44, Bennett 73
Referee: Nick Kinseley
Attendance: 2,117 (168 away).