Reid 28, pen 37, 46
IT is no exaggeration to say, in over a century of football, Torquay United has experienced few nights to compare with the drama of this occasion.
Wind and rain battered TQ1 throughout and the Gulls were flapping hopelessly at half-time, as a double from Craig Reid had Aldershot cruising, and when he completed his hat-trick seconds after the restart, it was surely game over.
A despondent Plainmoor was given a massive lift when Billy Bodin pulled one back and hope turned to belief after substitute Ryan Jarvis slid home a second Yellow goal following fine work by Rene Howe.
An incredible fight-back was completed by Ashley Yeoman emerging from the bench to glance home the equaliser with his first professional goal. The Yellow Army was reaching for the respirator when Howe, a colossus all night, smashed home an astonishing winner in the final minute.
United boss Martin Ling was forced into two changes from the side that battled to a 1-1 draw with Chesterfield on the weekend. Injuries to Craig Easton and Lloyd Macklin rendered them unavailable, but Nathan Craig was deemed sufficiently fit for a midfield return and young Niall Thompson took the vacant wing berth.
The shuffling did not extend to Bodin, who was once again deployed in the attacking hole behind main striker Howe. On the bench, there was space for Karl Baker among the replacements.
Aldershot manager Dean Holdsworth also added two new names to his team sheet, as his side sought to recover from a disappointing home loss to York on Saturday. Sonny Bradley dropped out of defence to be replaced by Guy Branston, the Plainmoor Player of the Year just two seasons ago. The other change came on the right flank, where Adam Mekki was replaced by Alex Rodman.
A bright start from the Gulls had Howe pressurising Shots’ goalkeeper Jamie Young into rushing his first clearance of the evening and a dancing run from Bodin had the Yellow Army murmuring with appreciation before it was brought to an end by a firm Branston challenge.
The powerful former Gull was given a hefty welcome back from a Howe challenge and Branston then enjoyed a bout of banter with the Popside after gingerly getting to his feet. Bodin soon got his twinkle toes back in action to manoeuvre space for a delicious shot from 22 yards that drifted inches past the top corner.
Aldershot found their impetus on 13 minutes when a deep corner was nodded back inside for the all-action Branston to head goalwards, and Michael Poke needed the full extension of his sizeable frame to tip the ball over.
Strong gusts sweeping across TQ1 began to have a damaging influence on the quality of football from both sides and a scooped backpass from Craig forced Poke into a magical moment, beautifully cushioning the swirling ball on his thigh before pirouetting into a neat pass for Joe Oastler.
A wonderful threaded pass from Bodin restored the class to proceedings and Howe took a touch in the left channel to set himself for a fierce drive rifled narrowly over Young’s crossbar.
From nowhere, United fell behind after a whipped cross from Rodman, aided by the wind, picked out the run of Reid, who steered the ball into the far corner with a deft glancing header. It was a neatly-taken goal but barely warranted on the balance of play.
Confidence started flowing through visiting veins, however, and Scott Donnelly fizzed a shot wide before latching on to a lofted pass for a drive on target that Poke could only beat away with his shins.
The Gulls eventually rediscovered their composure and Craig had Young full length to turn away a sizzling shot after the Welshman had been teed up by Thompson.
Disaster then struck with Oastler bundling into Danny Hylton after an innocuous cross from Rodman. It seemed a senseless penalty to concede and Reid duly punished the Yellows with a confident spot-kick low to Poke’s right-hand side.
Driving rain joined howling wind for the closing minutes of a dispiriting first period and the half-time Plainmoor groans could be heard in Paignton. Although the team had not played badly, conceding two sloppy goals will hurt at any level of football.
The fast start United desperately needed for the second half could barely have turned out worse, as Aldershot added number three within seconds of the restart. Oastler slipped on the greasy turf for Hylton to fire in a shot at Poke, who made a terrific block, but Reid was perfectly placed to smash home the rebound for his hat-trick.
It was a choice between capitulation and fight...the Gulls chose the latter, as Craig rifled a low drive across the skidding turf and Young could only parry out to Howe. Although the ‘keeper swiftly got to his feet for a brilliant save, the second rebound was forced home by Bodin.
Three minutes into the second half, two more goals and the heavens opened as Bodin raced clear again, but this time his right-foot shot was tame enough for Young to comfortably gather.
Strangely, there was now genuine hope in United’s attacking play but the set-piece threat of Rodman remained, as he clipped over a deep free-kick for Hylton to plant a volley into the side-netting.
Ling turned to his bench for a fresh approach on 67 minutes, replacing Stevens with Jarvis and the new man was involved in the move that led to Bodin feeding Thompson for a clear shot on goal, but the youngster dragged his effort narrowly wide.
Moments later, Jarvis was rewarded after a fine run down the left from Howe and his low centre was perfect for the sub to scramble the ball over the line. Plainmoor was now bouncing with belief and a comparable level of concern on Aldershot faces.
Much to their credit, the visitors gathered themselves to launch a swift break and a tidy lay-off from Reid found the run of Donnelly, who lashed a fierce drive toward the far corner that had Poke diving full-stretch to turn wide.
The game reached 80 minutes when Kevin Nicholson came within a whisker of scoring the most extraordinary goal this famous old ground has ever seen.
Aldershot had won a corner and the ball fell to United’s stalwart full-back, who leathered clear on the volley and the ball, carried on the wind, flew fully 80 yards, bouncing fast off the turf and beyond Young, but the ‘keeper somehow recovered to tip the ball over.
Yeoman was then introduced for Thompson before a Craig corner landed at the feet of Aaron Downes, and the Australian showed superb technique to steer his half-volley at goal. Young produced a fine save but the next set-piece would bring Yellow glory.
Another Craig corner was rebounded back to the Welshman and his instant return cross was brilliantly flicked by the head of Yeoman into the far corner for his first ever goal as a Gull.
This amazing match had one final twist and it was a special moment for everyone with a Yellow heart. Howe, surely the finest centre-forward in League 2, started the move, exchanging passes with his most of his team-mates before receiving a final pass from Bodin.
Plainmoor took a collective breath as the big man pulled back his almighty trigger and lashed a sensational right-foot shot beyond the hapless Young.
From 3-0 behind, United’s season was now truly under way. It was hard not to feel some sympathy for Aldershot but this unforgettable evening will go down in Yellow history as one of those ‘I was there moments’.
And if you were here, tell your mates what they are missing.
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 20 Nathan Craig, 15 Billy Bodin; 29 Niall Thompson (23 Ashley Yeoman 81), 9 Rene Howe, 19 Danny Stevens (8 Ryan Jarvis 67). Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 21 Thomas Cruise, 22 Karl Baker, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Booked: Oastler 36, Downes 59
Aldershot (4-4-2): 21 Jamie Young; 2 Ben Herd (capt), 6 Ollie Lancashire, 15 Guy Branston, 3 Anthony Tonkin; 7 Alex Rodman, 4 Aaron Morris, 5 Troy Brown (25 Kwesi Appiah 90), 26 Scott Donnelly; 10 Danny Hylton (9 Michael Rankine 73), 20 Craig Reid (24 Miles Anderson 87). Substitutes (not used): 8 Josh Payne, 23 Sonny Bradley, 28 Kieran Cadogan, 29 Glenn Morris (GK).
Booked: Hylton 57
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Attendance: 2,358 (109 away)