Bristol Rovers 3
Eaves 15, 76
A BRAVE and brilliant fight-back from United resulted in nothing but pride on a thrilling afternoon at Bristol Rovers.
The Gulls were floundering horribly in the first-half and staring hard at a heavy defeat after two quick early goals from Tom Eaves and Matthew Lund was followed by the dismissal of Joe Oastler for two cautions.
Trailing 2-0 and with a man less, the writing was surely on the wall but this United team is full of character, and the second half soon turned interesting when the deficit was halved by a sublime strike from Rene Howe, who, in the process, equalled the club record of scoring in seven consecutive league games.
Moments later, Aaron Downes crashed home the unlikeliest equaliser and the ten men were briefly dreaming of an astonishing victory, but Eaves ruined the Yellow fairytale with a close-range winner on 76 minutes.
United manager Martin Ling made one change to the side that defeated Accrington 3-1 last weekend, preferring the protective instincts of Craig Easton to the wing wizardry of Danny Stevens. The move allowed in-form Welshman Nathan Craig to operate in a more advanced role.
On the Yellow bench was Ryan Jarvis, brimming with confidence after a brace in the midweek JPT draw with Yeovil, a game United eventually lost in a dramatic penalty shoot-out at Plainmoor.
Rovers boss Mark McGhee stuck with the team that drew at Burton Albion last Saturday and, given the Yellow flavour to their side last year, it was interesting to see the lack of former Gulls in the Pirates’ line-up this time around.
A nervous start for United was summed up by goalkeeper Michael Poke losing bearings, eventually clasping the ball just outside the area to earn himself a needless booking within five minutes.
Yellow backtracking continued with a dangerous break from Eliot Richard, bursting through on goal and Australian Downes needed his wits about him to thwart the Rovers’ striker.
United were unable to withstand the mild pressure beyond 15 minutes after a Lund interception found Richard in the box and he was able to shift the ball to Eaves, who smashed the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
Moments later, it was double the agony and the Gulls were perhaps guilty of a shaky wall allowing Lund to whip a free-kick around the fringes and into the corner of the net. A disastrous spell for United and a big Bristol-shaped mountain to climb.
The complete isolation of Howe was an immediate problem for Ling and his players to solve, along with the need to take some semblance of control in midfield areas.
When the Yellows did finally get support to their centre-forward, Howe teed-up captain Lee Mansell for a shot on the Rovers goal but Neil Etheridge, on loan from Fulham, was able to turn the ball wide with a decent save.
The improved football lasted the briefest of moments, as a sloppy pass in midfield enabled Richard to attack the left-channel and the Gulls were more than relieved to see the shot hit Poke’s side-netting.
Bad turned to considerably worse on the half-hour, as referee Scott Mathieson dished out a red card to Oastler for picking up two bookings, the first a crude challenge that ended the afternoon for Fabian Broghammer. The second caution was perhaps a tad harsh after United’s full-back blocked the run of substitute Lee Brown.
Ling immediately moved Mansell to right-back, with Craig dropping into midfield and any chance of salvaging something from a miserable afternoon was surely dependent on reaching half-time without losing another goal, or any more players for that matter.
Confidence was understandably sky high for the home side, a point emphasised by Brown attempting a searing drive from distance that only just missed the top corner of United’s under-siege goal.
Next up for shooting practise was centre-back Garry Kenneth, curling in an effort that Poke had to turn over. The subsequent corner fell to Richard, who forced yet another save from the beleaguered goalkeeper.
Rovers then constructed a beautiful move down the right flank, culminating in a deep cross from Lund picking out Eaves, who possibly should have scored but was denied by a fantastic save from Poke.
A shocker of a first period mercifully ended when Joe Anyinsah fired over from inside the area and Ling trudged into the dressing room for one of the toughest half-time team-talks of his proud career.
The first decision was introducing Daniel Leadbitter at right-back, with Damon Lathrope the man sacrificed, as Mansell returned to the engine room and the obvious remit for every Gull was to find a goal to get back in the game. Before that, Poke made yet another block from Eaves to keep the faint dream alive.
Finally, the Yellows moved the ball with the necessary tempo and Mansell created room for Craig to unleash a 30-yard blockbuster with his left foot and the shot only missed the home net by a whisker.
The Gulls had a lift and Howe took the hint with a brilliant goal that encapsulated all that is good in the big striker. First, he muscled Lund off the ball and then set himself for a delicious curler beyond Etheridge and into the top corner. It was a wonderful strike from Howe and a memorable way to equal the club record.
Incredibly, United were level before the hour-mark and the scorer, like Howe, was a man who has previously enjoyed a brief loan spell at Bristol Rovers.
It was pretty simple stuff from the Gulls, Kevin Nicholson clipping over an inviting free-kick and Downes wanted the header more than anyone else, and the wonderful outcome was a thumping headed equaliser by the Australian.
Rovers were rocking and in a theme that is familiar to most defences in League 2, the Pirates were struggling to cope with the strength and skill of Howe, who was leading the Yellow attack superbly well.
At the other end, however, Eaves was still a problem, bustling the ball to Anyinsah in the area, but Downes completed his day-job in marvellous fashion, stretching across to make a vital block.
Ling turned to his replacements for the final 20 minutes and Jarvis was given the chance to build on his excellent midweek display. Billy Bodin was the man withdrawn in a move that suggested all three points was still very much in the manager’s mind.
The home side gradually recovered their composure to exert some pressure on the Yellow goal but more often than not, the outstanding Downes was in the right place to thwart the Pirates.
Sadly for the Gulls, even the awesome Aussie was unable to prevent Eaves restoring the Rovers lead. Poke actually produced a terrific save to deny the initial shot from Richard but the ball fell to substitute Wayne Brown for a square-pass to Eaves, who tapped into the gaping net.
The final roll of the Yellow dice saw Tom Cruise introduced for Craig but the main hope for United remained the inspirational Howe, who set off on a charging run on 84 minutes, resulting in a corner for the visitors.
Nicholson swung the ball over for Mansell to win a header and Jarvis was agonisingly close to stabling home from inside the six-yard area, but no joy for the spirited Gulls. Poke was called into action moments later, saving well at the feet of Eaves.
United kept going to the very end with every man in Yellow giving heart and soul to find an equaliser, but this afternoon of incredible drama would end in disappointment.
Rovers (4-4-2): 38 Neil Etheridge; 26 Matthew Lund, 5 Garry Kenneth, 6 Tom Parkes, 3 Jim Paterson; 16 Joe Anyinsah (21 Wayne Brown 62), 15 Oliver Norburn, 7 David Clarkson, 11 Fabian Broghammer (14 Lee Brown 29); 10 Eliot Richard, 32 Tom Eaves. Substitutes (not used): 19 Adam Virgo, 24 Ollie Clarke, 25 Seanan Clucas, 27 Tom Lockyer, 28 Sam Walker (GK).
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope (12 Daniel Leadbitter H-T), 18 Craig Easton; 15 Billy Bodin (8 Ryan Jarvis 70), 9 Rene Howe, 20 Nathan Craig (21 Thomas Cruise 81). Substitutes (not used): 13 Martin Rice (GK), 19 Danny Stevens, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 29 Niall Thompson.
Booked: Poke 4, Oastler 21
Sent-off: Oastler 30
Referee: Scott Mathieson
Attendance: 6,331 (648 away).