WHEN the chips are down and luck is against you, football has a nasty habit of twisting the knife.
United dominated for large periods of the first-half at Plainmoor on Saturday afternoon and the visitors from Fleetwood needed a succession of saves from Scott Davies to repel the Yellow wave.
In the midst of his goalkeeping heroics, Jon Parkin rose highest to score the only goal on 26 minutes and the Gulls were made to suffer for their early misfortune, as Fleetwood grew in strength to hold on for the win.
In the absence of boss Martin Ling, who is still recovering from a virus, assistant manager Shaun Taylor made two enforced changes to the side defeated 2-1 at Cheltenham last weekend.
An injury to Joe Oastler handed Daniel Leadbitter his fourth start of the season at right-back, while the other switch was in attack, where Rene Howe was unavailable because of suspension. Ryan Jarvis was
therefore pushed forward to the main-striker role, with Ashley Yeoman filling the hole in behind. Niall Thompson was recalled for the spare place on the bench.
Fleetwood manager Graham Alexander made four changes to the side held to a 2-2 home draw by Bradford last weekend. Conor McLaughlin came in for Shaun Beeley at right-back, while Alan Goodall slipped inside to replace Nathan pond in the heart of defence, allowing a recall for Dean Howell at left-back.
In the visiting midfield, Ryan Crowther was selected on the left flank in place of Gareth Evans and the Cod Army attack welcomed back the monstrous Parkin, with Jamie Allen missing out altogether.
After a bright morning in the Riviera and the pitch looking in reasonable condition following the relentless rain of recent weeks, the heavens briefly opened at kick-off to add some extra grease to the surface.
The Gulls brushed off the moisture to win a free-kick on the left, which was clipped over by Kevin Nicholson and bounced nicely for Jarvis to fire at goal, but Davies produced the first of many excellent saves to keep the scores level.
The danger was not over, however, as the rebound looped invitingly for Yeoman to fire in a vicious volley that Alan Goodall somehow blocked, although his raised hands prompted passionate shouts for a spot-kick.
Referee Phillip Gibbs waved the Yellow claims but there was real verve and determination in United’s play, and Billy Bodin skipped past McLaughlin before delivering a low cross that visiting skipper Rob Atkinson hacked clear into the Popside.
The Cod Army gradually regained their composure after the United flurry and a neat cross to the back-post by Howell picked out Junior Brown, who leapt above Nicholson but could only steer his header over Michael Poke’s crossbar.
The Gulls came back with a corner by Nicholson finding the head of Aaron Downes, who saw his effort deflected wide. The second corner was cleared to Nathan Craig and he skipped past his man before slipping a pass to Yeoman, but the final shot scuttled into the waiting arms of Davies.
All the positivity sadly drained out of Plainmoor moments later, as a deep cross from Howell was perfect for Parkin, who used his strength to hold off the challenge of Downes and plant a neat header back across Poke and just inside the far post.
It was a decent display of the power Parkin has in his locker but still a cruel blow for the Gulls. Jarvis quickly set about the rescue mission, turning a reverse pass inside for Bodin to attempt a right-footed curler from the edge of the area that Davies could only beat clear with his fists.
The next effort from Bodin was from the opposite wing with his preferred left-foot and this curler had far more fizz, but Davies was again equal to the challenge. When the ball broke to Yeoman, the youngster did superbly well to keep the move alive and feed Lee Mansell, but his goal-bound strike was hoofed away by a covering Fleetwood defender.
Parkin’s afternoon came to a premature end a few minutes before half-time, as he limped off to be replaced by French striker Jean-Michel Fontaine, who joined the Cod Army in the January transfer window.
The impetus remained in United’s favour, as Jarvis cut inside from the left to rifle in yet another shot on target but Davies, once again, was in the right place to make the save. It was, however, further evidence that Fleetwood were fallible.
Jarvis then fed Craig for a skidding low drive that had Davies flapping for the first time all afternoon, but the visiting stopper still got enough on the shot to turn it wide and United trooped off wondering how they were not in front, let alone behind.
Fleetwood actually had the ball in the net from Crowther at the start of the second period but the goal was quickly chalked off for a push in the box, and the Gulls swiftly got back into their attacking rhythm.
United’s relative control of proceeding was enough for Alexander to once again call upon his replacements, as the ineffective Jamille Matt was withdrawn for David Ball to partner Fontaine in attack.
The new man took just a few minutes to adjust to his surroundings before dancing past Leadbitter in the left channel and attempting a tight-angle drive that brought the best out of Poke with a one-handed claw turning the effort away from his top corner.
Fleetwood were growing in confidence and a whipped delivery from the excellent Junior Brown was headed inches over by Fontaine. The Gulls almost responded in the perfect fashion but Craig’s swinging 40-yard cross was a fraction too high for the run of Jarvis.
The bounce of the ball was certainly favouring the visitors but when one ricochet landed at the feet of Nicholson’s, United’s left-back quickly shifted his body to fire in an improvised volley that Davies could only snaffle at the second attempt.
The impetus had slowly drifted away from the Gulls and Taylor reacted by introducing Danny Stevens for Yeoman in a move that allowed Bodin to shift inside as the main support-striker to Jarvis.
As the game crept toward the final 10 minutes, it was a case of now or never for the Yellow troops, and the fresh legs of Lloyd Macklin were added to the cause, with Craig withdrawn from the right wing as a result.
Frustratingly for the vast majority inside Plainmoor, the action was happening at the wrong end of the pitch, as Brown picked up the ball 20 yards from goal and rifled a dipping volley at the near-post, which Poke could only parry wide. A sensational block from Downes then denied Ball a certain goal.
From nowhere, the outstanding Goodall presented Macklin with a sniff when his square pass across defence was cut out by the substitute winger, but Davies was alert enough to rescue his team-mate and scramble clear.
The feeling that United’s luck had failed show up for the afternoon was confirmed in injury-time, as a deep free-kick from Nicholson found Downes at the back-post but his looping header bounced painfully on to the bar and away for all three points to the visitors.
Gulls (4-4-1-1): 1 Michael Poke; 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 20 Nathan Craig (14 Lloyd Macklin 81), 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope, 15 Billy Bodin; 23 Ashley Yeoman (19 Danny Stevens 78); 8 Ryan Jarvis. Substitutes (not used): 13 Martin Rice (GK), 16 Angus MacDonald, 18 Craig Easton, 21 Thomas Cruise, 29 Niall Thompson.
Fleetwood (4-4-2): 1 Scott Davies; 15 Conor McLaughlin, 13 Alan Goodall, 25 Rob Atkinson (capt), 3 Dean Howell; 12 Junior Brown, 37 Paul McKenna, 18 Jamie McGuire, 24 Ryan Crowther (23 Keiran Charnock 90); 9 Jon Parkin (5 Jean-Michel Fontaine 39), 10 Jamille Matt (26 David Ball 52). Substitutes (not used): 4 Anthony Barry, 8 Jamie Milligan, 33 David Lucas (GK), 35 Mozesh Gyorio.
Booked: Atkinson 10, Davies 86
Referee: Phillip Gibbs
Attendance: 2,207 (122 away).