A DRAW at play-off chasing Southend was further evidence that the tide could finally be turning back in favour of Torquay United.
A traumatic 2013 has yielded just one victory for the Gulls but when Freddy Eastwood notched early for the Shrimpers, there was no dropping of heads from the men in Yellow.
United kept to the game-plan and fully deserved their equaliser from Joss Labadie on the brink of half-time. The second period was an intriguing battle and both teams had chances to win, but the point was fair and very welcome.
United manager Alan Knill made three changes to the side that battled to a 2-2 draw at Dagenham in midweek after playing almost the entire match with ten men. Aaron Downes was the man dismissed early at Victoria Road and his place in defence went to Angus MacDonald, who came on after four minutes on Tuesday.
There was a new face on the Yellow wing, with loan signing from Sheffield United, Jordan Chapell, making his debut for the Gulls. Ryan Jarvis was the man to make way and there was also a recall to midfield for Welshman Nathan Craig.
The shuffling allowed Billy Bodin to play a more advanced role in supporting Rene Howe, with Elliot Benyon ineligible for the game because he is on loan at Plainmoor from Southend.
Southend boss Paul Sturrock made five changes to the side defeated 3-1 by Wimbledon at Roots Hall on Tuesday, the first of which saw Daniel Bentley replace Paul Smith in goal. An injury to Ryan Cresswell and Luke Prosser’s suspension also prompted a reshuffle in the home defence.
Bilel Mohsni moved from striker to centre-back, where he was partnered by Tamika Mkandawire for his first game for the Shrimpers since rejoining on loan from Millwall. Ryan Leonard and Mickey Spillane came out of the midfield, where Marc Laird and the other new loan signing, Ben Reeves, were preferred.
The vacant slot in the Southend attack went to Eastwood and former Gull Gavin Tomlin had recovered sufficiently from injury to take his place among the replacements.
The home side were first to construct a meaningful attack and Reeves was the catalyst, working the ball nicely on the right to find Eastwood, who saw his goal-bound shot superbly blocked by Brian Saah. The subsequent corner was headed narrowly wide by the robust Mohsni.
United were having to withstand early pressure from the Shrimpers and it was all too much for the Yellow defence, as Eastwood found space in the box to curl a delightful finish beyond Michael Poke and into the corner.
Reeves was again the creator for Southend and the finish was high quality from Eastwood, who threatened to notch again a minute later but was thwarted by a challenge from Thomas Cruise.
United eventually find something resembling a threatening attack on 15 minutes after neat work by Craig and Cruise, but when the ball reached Bodin, he went down under a soft challenge that was never going to earn the Yellows a penalty.
In fairness, Southend were playing some good stuff and the frustration of a difficult start got to Howe, who picked up a needless booking by kicking the ball away after a decision went against him.
The lively Chapell finally tested Bentley in the home goal on 28 minutes and it was a terrific effort from the youngster, who jinked his way into space before cracking a fearsome drive toward the top corner that the Southend stopper did well to tip over.
Captain Lee Mansell took the resulting corner and Labadie got on the end of the delivery, but his effort was flicked nervously clear by Mohsni and a decent spell from the Gulls to give the players confidence.
At the other end, Britt Assombalonga broke the offside trap to rifle in a low cross for Reeves and MacDonald needed his wits about him to hack the ball away under heavy pressure. As the game headed toward half-time, United were more than holding their own but the home defence was looking particularly stingy.
The Gulls eventually breached the backline with a good move between Craig and Chapell. The ball found a way to Bodin, who was unable to get a clean shot away before the Southend defence managed to clear.
No matter, the Yellows were level seconds later. A magical turn by Bodin bamboozled Sean Clohessy and his deep cross found the unmarked Mansell. United’s skipper cracked a shot across goal and Labadie was perfectly positioned to stab home from close range.
Referee David Phillips immediately blew his whistle for half-time and the equalising goal had arrived with seconds left on the clock. Best of all, on the balance of play, it was deserved and the Gulls could look forward to the second-half with real belief.
United duly came out from the interval with continued attacking intent and Chapell was once again a refreshing livewire on one wing, with Bodin equally dangerous on the other flank.
The next Yellow threat was from an unlikely source, however, as right-back Joe Oastler burst forward to reach a pass from Howe and attempt a left-footed curler that flew only a couple of yards wide of Bentley’s goal.
United were then given a big scare after a cross from Eastwood found Mkandawire, who probably should have done better than plant a header wide of the target. Bodin responded with more clever work but his final attempt was snuffed out by Southend.
Moments later, Oastler was robbed in midfield and Reeves swept forward to find Assombalonga, but MacDonald spotted the danger to produce a terrific goal-saving tackle. Poke was next to intervene, scampering off his line to deny a promising opening for Reeves.
The game had become a real end-to-end affair as both sides looked for all three points and it was a sign of the improved confidence in Yellow ranks that there was no question of sitting back and settling for a point.
Sturrock was first to turn to his bench, withdrawing Eastwood for Tomlin. Knill immediately reacted by introducing Lloyd Macklin for the tiring legs of Chapell, who had enjoyed a fine start to his United career.
Tomlin took just a few seconds to create space for Reeves after a weaving run and the Gulls were left congratulating Poke for a stunning save with his legs.
The next block from United’s goalkeeper was even better to turn away a strike from Kevan Hurst and Mansell were slightly fortunate that referee Phillips ignored the rebound that appeared to hit the skipper’s arm, although it would have been a very harsh penalty.
Knill looked to Damon Lathrope to give his side freshness and the hardworking Craig was the man to make way for the vital last five minutes of a fascinating encounter.
Bodin was presented with a decent chance to snatch a dramatic winner after a poor clearance by Bentley. The Welsh winger danced into the box but was denied by a fabulous last-ditch challenge from Mkandawire.
The last opening had passed by and the Gulls could travel home to Devon with a well-earned point.
Southend [4-4-2]: 17 Daniel Bentley; 2 Sean Clohessy, 28 Bilel Mohsni, 29 Tamika Mkandawire, 3 Anthony Straker; 27 Ben Reeves, 14 Kevan Hurst, 26 Marc Laird, 12 Matthew Lund; 7 Freddy Eastwood [21 Gavin Tomlin 72], 20 Britt Assombalonga. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Paul Smith [GK], 4 Michael Spillane, 18 Ryan Leonard, 19 John Spicer, 30 Alex Woodyard, 32 Seedy Njie.
United [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 16 Angus MacDonald, 21 Thomas Cruise; 25 Jordan Chapell [14 Lloyd Macklin 73], 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 24 Joss Labadie, 20 Nathan Craig [6 Damon Lathrope 85]; 15 Billy Bodin, 9 Rene Howe. Substitutes [not used]: 3 Kevin Nicholson, 8 Ryan Jarvis, 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 19 Danny Stevens.
Booked: Howe 20, Oastler 48, Labadie 57, Macklin 90
Referee: David Phillips