AFTER a difficult week for all at TQ1, United’s bid for League 2 survival took another blow with a 1-0 defeat to title-chasing Gillingham.
The result saw the Gills promoted, but more worryingly for the Yellow Army, saw Torquay drop to 22nd position, above the dreaded relegation places only on goal difference.
Following a barren first half, Danny Kedwell scored the only goal of the game on 48 minutes to condemn Alan Knill’s men to another painful defeat.
Knill fielded a very different side to the one which succumbed 3-1 at home to Bradford on Monday, both in terms of personnel and formation.
There were six new faces in the starting line-up, two of which were enforced - injured ‘keeper Michael Poke was replaced between the sticks by Martin Rice, whilst Joss Labadie’s midfield enforcer role was taken by Damon Lathrope following his unexpected recall by Notts County.
Angus MacDonald, Thomas Cruise, Ryan Jarvis and Elliot Benyon also dropped out, and were replaced by Aaron Downes, Kevin Nicholson, Ian Morris and Jordan Chapell in a 4-3-3 formation.
Gillingham manager Martin Allen just opted for the two changes from the side which secured a 1-0 home win over Rotherham last time out, with Bradley Dack and Adam Birchall taking the places vacated by Anton Robinson and match-winner Deon Burton.
The hosts began the game in confident mood, knowing that if results went their way, they could secure promotion in front of their own fans. In only the second minute, an attack down the left-hand side nearly brought an early goal for the Kent side, with Birchall letting flying from distance and clipping the top of Rice’s crossbar.
For the first ten minutes, United barely got out of their own half, and it was all hands to the pump amongst the defensive ranks to keep the Yellow ship afloat. For all their territorial advantage, the best chance of the early stages came against the run of play on 18 minutes.
A mazy run by Billy Bodin eventually found top scorer Rene Howe in space, whose drive hit the foot of the post. On the rebound, Bodin squared the ball back to Howe who was then denied by the boot of home ‘keeper Stuart Nelson.
Rice made a fine stop to deny Steven Gregory moments later, and was certainly seeing plenty of action in his rare run-out, although the players in front of him were doing their best to restrict their opponents to as few clear-cut chances as possible.
Birchall was proving a real threat for the Gills down the flanks, but the flurry of crosses into United’s penalty box was not of sufficient quality to really test the Yellow backline.
Five minutes before the interval, they were nearly punished for their profligacy, after captain Lee Mansell’s corner found recalled defender Downes unmarked. Unfortunately though, his header sailed well over the bar when well placed.
As the half time whistle sounded, Torquay could be proud of the way they had contained their more illustrious opponents, but as the Northampton game recently showed, they would also have been mindful that there was a lot more work ahead of them during the second period.
Any plans Knill had briefed his troops with during the interval went out the window within three minutes of the restart as Gillingham broke the deadlock.
A long ball forward from left-back Joe Martin found Kedwell, who beat Nicholson and volleyed past a stranded Rice to put the home side in front. Although the finish was sublime, the Gulls will be disappointed with the ease with which their defence was unlocked.
After dispelling any nerves of their own, the home side began to look increasingly comfortable following the goal, as United offered little support to lone targetman Howe. Knill had seen enough by 63 minutes and made an attack-minded double substitution, with Benyon and Jarvis entering the fray. Lathrope and Chapell made way.
Gillingham instantly set about making the game completely safe, with Rice preventing Chris Whelpdale from doubling the advantage.
With promotion looming, the Gills took every opportunity to slow the game down, and United failed to force the issue, with Nelson a virtual spectator for long periods. Whelpdale again came close to doubling the lead, as Nicholson’s deflection just forced the ball wide of the post with Rice wrong-footed.
The game was beginning to feel strangely low-key, and it became apparent that the best chance United had of saving themselves would be from a set piece, and it so nearly proved to be the case on 86 minutes.
After winning a free kick of the edge of the box, Nicholson fired in a trademark left-footed effort which smacked the bar and away to safety.
Five minutes of injury time were signalled, but despite plenty of huff and puff, did not prove long enough for Torquay to mount a concerted effort on the Gillingham goal.
The final whistle signalled a third successive defeat for the Gulls, who now have just three more fixtures remaining to save their League status. United must now focus on next week’s home clash against relegation rivals Barnet, where a positive result looks increasingly vital to the Yellow cause.
[4-3-3]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 6 Damon Lathrope [26 Elliot Benyon 63], 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 11 Ian Morris [23 Ashley Yeoman
90]; 25 Jordan Chapell [8 Ryan Jarvis 64], 9 Rene Howe, 15 Billy Bodin. Substitutes
[not used]: 16 Angus MacDonald, 20 Nathan Craig, 21 Thomas Cruise, 33 Conor Thompson [GK].