THE new era at Torquay United following the departure of manager Alan Knill really should have begun with three points.
United played superbly well and dominated for large periods against the visitors from Morecambe, but had to settle for a draw after a terrific late leveller by Robbie Threlfall.
Australian Aaron Downes had given the Gulls a deserved lead on 17 minutes and the post-script for this game will talk about squandered chances to double the advantage. When the second goal failed to arrive, the visitors took their chance.
United’s caretaker boss, Geoff Harrop, wasted no time in making his mark, recalling Damon Lathrope from his loan at Hereford and signing former Yellow favourite Joss Labadie in a one-month deal from Notts County.
Both men slotted straight into midfield, bumping Jak McCourt and Damien Mozika down to the bench. Elliot Benyon was also restored to the front-line as partner to Karl Hawley, with Jordan Chapell the man to miss out.
Yellow changes continued at the back, where Kevin Nicholson returned after being out of favour under Knill. Tom Cruise was, therefore, able to rest the knee that troubled his Christmas period.
On the opposite defensive flank, Dale Tonge also dropped out for a much-needed break. Anthony O’Connor shifted over to right-back and Krystian Pearce returned to the heart of United’s defence.
Morecambe manager Jim Bentley also rung the changes, leaving out Chris Doyle, Tony Diagne, Stewart Drummond and Joe Mwasile from the New Year’s Day defeat to York. The new faces were Threlfall, Alex Kenyon, Jack Redshaw and Joe McGee.
The attacking verve Harrop promised before the game was wonderfully evident in the opening exchanges and Billy Bodin continued his expansive form on a difficult surface.
A match that was in serious doubt on Friday and passed two pitch inspections on Saturday, burst into life on eight minutes, with the lively Benyon finding a pass for O’Connor on the right.
The Irishman whipped over a delightful cross and Bodin, making a late surge into the box, was extremely unlucky to see his tidy downward header superbly saved by the giant Barry Roche in Morecambe’s goal.
The visitors had their first sniff of Michael Poke’s goal on 15 minutes, when a Threlfall corner toward the near post was glanced narrowly over by Shrimps’ skipper Mark Hughes.
United quickly returned to the right end of the pitch for a Bodin shot deflected wide. Lathrope hung up an inviting corner and Downes rose in trademark fashion to plant a powerful header into the sodden ground and past Roche.
The ball crept beautifully inside the far post and the positive air inside Plainmoor rose a further notch, although Threlfall soon had the Yellow Army gasping in mild relief after his stinging shot from distance flew a foot wide.
It was momentary relief for a Morecambe team quaking under relentless United pressure. Bodin was crowded out from a shot in a busy area before O’Connor returned the ball with a deep cross nodded on to the top of the bar by a lurking Benyon.
In defensive areas, on a boggy pitch, the Yellow approach was understandably robust, with Nicholson and O’Connor launching the ball forward at every opportunity. One Morecambe foray that wasn’t fully cleared fell to Andrew Fleming 25 yards from goal, but his steered effort was far too high.
After a decent spell of Morecambe possession, United broke the shackles when O’Connor picked up the ball and flashed over another fizzing delivery. Hawley attacked the cross and the ball ricocheted in the air, with Roche only just scrambling across to save the situation.
As a terrific first-half in tough conditions drew to a close, the Gulls maintained their positive intent and Lathrope was playing a pivotal role in the heart of midfield, breaking up Morecambe attacks and using the ball efficiently when in possession.
Plainmoor rose in appreciation as the half-time whistle sounded and the chip-tray chatter was all about a renewed energy and purpose in United’s play.
For their part, Morecambe needed to improve the tempo and Threlfall sought to inject some hope with a decent curler from distance that dipped narrowly wide in the opening act of the second period.
United immediately responded by throwing men forward and, more importantly, getting crosses in the box, which gave the Shrimps a problem to solve every single time. It was percentage football and perfect for the conditions.
There was a real buzz around the ground but also a warning from Morecambe that too many touches would be fatal on this pitch. Bodin was caught out a couple of time, as the Shrimps started biting into tackles with increasing ferocity.
As with the first-half, proper execution from wide areas was hugely important and Nicholson was having a super game down the left. One of many dangerous deliveries found the darting run of Bodin on 67 minutes but the young Welshman guided his header well wide.
Bentley had seen enough, turning to his bench for the introduction of Drummond and striker Padraig Amond, replacing McGee and Kevin Ellison for the final 20 minutes.
Morecambe soon began to turn up the heat and the outstanding Lathrope was now making tackles all over the park. Credit also to Pearce, who was enjoying a solid return to life in the first-team.
The Gulls broke the briefly worrying pattern with a tremendous pass wide to Nicholson and the ball eventually fell to Bodin for a decent shot speared over. Benyon then sliced wide from a decent position, as United looked to exploit the space behind Morecambe’s tiring defence.
Bodin’s next chance really was gilt-edged. One-on-one with the retreating Hughes, who slipped on the turf but United’s mercurial forward opted for an early shot that flew over when the opportunity was ripe to bear down on the exposed Roche.
United’s relative dominance and total desire fully warranted a second goal but when it failed to arrive, there was always that nagging concern Morecambe would conjure a late equaliser. Harrop’s answer to the threat was the removal of Bodin for the more combative Mozika.
Moments later, Yellow hearts were broken in half by a flash of brilliance from the left foot of Threlfall. Nicholson made a brave block in the build-up but when the ball bounced to the full-back 22 yards from goal, Threlfall's fabulous effort with the outside of his boot curled beyond Poke and into the
After a brutal Christmas period, energy levels were suddenly on the floor and it took an almighty effort from the Gulls to keep bursting forward in search of a crucial winner.
The next goal sadly failed to materialise but well done to everyone for a brave performance. Whoever the next manager at Torquay United turns out to be, he will have a committed group of players fighting his corner.
In the meantime, congratulations to Geoff Harrop for sending out a team that had Plainmoor smiling in the mud.
United [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 29 Anthony O’Connor, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 6 Damon Lathrope, 18 Joss Labadie, 10 Billy Bodin (36 Damien Mozika 80); 9 Karl Hawley, 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 2 Dale Tonge, 12 Jordan Chapell, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 17 Jak McCourt, 20 Nathan Craig, 31 Daniel Sullivan.
Morecambe [4-4-2]: 1 Barry Roche; 22 Andrew Parrish, 5 Mark Hughes [capt], 15 Chris McCready, 3 Robbie Threlfall; 11 Kevin Ellison (27 Padraig Amond 69), 4 Alex Kenyon, 19 Joe McGee (16 Stewart Drummond 69), 17 Andrew Fleming; 7 Jack Redshaw, 9 Jack Sampson. Substitutes [not used]: 6 Tony Diagne, 20 Joe Mwasile, 21 Aaron McGowan, 23 Chris Doyle, 25 Andreas Arestidou [GK].
Booked:Threlfall 26, McGee 49, Hughes 66
Referee: Gavin Ward
Attendance:2,004 (26 away).