CHRIS Hargreaves is the toast of Torbay after starting his tenure as United manager with a fabulous 2-0 win at AFC Wimbledon.
Both goals were scored in an impressive first period in the Capital that saw Krystian Pearce smash home his second of the season on 29 minutes and then Jayden Stockley notched his first in Yellow just before half-time.
Wimbledon cranked up the pressure after the break but the Gulls never looked like ceding their advantage, and eventually coasted to a win that will fire a huge dose of belief through every player in the United squad.
The first team selection in the managerial career of Hargreaves saw one change from the side that started in the 1-1 draw with Morecambe last weekend under the guidance of caretaker boss Geoff Harrop.
Hargreaves dropped Billy Bodin down to the bench, opting for powerful loan striker Stockley to lead the line, flanked by Elliot Benyon and Karl Hawley in a three-man attack. The Yellow bench also contained Shamir Goodwin, a young striker signed on loan from Brighton less than 24 hours before kick-off.
Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley made two changes to the team that demolished Wycombe 3-0 seven days ago. Harry Pell and the suspended Jim Fenlon missed out, with George Francomb and Callum Kennedy coming into the team.
The first sniff at goal for either side was an ambitious and skewed volley from a tight angle by Benyon. United’s next effort was an opportunistic strike from distance by left-back Kevin Nicholson that flew narrowly over Ross Worner’s crossbar.
The game soon settled into gentle sparring in the pleasant surroundings of winter sunshine in South London and Hargreaves would be pleased with the composed start made by his new troops.
Wimbledon waited 14 minutes for their first effort but a hopeful strike from Francomb was well wide. A free-kick from the left then provided Charlie Midson with a chance to nod at goal but the effort was too high to trouble Michael Poke in United’s goal.
Given the significance of the game for the Gulls and with Wimbledon flirting around the play-off zone, there was a strangely sedate feel to proceedings, although Aaron Downes threatened to inject some life with a glancing header from Nicholson’s set-piece.
A terrific covering challenge from Damon Lathrope maintained the equilibrium after Charlie Wyke skipped past Pearce on 28 minutes, as Hargreaves and assistant manager Lee Hodges held quiet discussions on the afternoon’s work.
The duo were jumping for joy moments later, as Nicholson whipped in a superb cross and Stockley executed a fine volley that forced Worner into a stunning save but Pearce was waiting for the rebound.
Despite his day-job as a centre-back, Pearce lashed an unstoppable finish into the roof of the net with the technique of a seasoned striker, which was made even more impressive by the fact the ball came to him at an awkward height.
Wimbledon responded with a swift burst forward from Barry Fuller on the right and Poke left his line to paw the cross clear, but only for Luke Moore on the edge of the box, who, thankfully, steered his instinctive shot over.
The Gulls now needed to dig in and maintain their lead to half-time but a period of sloppy passing allowed the Dons to gradually build some momentum in what had been a tepid first half from the home side.
A dangerous cross from Sammy Moore was expertly cleared by Anthony O’Connor on 40 minutes and the next Wimbledon foray was hacked clear in uncompromising fashion by Downes.
United then strung together a wonderful flowing move down the right. Joss Labadie ended the sequence by feeding the ball right to O’Connor, who crossed deep to the far post, where Stockley was perfectly positioned to nod home.
It was a confident finish from the young forward but an equal portion of praise should go to Benyon, who started the move by holding up the ball in the central area, allowing a stream of Yellow shirts to burst beyond the home defence for the crucial second goal.
United were suddenly playing with huge belief and Lathrope provided the evidence with a well-struck drive from distance that flew narrowly wide to conclude a marvellous 45 minutes of football.
Ardley showed his frustration by making two changes at half-time, removing Alan Bennett and Luke Moore for the speedy pair of Kevin Sainte-Luce and Chris Arthur.
Despite the reshuffle, it was United who started brighter after the interval, with O’Connor, Stockley and captain Lee Mansell weaving a lovely triangle in the right channel that needed a hurried clearance from the Dons.
The pace of Sainte-Luce then earned the home side a free-kick on the right wing and the inswinging delivery by Francomb prompted a powerful punched clearance from a decisive Poke.
Wimbledon were obviously desperate for the next goal to give their fans a lift and Hargreaves probably sensed the danger presented by Sainte-Luce bombing down the right against Nicholson, who was playing on the tightrope of an earlier booking.
Despite the understandable intent from the home side, United remained fairly comfortable as a defensive unit, although Wyke did go close with a header from a whipped cross by Sainte-Luce.
The Gulls decided to relieve the mild pressure by plodding up the other end for a corner, again fizzed over with real venom by Nicholson and Downes was very unlucky to see his header shave the crossbar.
Nicholson stayed forward for the next Yellow attack and his deep cross travelled all the way to O’Connor on the opposite wing, and the Irishman returned the ball for Benyon, who headed wide under heavy pressure.
Wimbledon regained the impetus with good work by Sammy Moore but the Gulls stayed strong at the back, with Yellow eyes peering in hope at a clock that showed 15 minutes remaining before Hargreaves and Hodges could celebrate a tremendous debut.
Downes produced a brave last-ditch tackle to protect the advantage after Will Antwi found space from a corner but the Australian’s next clearance was truly unbelievable. Francomb had Poke beaten with his shot and was wheeling away with joy when Downes somehow turned the ball over for a
Bodin was introduced for Stockley to give the Gulls fresh legs in forward areas but the action was now all at the other end of the field, and Downes was again the main man in heading clear a Sainte-Luce corner.
United had done more than enough for a thoroughly deserved win and Hargreaves, plus everyone else with a Yellow heart, can look forward to a massive game with Northampton at Plainmoor next weekend.
Wimbledon [4-4-2]: 1 Ross Worner; 2 Barry Fuller, 14 Will Antwi, 6 Alan Bennett [19 Chris Arthur H-T], 5 Andy Frampton; 7 George Francomb, 8 Sammy Moore, 11 Luke Moore [16 Kevin Sainte-Luce H-T], 3 Callum Kennedy; 10 Charlie Midson, 26 Charlie Wyke. Substitutes [not used]: 18 Charlie Sheringham, 22 Seb Brown [GK], 25 Chace Jacquart, 27 Aaron Morris, 32 Will Nightingale.
Booked: Sammy Moore 41, Fuller 89
United [4-3-3]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Anthony O’Connor, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 6 Damon Lathrope, 18 Joss Labadie; 9 Karl Hawley, 19 Jayden Stockley [10 Billy Bodin 81], 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 2 Dale Tonge, 11 Courtney Cameron, 12 Jordan Chapell, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 17 Shamir Goodwin, 20 Nathan Craig.
Booked: Mansell 31, Nicholson 53, Lathrope 73
Referee: Darren Deadman
Attendance: 4,339 [402 away].