ONCE again in this season of painful repetition, United failed to score when dominating the game and were hit by a suckerpunch.
Accrington Stanley were the latest beneficiaries, as Kal Naismith struck with ten minutes remaining to give the visitors a priceless win in their own fight against the drop.
For the Gulls, it was a bitter blow in the battle for survival and it is a battle that can only be won if chances are taken. United can take heart from a powerful second-half performance but the ball has to start hitting the net.
United manager Chris Hargreaves threw in a couple of surprise exclusions on his team sheet, with both Damon Lathrope and Jayden Stockley missing from the squad. Conor Wilkinson made his full debut as a strike partner to the recalled Karl Hawley.
The chopping around ended with a reversion to a 4-4-2 formation and the bench included a return for Elliot Benyon alongside Danny Stevens, who was in line for his first Yellow appearance since initially leaving Plainmoor last summer. Courtney Cameron was the other man to miss out from the
squad of 18 beaten at Chesterfield last weekend.
Accrington boss James Beattie made two changes from the midweek draw at home to Bury. Laurence Wilson was sent off on Tuesday and his subsequent ban handed the left-back spot to Michael Liddle. The other switch saw George Bowerman preferred to Danny Webber in attack.
After weeks of torrential rain and pitch concerns, both teams were clearly relieved to start the game in pleasant sunshine and on a semi-decent playing surface that was showing signs of recovery following a relentless battering from the elements.
The visitors started the brighter team and a sweeping ball down the line allowed Lee Molyneux to drop his shoulder on Dale Tonge before delivering a low cross to the near post, where Krystian Pearce was on hand to clear.
Shamir Goodwin, scorer of a fabulous goal at Chesterfield seven days ago, was the first in Yellow to have a pop but his shot from distance dipped safely wide of Marcus Bettinelli’s near post.
Given the significance of the game, it was perhaps a surprise that proceedings lacked any real tempo in the opening 15 minutes, although a long throw from Nicky Hunt did force Michael Poke into a tip over his own bar after the ball had flicked off the head of United defender Anthony O’Connor.
The same Gull then found himself in the left channel and with a chance to attack Hunt at full-back but a heavy touch saw the ball drift out of play. Joss Labadie found space on the opposite flank moments later but Liddle cut out the cross.
In a tense atmosphere, Molyneux had a speculative shot from a 35-yard free-kick and the ball scuttled through the crowded penalty area, with United mighty relieved the visitors were unable to find an outstretched foot to test Poke.
Wilkinson took 25 minutes to show his threat but it was still welcome, as the tall forward on loan from Bolton turned neatly, ran at the Stanley defence and let fly with a grasscutter off his favoured left side, forcing Bettinelli into a fairly comfortable save.
Hawley was next to have a run at the Stanley defence, twisting viciously on the edge of the box but credit to former United loanee Tom Aldred for watching the ball closely and executing a fine block on the final shot.
Plainmoor took a massive deep breath on 38 minutes, as a cross from the right found the darting run of Kayode Odejayi but the big striker was unable to get strong contact on a glorious chance, and Poke dived full length to punch clear from under his own bar.
Accrington finished the first half as the team on top and Poke was again forced to punch after a whipped free-kick from the dangerous left boot of Molyneux. United were playing nervous football and the half-time whistle gave Hargreaves a chance to galvanise his troops.
Kevin Nicholson replaced Cruise for the second period and Goodwin switched wings with Chapell, as the Gulls looked to change the dynamic of the game. The new man had a couple of free-kicks to deliver early in the half but both were well caught by Bettinelli.
A searing run down the right from Goodwin had the Yellow Army bubbling with nervous excitement but when the ball reached Chapell on the opposite wing, Hunt had sufficiently recovered his ground to make a strong challenge.
The pace of Goodwin was looking more of a menace for Liddle at left-back and his ball inside to Lee Mansell gave the captain room to clip in a cross for Labadie, who was unlucky to see his header float narrowly over.
United were a vastly improved unit and a clever swivel from Wilkinson gave the youngster room to exploit and the eventual shot had too much venom for Bettinelli to hold. The TQ1 residents were suddenly making proper noise again.
Nicholson delivered the next corner with real pace and Labadie rose highest at the back post to steer a header inside the near post, but Liddle did well to hoof clear from his own goal-line. Accrington responded with a Molyneux corner headed over by Odejayi.
The Gulls were playing with better verve and purpose than the visitors, prompting a first change from Beattie, withdrawing the ineffective Bowerman for Naismith. Moments later, Pearce found a super challenge to thwart Odejayi following a slip from O’Connor.
Referee Simon Hooper then had Hargreaves seething with anger, as Labadie cushioned a high ball into the box, turned sharply and appeared to be shoved from behind. Not only did Hooper ignore penalty claims but also booked Labadie, who now faced the prospect a two-game suspension for
reaching 10 cautions in the season.
It was the start of a devastating spell for United, as Accrington took full advantage with a killer goal from Naismith. The Gulls were guilty of backing off on the edge of the area and the substitute used the space to steer a neat left-foot shot inside the far corner.
United were suddenly in a desperate position and Goodwin grasped the problem with a stinging shot deflected inches wide. Hargreaves then removed Hawley and the hobbling Mansell for Aidan O’Brien and a second Yellow debut for Stevens.
Nicholson whipped over another fizzing corner with five minutes remaining and a combination of Pearce and Labadie tried to bundle the ball home, but Liddle was again in the right place to hack the ball away.
Game over, and United must now make quick amends at home to Burton on Tuesday night.
Gulls [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 21 Thomas Cruise (3 Kevin Nicholson H-T); 17 Shamir Goodwin, 18 Joss Labadie, 7 Lee Mansell [capt] (23 Danny Stevens 84), 12 Jordan Chapell; 9 Karl Hawley (25 Aidan O’Brien), 27 Conor Wilkinson. Substitutes [not used]: 4 Aaron Downes, 8 Ben Harding, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 26 Elliot Benyon.
Booked:Cruise 40, Labadie 72
Accrington [4-4-2]: 26 Marcus Bettinelli; 16 Nicky Hunt, 6 Dean Winnard, 5 Tom Aldred, 3 Michael Liddle; 15 Piero Mingoia, 4 Luke Joyce [capt], 2 Peter Murphy, 13 Lee Molyneux; 24 Kayode Odejayi, 44 George Bowerman (11 Kal Naismith 69). Substitutes [not used]: 7 Shay McCartan, 10 Will Hatfield, 17 James Gray, 20 Josh Windass, 25 Rob Atkinson, 33 Max Hazeldine.
Booked:Hunt 48, Joyce 74
Referee: Simon Hooper
Attendance: 2,218 [ away].