CONGRATULATIONS to Torquay United.
Everybody connected with the club should be hugely proud of a magnificent 2-1 win over promotion-chasing Rochdale and it was richly deserved.
The Gulls ignored some appalling decisions from the referee and obvious quality in visiting ranks to take the lead through Krystian Pearce on 17 minutes.
United could have been out of sight before half-time but were hit by a sucker-punch from Jamie Allen just before half-time.
It could have been the defining moment but Joss Labadie popped up with a vital winner nine minutes from time, and the Gulls travel to Cheltenham on Saturday with hopes of the great escape well and truly alive.
United boss Chris Hargreaves made two changes from the side narrowly beaten by Fleetwood on the weekend, as Lee Mansell and Karl Hawley dropped down to the bench.
The Gulls switched to a conventional 4-4-2 formation, which meant a return to the wing for fit-again Shamir Goodwin and Courtney Cameron won his first start on the opposite flank since December. Pearce took the captain’s armband in the absence of Mansell.
Rochdale manager Keith Hill was forced into a complete change of strike-force from the side that started the 0-0 draw at Bury last Friday. Scott Hogan was injured at Gigg Lane and Ian Henderson sent off, paving the way for former Plymouth striker George Donnelly to start alongside George
As expected for a side at the top of the table, Rochdale started with some bright football and United were grateful to some excellent tracking by Goodwin and a terrific recovery tackle from Kevin Nicholson to repel the early danger.
The Gulls responded with strong work down the right from Dale Tonge allowing Enoch Showunmi to skip inside his man, and when Oliver Lancashire nicked the ball off his toes, Elliot Benyon had a glorious chance to open the scoring.
The opportunity was perfect for a left-foot finish but Benyon cut back on his favoured right, which provided Dale with enough time to deflect the eventual shot wide. The subsequent corner fell to Goodwin on the edge of the box but Josh Lillis was equal to the stinging low drive.
Referee Graham Horwood had to make a massive decision on 15 minutes and he got it scandalously wrong. A long ball forward was flicked on by Showunmi and Benyon was the wrong side of his man.
Lancashire panicked, thrust out an arm and clearly handled the ball. Furious flag-waving from the assistant alerted the ref and the whole ground could see it was a red card for preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity, but Horwood, frankly, bottled it and showed a yellow.
United’s indignation swiftly turned to delight, as Cameron floated over a fabulous free-kick for Pearce to nod home the first goal. A brilliant start for the Gulls but they should have been facing the next 74 minutes against 10 men.
Horwood added to his own nightmare evening by failing to spot another handball from the next Yellow attack. Benyon found space in the right channel and saw his dinked cross blocked by the hand of Matt Done in the box.
Plainmoor was roaring for a penalty but Horwood had more up his sleeve, as the Gulls surged forward again and a superb Benyon cross was spilled by Lillis. Goodwin leapt on the loose ball and tried to force it home, but a prostrate Jack O’Connell blocked the effort with, you guessed it, what
appeared to be an arm.
Three major decisions had gone against United and it was massive credit to the players for still leading the game, despite the horror show from the officials. Rochdale were rattled and Plainmoor was bouncing.
The Gulls then came close to throwing away their excellent start, as confusion between Martin Rice and his defenders allowed Peter Vincenti to nip in behind and float a deep cross to Donnelly at the back post. The header was directed back across goal but Rice made immediate amends with a fine save.
Slowly but surely, Rochdale regained a foothold in the game and Rice did well to parry a pile-driver from Peter Cavanagh, but the rebound was worked back into the box and the Gulls were static as Allen bundled home an ugly equaliser.
It was cruel on United but still a bad goal to concede, although Showunmi came within an inch of restoring the Yellow lead moments later, as his thundering half-volley smashed away off the foot of the near-post.
A breathless 45 minutes of football came to an end with every Gull inside TQ1 bemused at how their team was level, both in terms of goals and players left on the pitch.
It was imperative United dismissed the feelings of injustice against the referee for a massive second half and the message was heeded with a decent Aaron Downes header flying wide from Cameron’s free-kick.
The game slipped into a mild lull for the next 10 minutes until a barnstorming 60-yard run from Cameron won United a free-kick just outside the box, and the same Gull was unfortunate to see his flashing delivery headed clear.
Pressure on the Rochdale goal was slowly increasing and Labadie did well to squeeze in a shot from distance that was held by Lillis. There was no denying that United were playing well and a lot of that was down to a powerful performance from Showunmi in ruffling the visiting centre-backs.
The man on loan from Notts County was also causing trouble for Lillis, rising high from a Nicholson pump forward to force a bundle by the Dale custodian, but the loose ball refused to fall for Yellow feet.
Hill was ready to make his first change on 69 minutes, replacing the impressive Allen for Reece Gray and the new man was almost celebrating with his team-mates within seconds, as a dangerous Michael Rose free-kick was headed against the post by Lancashire.
Rochdale were beginning to turn the screw and Porter was removed for Joe Bunney with 12 minutes left on the clock. Hargreaves, meanwhile, introduced Jayden Stockley for Showunmi in the push for victory.
Seconds later, United were in front and it all stemmed from fantastic determined work down the wing from Goodwin. Barging through numerous tackles, his deep cross was aimed for Stockley and Rochdale could only half clear.
Damon Lathrope was on the edge of the area to prod the ball goalwards and a huge deflection wrong-footed Lillis, who did well to stop the shot, but Labadie pounced to smash home from three yards and Plainmoor erupted.
Rochdale threw on Graham Cummins for Rose but TQ1 was alive with screams of ‘Yellow Army’, and a monumental block from Pearce to deny a certain equaliser merely heightened the excitement, and the tension.
Lancashire then received a second yellow card and the subsequent red for a foul on Benyon. Better late than never Mr Horwood, and the Dale centre-back can be grateful for spending 72 more minutes on the pitch than should have been allowed.
Possibly the best thing about a memorable night was the fact United were not desperately clinging onto the win, it was three massively deserved points and we have hope.
And we believe.
United [4-4-2]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce [capt], 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 17 Shamir Goodwin, 6 Damon Lathrope, 18 Joss Labadie, 11 Courtney Cameron; 25 Enoch Showunmi (19 Jayden Stockley 80), 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Michael Poke [GK], 7 Lee Mansell, 8 Ben Harding, 9 Karl Hawley, 23 Danny Stevens, 29 Anthony O’Connor.
Rochdale [4-4-2]: 1 Josh Lillis; 2 Joe Rafferty, 6 Oliver Lancashire, 22 Jack O’Connell, 16 Matt Done; 7 Peter Vincenti, 4 Peter Cavanagh, 24 Jamie Allen (10 Reece Gray 69), 25 Michael Rose (29 Graham Cummins 84); 9 George Donnelly, 15 George Porter (39 Joe Bunney 78). Substitutes [not used]: 5 Ashley Eastham, 8 Jason Kennedy, 12 Matt Lund, 21 Robbie Thompson [GK].
Referee: Graham Horwood
Attendance: 1,627 (99 away).