Bristol Rovers 1
ONE down, four to go.
United made the short trip to Bristol Rovers knowing only five wins to conclude the season would provide enough points to give the Gulls a chance of escaping relegation.
The first fifth of the miracle mission was completed by an excellent defensive display being rewarded by second-half strikes from Shaquile Coulthirst and Lee Mansell.
Rovers were beaten by a more determined and ruthless outfit, and even a last-gasp strike by Danny Woodards could not mask the truth of a splendid afternoon for the Yellows.
United boss Chris Hargreaves made four changes from the side beaten by Scunthorpe last weekend, three enforced and one strategic. The first switch was a return from suspension for Shamir Goodwin bumping Billy Bodin down to the bench.
Injuries to Karl Hawley, Damon Lathrope and Tom Cruise saw Ben Harding restored to midfield, Elliot Benyon chosen to partner Coulthirst in attack and loan defender Baily Cargill handed a debut at left-back.
Bristol Rovers manager Darrell Clarke also made four changes to his team after the 0-0 draw with Wimbledon seven days ago. Woodards, Alefe Santos, Steven Gillespie and Chris Beardsley all came in to replace Tom Parkes, Matt Harrold, Tom Lockyer and Seanan Clucas.
Before the game get under way, the world of football stopped to remember the 96 fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough Disaster 25 years ago, as all fixtures across the country were delayed by seven minutes as a mark of respect.
When the football did get under way, Rovers took just a couple of minutes to swing over a cross from Lee Brown and Beardsley sneaked in front of O’Connor but, mercifully, his header was off target.
Rovers won a corner soon after and another enticing delivery from Brown caused confusion in the Yellow box, and goalkeeper Martin Rice had to be alert in pouncing on the ball after a clearance from Krystian Pearce came close to an awkward own goal.
United were taking a while to adapt to the strong breeze in their faces and the home support helped in that cause, as a period of scrappy play in midfield prompted some grumbling on the terraces adding to the tension for Rovers.
The problem for the Gulls was stirring up some trouble for the Rovers’ defence and with Jayden Stockley out suspended, the smaller options in attack ruled out the effectiveness of a more direct approach in the wind.
It was, in truth, an opening half dominated by apprehension and a difficult playing surface at the Memorial Stadium. Rovers right-back Michael Smith tried to break out of the ordinary with a long-range drive that flew over the bar.
The pace of Goodwin then tested Brown at the other end and the home defender did well to get a foot on the ball. United won a free-kick moments later and Courtney Cameron’s swinging cross was just too far for Pearce at the back-post.
United ended a turgid first period with a snap-shot from Benyon bringing the first save of the day from Steve Mildenhall after the chance had been created by Cameron winning a header from a long pass by Harding.
The second period kicked-off in frantic fashion for Mildenhall, as an audacious effort by Goodwin had the home ‘keeper at full stretch to turn wide for a corner, from which Benyon tried to bundle the ball over the line but was thwarted by good cover from Smith.
Rovers were briefly on the rack and struggling to offer much threat in forward areas. As with United, a set-piece seemed to offer the best chance of a home breakthrough and Mark McChrystal almost proved the point with a volley off target from Brown’s corner.
Clarke had seen enough to shuffle his pack, introducing Matt Harrold to the attack in place of the quiet Steven Gillespie, while Santos made way for Ellis Harrison on the right wing.
The new men injected some impetus and enthusiasm into the home crowd, but the magnificent Yellow Army were the ones enjoying their afternoon from the next attack.
Cameron was the architect with a delightful cross from a free-kick and a darting run across his man from Coulthirst was rewarded with a huge goal for United. The youngster on loan launched himself at the ball and was rewarded with a crucial opener on the hour-mark.
It was the first time the Gulls had hit the net in five games and the immediate priority shifted to maintaining the lead, and captain Mansell read the script with a terrific clearance from a dangerous ball into the Yellow penalty area.
A determined run from Goodwin earned United another free-kick and another opportunity for Cameron to deliver with his left foot, and the low cross was crying out for somebody at the back post to just touch the ball over the line.
A succession of corners for United had the combined effect of easing any pressure on the Yellow defence and creating more opportunities to get that vital second goal.
It eventually arrived from the skipper picking up on a clever exchange between Cargill and Coulthirst, lashing the ball toward goal and a wicked deflection beat Mildenhall for a rare cushion for United to enjoy.
Clarke immediately introduced David Clarkson for Brown but United were in control, and Hargreaves had the luxury of withdrawing the tiring Cameron for the fresh legs of Danny Stevens.
Rovers looked bereft of ideas and confidence, and it was huge credit to the hard work in Yellow ranks. The better team was ahead and an early mass exodus of home supporters told the story of the day.
Kaid Mohamed waited until the last minute before finding space for a shot but Rice was equal to the effort with a comfortable and three massive points were travelling back down the road to sunny South Devon.
There was, however, one final twist with Hargreaves looking at his watch, as a superb save from Rice fell to Woodards to sneak over a scant consolation for the home side.
Dagenham travel to Plainmoor on Good Friday – bring it on.
Bristol Rovers [4-4-2]: 1 Steve Mildenhall; 2 Michael Smith, 4 Danny Woodards, 29 Mark McChrystal [capt], 14 Lee Brown [7 David Clarkson 76]; 39 Kaid Mohamed, 24 Ollie Clarke, 32 John-Joe O’Toole, 33 Alefe Santos [17 Ellis Harrison 55]; 8 Steven Gillespie [9 Matt Harrold 55], 19 Chris Beardsley. Substitutes [not used]: 6 Tom Parkes, 20 Conor Gough [GK], 25 Seanan Clucas, 30 Tom Lockyer.
Booked: O’Toole 40, Woodards 59, Clarke 86
United [4-4-2]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 30 Baily Cargill; 17 Shamir Goodwin, 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 8 Ben Harding, 11 Courtney Cameron [23 Danny Stevens 81]; 26 Elliot Benyon [4 Aaron Downes 90], 27 Shaquile Coulthirst. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Michael Poke [GK], 10 Billy Bodin, 12 Jordan Chapell, 14 Ashley Yeoman, 20 Nathan Craig.
Booked: Goodwin 37
Referee: Andy D’urso