THE League 2 table now says that United are bottom but the real story from a hugely encouraging night at Plainmoor is one of hope and enthusiasm for the closing months of this tumultuous season.
The Gulls were vastly improved in all areas of the pitch and played with terrific tempo to earn a fully deserved draw against promotion-chasing Burton Albion, and the one point earned could so easily have been all three.
Arguably the most pleasing aspect was the fact United ignored the disappointment of falling behind to a Damien McCrory strike on the half-hour to quickly equalise through Elliot Benyon and the TQ1 residents went home content that the endeavour was matched by no shortage of quality.
On a night of changes for the Gulls, manager Chris Hargreaves first switched the dug-outs used by each team and also opted to warm up at the Babbacombe end in a move designed to freshen up the home approach.
When it came to the team sheet, six new faces were introduced from the side that lost 1-0 to Accrington on Saturday. Aaron Downes was recalled to centre-back, with Anthony O’Connor shifting over to right-back and Dale Tonge dropping to the bench. Kevin Nicholson replaced Tom Cruise at
A brand new three-man midfield said a brief goodbye to the suspended Joss Labadie and injured captain Lee Mansell. Damon Lathrope was restored to the anchor role, with Ben Harding playing just in front and also wearing the skipper’s armband in his first appearance after five months out through
Danny Stevens was given his first start since rejoining the Gulls in January, bumping Jordan Chapell down to the bench. Benyon was preferred to Karl Hawley as strike-partner for young Conor Wilkinson.
Burton boss Gary Rowett made three changes to the side defeated at Bristol Rovers on Friday night. Chris Hussey, Jimmy Phillips and former Gull Billy Kee were the trio to miss out, replaced by David Gray, McCrory and Gary Alexander.
A positive start from the Gulls had Plainmoor purring with anticipation in the first couple of minutes, as the persistence of Shamir Goodwin earned a corner and a darting run ended with a hurried near-post clearance by McCrory.
Burton responded with a determined down the right from Gray and he forced the ball to Adam McGurk on the edge of the area, who spun quickly and stabbed a shot goalward but Michael Poke safely collected the shot.
Despite the visitors’ foray, United were playing the brighter football and a surge from Stevens ended with Benyon spinning to shoot in the area. The ball popped up and appeared to strike the hand of Shane Cansdell-Sherriff, but referee Brendan Malone waved away vociferous penalty appeals.
The Gulls continued to operate at a high tempo and the improvement from Saturday was not lost on the Yellow Army, who cheered every tackle, pass and header with the enthusiasm of a crowd desperate to back their side.
Poke was kept keen by a dipping cross from Robbie Weir but United’s custodian, who yesterday became a father for the second time, gobbled up the ball with the sort of assurance that gives his defence confidence.
At the other end, Stevens was having a decent game in a more central role to the winger who made his name at Plainmoor in previous years and with Benyon causing problems down the right, it all looked positive, but then a calamitous moment.
Phil Edwards swung over a routine deep cross and Alexander tussled for the header with Krystian Pearce, but the ball dropped perfectly for McCrory to smash past the exposed Poke from 10 yards.
It was a painfully soft goal to concede after 30 minutes of hope but United managed to create a glorious opening to equalise, as Wilkinson dinked a clever ball inside Gray at right-back but Goodwin’s stabbed effort hit the side-netting.
The youngster on loan should have had a go with his left foot and forced a save from Rob Lainton but the Burton goalkeeper was beaten by a fine goal moments later.
Harding was the instigator, swivelling neatly on the left flank and whipping over a perfect cross for the unmarked Benyon to stoop and direct an excellent header inside the far corner, sending Plainmoor wild with relief, and belief.
To their credit, Burton quickly wiped away the disappointment with a rasping drive from distance by Zeli Ismail shaving the crossbar, and Poke was then quickly off his line to thwart McGurk from the next attack.
United trundled happily into the half-time break with the warm feeling that only comes from a decent display and the Yellow Army, despite low numbers, were in full voice for the start of the second period.
Speculative crosses from O’Connor and Nicholson brought out the best from the visiting defence, and Ian Sharps showed his danger at the other end, rising highest from an Ismail corner to head narrowly wide.
It was perhaps a sign of United’s relative control that Rowett decided to change his strike-force just 10 minutes after the restart, removing Alexander and McGurk for the fresh legs of Kee and Dominic Knowles.
Hargreaves responded by sending on Jayden Stockley for Wilkinson and the new man took less than a minute to latch onto a pass from the excellent Lathrope, but the clipped cross to Harding was cut out by the retreating Gray.
Chances had become a rarity for both sides, prompting an ambitious grasscutter from distance by Harding that was easy for Lainton, but the encouragement for United was a solid looking back four in Yellow.
In a tight game with very little space in behind, Goodwin was presented with a chance to break after an incisive pass from Harding, but the youngster opted to come inside on his favoured right foot, allowing the Burton backline to recover.
A Nicholson corner seconds later picked out the back-post run of Harding, but his header was a fraction too high and the Brewers created their clearest chance from the next attack.
Once again, a hopeful ball from the right caused problems for United and Knowles latched onto the knock-down from Kee, but the weak attempt was turned away by the flailing legs of Poke.
Stevens came off to rich and deserved applause on 73 minutes, with Billy Bodin the readymade replacement but, soon after, the Gulls were again grateful to the outstanding Lathrope for yet another superb interception.
Kee forced Poke into a super tip over the bar on 82 minutes as both sides continued to search for a valuable three points at opposite ends of the table. The game entered a crucial closing stage with the fresh legs of Chapell replacing Goodwin.
Alex MacDonald came on for Ismail in the dying seconds and there was still time for Gray to force a decent low save from Poke.
The final drama of a thrilling night was a free-kick won on the edge of the area after yet more persistent work from the excellent Harding, and Bodin was painfully unfortunate to see his low curler drift inches wide.
United [4-3-3]: 1 Michael Poke; 29 Anthony O’Connor, 4 Aaron Downes, 5 Krystian Pearce, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 23 Danny Stevens (10 Billy Bodin 74), 6 Damon Lathrope, 8 Ben Harding; 26 Elliot Benyon, 27 Conor Wilkinson (19 Jayden Stockley 59), 17 Shamir Goodwin (12 Jordan Chapell 87). Substitutes [not used]: 2 Dale Tonge, 9 Karl Hawley, 11 Courtney Cameron, 13 Martin Rice [GK].
Burton [4-4-2]: 1 Rob Lainton, 26 David Gray, 6 Ian Sharps [capt], 25 Shane Cansdell-Sherriff, 14 Damien McCrory; 8 Robbie Weir, 2 Phil Edwards, 23 Matt Palmer, 19 Zeli Ismail (11 Alex MacDonald 90); 9 Gary Alexander (29 Billy Kee 55), 20 Adam McGurk (18 Dominic Knowles 55). Substitutes [not used]: 7 Lee Bell, 16 Dean Lyness [GK], 17 Jimmy Phillips, 21 Marcus Holness.
Referee: Brendan Malone
Attendance:1,585 (31 away).