Bristol Rovers 2
BOXING Day football is a wonderful British tradition and howling conditions merely added to the mix on a day of mud, blood and, eventually, disappointment at the Launa Windows Stadium.
Bristol Rovers continued their excellent recent form to overcome a United side struggling to reach the heights of earlier in the season and two first-half goals from Matty Taylor and Neal Trotman proved too much of a mountain climb.
Duane Ofori-Acheampong did pull one back with a scrappy effort just past the half-hour but Rovers stayed strong for the next 60 minutes and there can be no complaint about the final result, despite a poor offside decision denying the Gulls a dramatic late equaliser.
United manager Chris Hargreaves made four changes to the side that succumbed to a disappointing 2-0 defeat at Braintree last Saturday and there was the welcome sight of captain Luke Young returning from injury, with Ben Harding the midfielder to miss out.
Illness has struck down goalkeeper Martin Rice over the festive period and he was only fit enough for a place on the bench, allowing youngster Jordan Seabright to make just his third start for the Gulls.
Durrell Berry was another to recover from a spell on the sidelines and it was perfect timing, as his recent deputy at right-back, James McQuilkin, is struggling with a leg problem. The other change saw Courtney Cameron preferred to Louis Briscoe in the wide role.
Bristol Rovers boss Darrell Clarke was also forced into four changes from the team that beat Gateshead seven days ago. Lee Brown, Mark McChrystal, Alex Wall and Angelo Balanta were the quartet to miss out.
Former Gull Daniel Leadbitter came in at right-back and Trotman was another new inclusion in defence. Nathan Blissett and Jake Gosling also came into a Rovers side skippered by United legend Lee Mansell, making his first return to the Launa Windows Stadium since ending his eight-year spell in Yellow last summer.
Heavy rain and grey skies greeted a boisterous Christmas crowd, and United made the faster start on a heavy surface, as left-back Levi Ives skipped past Mansell and Leadbitter before firing over a low cross that had goalkeeper Fabian Speiss momentarily concerned.
The Gulls then survived a minor scare when a whipped corner was glanced inches over his own bar by Ryan Bowman and Rovers continued to peg United back with a hoofed ball into the area that fell for Mansell to steer an ambitious half-volley past the far post.
Moments later, the visitors were in front and it all stemmed from a couple of loose challenges in midfield, allowing Taylor to run at the Yellow defence before lashing a terrific left-foot finish into the bottom corner from just inside the box.
There was no denying it was a decent strike and Seabright had no chance, but Hargreaves and his coaching staff will be disappointed to see Rovers' danger-man was allowed to travel so far without facing a sterner tackle.
United responded with the right kind of determination and the bulk of Ofori-Acheampong was proving a big test for the visiting defence, with every player involved taking extra care with their touch on a pitch sodden by the rain.
The game descended into a midfield battle between two very committed sides and credit to referee Adam Bromley for using commonsense in his interpretation of the sliding tackles that were flying in all over the park.
Disaster then struck on the half-hour, when a routine corner to the near-post picked out the run of Trotman, who steered his header down into the turf and past a stranded Seabright. It was all far too simple from a Yellow perspective.
The Gulls were falling apart and the game was very nearly up from the next attack, as a dinked cross to the far post was headed back past Seabright and United were massively thankful to the covering Krystian Pearce for a desperate clearance off the line.
On such moments, games of football can turn full circle and United were right back in the mix from the very next foray, when a looping cross allowed Ofori-Acheampong to challenge Speiss for the high ball.
The ‘keeper on loan from Notts County then had one of those nightmare incidents that will haunt him into the New Year, as his horribly mis-cued punch dropped onto the back of Ofori-Acheampong’s heel and dribbled happily over the line.
United, however, were still struggling massively with high balls into their penalty area and more indecision presented Blissett with a glorious opportunity to restore the two-goal lead. Mercifully, he somehow dragged his shot wide with the goal gaping from five yards out.
A fabulous sweeping pass from Young had TQ1 on its feet a couple of minutes before half-time and a delicious cross from Cameron was only a fraction too strong for Ofori-Acheampong launching himself toward the far post.
The threat at the other end remained constant, as United continued to struggle against the nippy footwork of Taylor and the excellent Jake Gosling. A big half-time team-talk for Hargreaves to galvanise his troops.
It was one of those days for industrial football, get balls in the box and fight for the scraps. United read that script at the start of the second period with a launched cross into the area and the unconvincing clearance from Speiss provided further cause for hope in the driving rain.
Rovers came back with yet another swift interchange between Taylor and Golsing, enabling the latter to run at Angus MacDonald and guide a shot toward the far post that needed the fingertips of Seabright to turn it wide.
Gosling was soon back in the action, dancing inside for a shot with his favoured left-foot and the block from Pearce was perfect for the onrushing Monkhouse, who, thankfully, lost his composure in blasting the ball over the bar.
The painful truth was that Rovers were looking more like extending their lead and some Yellow legs had lost all energy. Taylor, on the other hand, was full of running and another surge forward ended with a skidding shot inches wide of the post.
Gosling was next to have a bash, firing just over the bar and it was enough for both managers to freshen up their ranks. Briscoe replaced Toby Ajala in the Yellow change, while Rovers removed Blissett for Wall.
United were then very lucky to survive a strong penalty shout after a clumsy challenge from Seabright, racing off his line to confront Gosling and when the goalkeeper failed to get there in time, he bundled over the Rovers forward for what should have been a spot-kick.
Ashley Yeoman and Elliot Benyon were the men tasked with rescuing something from the last 10 minutes but it should have been all over before their arrival, as Trotman thundered a header against the bar from close-range.
Ofori-Acheampong and Courtney Richards were the Gulls to make way, and, soon after, a free-kick pumped into the box by Young was only half-cleared by the Rovers defence. Cameron was first to react, fizzing a fierce drive just past the upright.
United desperately tried to crank up the tempo in the closing minutes and there was no denying the effort, but the honest conclusion was a deserved win for Rovers and one of those defeats you have to take on the chin.
There was, however, time for one final act of controversy as Benyon chested a hopeful cross past Speiss for what seemed the dramatic equaliser, only for the lineman’s flag to confirm all three points would travel back up the M5 to Bristol.
United (4-4-2): 23 Jordan Seabright; 29 Durrell Berry, 5 Krystian Pearce, 21 Angus MacDonald, 25 Levi Ives; 10 Toby Ajala (7 Louis Briscoe 67), 8 Luke Young (capt), 16 Courtney Richards (14 Ashley Yeoman 82), 11 Courtney Cameron; 9 Ryan Bowman, 24 Duane Ofori-Acheampong (17 Elliot Benyon 82). Substitutes (not used): 1 Martin Rice (GK), 3 Thomas Cruise.
Booked: Richards 56, Young 76
Rovers (4-4-2): 32 Fabian Speiss; 2 Daniel Leadbitter, 6 Tom Parkes, 15 Neal Trotman, 4 Tom Lockyer; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 23 Andy Monkhouse, 24 Stuart Sinclair, 11 Jake Gosling; 10 Matty Taylor, 27 Nathan Blissett (31 Alex Wall 67). Substitutes (not used): 14 Bradley Goldberg, 16 Dave Martin, 17 Ellis Harrison, 25 Will Puddy (GK).
Booked: Blissett 65
Referee: Adam Bromley
Attendance: 3,755 (1,145 away).