Essam o.g. 90
A MILLION miles from their most fluid performance of the season and yet still three more points, six wins on the bounce, 10 games unbeaten and a fifth consecutive clean sheet.
The stats are very welcome reading for United at present and a 2-0 home win over Dover Athletic looks comfortable, but the Gulls were made to work hard against a committed Kent outfit.
United took the lead with a header from Aaron Downes in a fairly composed first-half but a failure to find their form after the break stoked the fires of confidence in Dover ranks, who wasted their big chance for an equaliser before Connor Essam sliced into his own net in the dying seconds.
United manager Chris Hargreaves stuck with the same starting line-up and substitutes from the midweek win over Woking, while his Dover counterpart, Chris Kinnear, made just one change from his side’s 2-1 loss at Dartford, with Andrew Rafferty replacing Mitchell Walker in goal.
The visitors started like a team determined not to roll over easily and a clever turn and run from Ricky Miller forced Yellow right-back Dale Tonge into a tremendous recovery tackle in his own area just 15 seconds into the game.
The early stars of the afternoon, however, had to be the boisterous travelling supporters from Dover, who were full of noisy backing for their team, adorned in a dashing all-pink kit.
United, meanwhile, were struggling to find their usual rhythm and it was again credit to Dover for pressing high up the pitch and preventing the Gulls from deploying their favoured tactic of measured build-up of play from the back.
Gradually, United began to exert some authority on their opponents and Tonge was a constant outlet on the right but Dover stood firm as an increasing number of crosses were aimed into their penalty box.
The first real attempt on goal arrived 20 minutes into the game, when a whipped free-kick from Nicky Deverdics glanced off the head of big defender Tom Bonner and United ‘keeper Martin Rice was more than relieved to see the ball drop a yard wide of his right-hand post.
Five minutes, later Ryan Bowman got the wrong side of the Dover defence for the first time but a decent challenge from Craig Stone in the right channel led to a home corner.
Dover half cleared the initial cross but persistent work from Toby Ajala resulted in a deep cross toward Duane Ofori-Acheampong, and the big man was enough of a presence to force the ball back to Luke Young, who so nearly added his fifth goal of the season with a rasping 18-yard drive that smashed into the post.
The visitors then created an overlap on the left flank but the final shot from Tyrone Sterling was weak, and a comfortable save for Rice, who immediately had United back on the attack with a long throw forward.
Dover were beginning to creak under the growing pressure and the first goal had an air of inevitability, as yet another fizzing corner from Young picked out Downes at the near-post and his steered header squeezed through the legs of a hapless Rafferty.
The visitors responded in positive fashion with a couple of forays into the Yellow half but the ultimate Dover priority was to reach the interval with just the one goal deficit.
It was very nearly a forlorn hope, as Young drifted over an inviting free-kick for the unmarked Angus MacDonald to surge into the six-yard box, and Rafferty did well to turn the ball wide. The Dover custodian was considerably more fortunate moments later, as a speculative long-ranger was fumbled onto his own bar.
Dover introduced Christian Nanetti for Jake Reid at half-time and the new man made a quick impact with some tricky running on the ball causing the United defence a rare moment of concern, but a combination of Tonge and Downes did well to clear.
Just like the first period, United took a while to get going and they were almost punished when a floated free-kick from Matt Lock found the head of Bonner, but the positioning of Rice made his final save comfortable.
The Gulls continued to look disjointed in attack as the game passed the hour-mark but a swift break from Bowman did briefly stretch Dover, only for Jordan Chapell to screw a shot wide when the ball reached him on the edge of the area.
Seconds later, United failed to clear a long free-kick pumped forward and when Lock lashed the ball back into the box, an instinctive foot from Miller was very nearly turned into the net, with Yellow eyes peering hopefully for a flag that never arrived.
Nanetti was a real problem, cutting in from the right to tease the Gulls with his left foot and Hargreaves sought to change the pattern by removing Chapell for Courtney Cameron. Dover responded by replacing Lock with Matthew Saunders.
United should have buried the game from their next attack, as Richards threaded a lovely pass into the left channel for Bowman but his initial shot lacked the pace to trouble Rafferty, although he certainly got hold of the rebound, thundering the ball against the near-post from a tight angle.
The worrying truth, however, was a Dover team in the ascendancy and Miller spurned a glorious chance to equalise on 79 minutes. A long ball over the top caught Rice way out of his goal and the Dover forward skipped past the goalkeeper but was losing balance as his shot drifted over the bar of an empty net.
It should have been a goal and United would have struggled to argue against its merit, with Josh Wakefield immediately replacing Ajala in the latest attempt to galvanise the home troops.
The tension inside TQ1 was palpable but the Gulls looked to ease supporter concern wit a measured spell of possession in the Dover half of the field. The visitors made their final change, removing Chris Kinnear Jnr for Stefan Payne.
The win was finally sealed by a horrible own goal from Essam, as a clever pass by Ofori-Acheampong allowed Cameron to skip along the byline and then fizz over a low cross that Dover’s big defender sliced past a stranded Rafferty.
Far from pretty, but three more points in the bag.
United (4-4-2): 1 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 21 Angus MacDonald, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Tom Cruise; 10 Toby Ajala (22 Josh Wakefield 80), 8 Luke Young (capt), 16 Courtney Richards, 12 Jordan Chapell (11 Courtney Cameron 68); 9 Ryan Bowman, 24 Duane Ofori-Acheampong. Substitutes (not used): 5 Krystian Pearce, 14 Ashley Yeoman, 23 Jordan Seabright (GK).
Booked: Ofori-Acheampong 83
Dover (5-3-2): 30 Andrew Rafferty; 2 Craig Stone (capt), 29 Connor Essam, 6 Richard Orlu, 26 Tom Bonner, 16 Tyrone Sterling; 12 Matt Lock (21 Matthew Saunders 71), 17 Nicky Deverdics, 4 Chris Kinnear (14 Stefan Payne 86); 19 Jake Reid (20 Christian Nanetti H-T), 27 Ricky Miller. Substitutes (not used): 5 Sean Raggett, 9 Nathan Elder.
Booked: Lock 42, Bonner 83, Orlu 89
Referee: Paul Rees
Attendance: 2,363 (96 away).