TORQUAY United recovered from an early goal and the dismissal of captain Luke Young to produce a stirring performance at Southport, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Scott Kay scored the opener on 10 minutes and was then involved in the incident that saw Young sent-off for grabbing his opponent, but the Gulls regrouped and Toby Ajala looked to have rescued the point with an equaliser 12 minutes from time.
It was a case of seeing out the rest of the game but a brief moment of defensive hesitancy was sufficient for Paul Smith to snatch the Southport winner.
“The lads were magnificent for 80 minutes, got the equaliser and looked like they might get the winner,” said manager Chris Hargreaves. “We played ever so well with 10 men and it really is a sickener to lose like that.
“A couple of errors have cost us at the death but the players put so much hard work into the game that I’m more disappointed for them than anything else.
“Southport had two real shots all afternoon and scored twice, but it was a big error from Luke [to get sent-off] and he will have to learn from that.”
The dismissal came moments after Kay had smashed a delicious free-kick over the United wall and into the top corner for a terrific opener for the Sandgrounders.
Kay then caught Young with a late tackle that warranted a booking but the angry reaction from the captain left referee Ian Hussin with no other option than to issue the red card.
Hargreaves immediately withdrew Louis Brisce in attack to reinforce his midfield with the experience of Ben Harding and the Gulls showed impressive resilience to repel a Southport side backed by a strong wind.
United emerged as an attacking force with a long pass forward from Aaron Downes to release Ajala, who fired narrowly over with Ryan Bowman and Courtney Cameron waiting in the middle.
A quiet game in terms of chances saw the introduction of new signing Kadell Daniel for Bowman on 57 minutes and a tweak to the formation led to more ambition from United.
It soon worked, as Downes came within inches of converting a flick by Ollivier Gueguen, James McQuilkin had a long-ranger deflected over and Daniel was narrowly off target with a 30-yard drive.
The richly deserved equaliser finally arrived courtesy of an excellent McQuilkin free-kick crashing against the bar and Ajala was in the right to bundle home for 1-1.
United were the team that looked like winning the game but indecision at the back presented Smith with the room to sneak in behind and stab home a painful goal from five yards.
United (4-4-2): 1 Martin Rice; 29 Aaron Dawson (14 Ashley Yeoman 74), 26 Ollivier Gueguen, 4 Aaron Downes, 5 Krystian Pearce; 10 Toby Ajala, 8 Luke Young (capt), 22 James McQuilkin, 11 Courtney Cameron; 7 Louis Briscoe (6 Ben Harding 15), 9 Ryan Bowman (20 Kadell Daniel 55). Substitutes (not used): 15 Liam Prynn, 16 Courtney Richards.
Booked: Downes 9
Sent-off: Young 13
Referee: Ian Hussin