Sparkes 4, 40, 70
THERE are times in football when no words can explain the disappointment and shock at a night that was, quite frankly, a total humiliation.
The players of Torquay United Football Club deserve the criticism heading their way after an embarrassing 5-1 home defeat to Braintree Town in front of a depressed Launa Windows Stadium.
Dan Sparkes got the ball rolling for Braintree on four minutes but Yellow hopes were raised by a John Campbell equaliser, only for Sparkes to slot home his second just before half-time.
The second-half display lacked the necessary urgency and when Sparkes completed his hat-trick with 20 minutes remaining, the Gulls downed tools, allowing Matt Paine and Ryan Peters to seal the rout.
United manager Chris Hargreaves made just one change from the side held to a 0-0 draw at Nuneaton on Saturday, with Toby Ajala preferred to Louis Briscoe in the floating role behind two main strikers.
Youth-team forward Liam Prynn was named among the substitutes as a reward for his excellent recent form in Academy matches, along with Courtney Cameron and James McQuilkin, who were both restored to the bench.
Braintree boss Alan Devonshire also stuck to just one change after his side secured an excellent 1-1 draw at Forest Green Rovers on the weekend. Sparkes was the man drafted in to replace Simeon Akinola in attack.
The immediate intrigue for the TQ1 natives was assessing the new 3-5-2 formation that worked very well in a defensive capacity at Nuneaton but lacked penetration in attacking areas.
A probing run from Aaron Dawson down the right was a positive start for the Gulls, forcing Braintree into the concession of an early corner and Aaron Downes was completely unmarked from Luke Young’s delivery, but couldn’t climb high enough to keep the header down.
From the very next attack, Braintree were in front, as United failed to deal with a deep cross pumped into the area. Sean Marks had room to chest the ball down and Sparkes was in the right place to lash a low shot past the stranded Martin Rice.
It was the worst possible start for a United side devoid of confidence after the recent run of results and Young took on the captain’s role of lifting his troops with a surging run through midfield, but the final shot was comfortably saved by Nick Hamann in the Iron goal.
Braintree, however, were the side playing with more belief and the early goal placed United’s defence in a very nervous mood, a point typified by a Sparkes cross almost picking out Marks for the second goal at the near post.
The Gulls needed something to fall their way and the instigator was Young, whipping over a free-kick that Hamann struggled to punch clear under heavy pressure from the Yellow attack.
The loose ball dropped to Campbell at a difficult angle and the man on loan kept his cool to slot a neat finish inside the near post for United’s first goal in five matches. Belief and relief swept through the team, as Courtney Richards drilled a fine drive inches over moments after the equaliser.
Braintree were suddenly rocking at the back and when a deep corner from Young found Campbell loitering on the edge of the area, it was met with a sweet low shot toward the far corner that was cleared off the line by Iron skipper Kenny Davis.
Campbell was now having a stormer, picking up a throw from Levi Ives before exchanging passes with Ryan Bowman and then fizzing in a low shot from 20 yards that Hamann did well to hold.
Just as the Gulls looked favourites to go on and score the next, another painfully soft goal restored Braintree’s advantage, and it all stemmed from a simple pass to the left by Bernard Mensah.
Sparkes had acres of room to run into the vacant channel and then plant a confident finish past the advancing Rice, and into the roof of the net. It was a well-taken goal but the gap in United’s backline was vast.
Once again, Yellow chins were back on the floor and it was a time for leaders on the pitch to demand the ball, demand more from your team-mates and demand more from yourself.
A determined start to the second period saw Richards race down the left to earn a corner and Hamann was again unconvincing from the Young delivery, allowing Ajala to climb above him in heading against the bar.
Hargreaves wasted little time in changing his approach, removing Krystian Pearce for Jordan Chapell and switching to a more conventional 4-4-2 formation. Within seconds, Ajala clipped over a lovely cross from his new position on the left and the only thing missing was a United forward to nod home.
A super move involving Chapell, Ajala and finally Ives had the Yellow Army briefly purring but Hamann clasped the low cross to his chest with Bowman bearing down on him.
A fabulous incisive ball through the Braintree defence by Ollivier Gueguen then presented Ajala with the chance to reach the byline and his cut-back was on a plate for Bowman, but massive credit to Alan Massey for a goal-saving challenge.
It was Bowman’s last involvement, as he was withdrawn for Prynn, while Braintree switched Mensah with Akinola, and the new man immediately danced past Gueguen to race through the middle.
The pass to Sparkes still needed finishing but the Braintree winger completed an excellent hat-trick with a brilliant strike, thundered in off the underside of the bar from just inside the penalty area.
The lively Akinola was causing more problems from the next attack, shifting the ball out of his feet for a low shot from distance that Rice could only palm wide of his beleaguered goal.
It was difficult to explain what happened next, as the entire United defence stood like statues to allow Paine the room to rifle a half-volley into the top corner for a fourth goal.
Number five followed soon after, as Peters swept home from close range and United were left desolate by a completely unacceptable performance.
United (3-5-2): 1 Martin Rice; 5 Krystian Pearce (12 Jordan Chapell 54), 26 Ollivier Gueguen, 4 Aaron Downes; 29 Aaron Dawson, 8 Luke Young (capt), 10 Toby Ajala, 16 Courtney Richards, 25 Levi Ives; 9 Ryan Bowman (15 Liam Prynn 67), 32 John Campbell (7 Louis Briscoe 85). Substitutes (not used): 11 Courtney Cameron, 22 James McQuilkin.
Booked: Richards 76
Braintree (4-4-2): 1 Nick Hamann; 2 Mitch Brundle, 6 Alan Massey, 20 Remy Clerima, 3 Sam Habergham; 4 Chez Isaac, 5 Matt Paine, 8 Kenny Davis (capt), 11 Dan Sparkes; 9 Sean Marks, 17 Bernard Mensah (15 Simeon Akinola 66). Substitutes (not used): 16 Joe Maybanks, 23 Ryan Peters, 26 James Mulley, 29 Carl Pentney.
Referee: Wayne Barratt
Attendance: 1,103 (15 away).