ON a growing list of painful defeats, this 2-1 reverse at home to Wycombe Wanderers will go down as one of the most frustrating.
The Gulls played poorly in the first period but found themselves in front through a Ryan Jarvis strike, the opposite pattern to recent weeks.
After the break, United improved hugely and had chances to seal the win before Sam Wood snatched an equaliser on 76 minutes and then Matt McClure deepened the relegation fears at Plainmoor with a neatly-taken winner.
United interim manager Alan Knill was thrown a curve-ball in his team selection after the sickness bug that has surrounded the Gulls over the last few days struck captain Lee Mansell overnight. Damon Lathrope was drafted into midfield, with Brian Saah taking the skipper’s armband.
The one other change from the narrow loss to Port Vale on the weekend was a replacement for Aaron Downes, who limped off with a hamstring injury. Angus MacDonald was the natural choice after recovering from the same bug. The shuffling left spare places on the bench for a recalled Nathan Craig and fit-again Joe Oastler.
Wycombe’s player-boss Gareth Ainsworth made two changes from the 2-1 defeat to Southend on Saturday, Bruno Andrade and Josh Scowen coming in for Anthony Stewart and Matt Spring. The visiting bench contained former Gull Jo Kuffour among the forward options.
A sluggish start from the Gulls saw Wanderers win three corners in the opening five minutes and United generally found themselves pinned back in their own area for a period of mild pressure.
Busy midfield work from Scowen cranked up the concern, as he robbed Lathrope 25 yards from goal and lashed an instant shot toward Michael Poke, who was forced to concede yet another corner with a tidy tip over the bar.
United were living extremely dangerously and corner number five picked out a darting run from McClure to the near-post and the young striker was unlucky to see his header smack against the upright and wide of Poke’s beleaguered goal.
Yet another Wycombe corner brought the best in Poke on crosses, palming away to safety when a heavy collision from the mountainous Dave Winfield was inevitable. Seconds later, the dangerous Joel Grant got in behind Danny Leadbitter for a low cross that United’s opposite full-back, Kevin Nicholson, did superbly well to clear under pressure.
The ironic cheers that greeted a first corner for the Yellows was a sign of the pattern on a cold night inside Plainmoor. That was quickly followed by another corner and Nicholson’s delivery only just missed the late run of Saah.
Sadly, it was a very brief respite on a pretty turgid display for the boys in Yellow. For whatever reason, the passes were not finding their target and the lack of confidence was evident. The one plus was that Wycombe, after their bright start, were showing glimpses of a side on their own losing run of three matches.
A sloppy exchange between Saah and Leadbitter just past the half-hour almost gifted the Chairboys a deserved lead, but Dean Morgan was unable to reach the eventual low cross from McClure.
From nowhere, the Gulls were then in front and the relief inside TQ1 could be felt across the Bay, and beyond. Jarvis started the move with a sweeping ball across the box from his post on the right flank.
Billy Bodin picked up the loose ball, danced beautifully inside two defenders and teed up Jarvis, who had muscled his way into the box. The first-time finish took a slight deflection on its way past Jordan Archer and into the top corner.
Wycombe could rightly claim to being very unfortunate to go behind and Andrade sought justice with a low shot from the right channel that Poke could only hack away with his shins.
Given the circumstances, it was absolutely crucial the Gulls held their lead until half-time, but the players wanted more and Bodin’s dipping free-kick was only just turned over the bar by Archer.
The second-half had barely got going when Grant was forced off with injury and Ainsworth opted to introduce himself as Wycombe’s right-winger in the salvage mission. The player-manager can still deliver a wicked cross, a point he proved within seconds of coming into the fray.
United came back with some strong work by Bodin and Howe to find Leadbitter on the right. His cut-back for Craig Easton allowed the Scot to drift over a cross for Howe, who was only inches too high with his header.
Leadbitter was also involved with the next attack in an improved Yellow performance, as his cross found Elliot Benyon at the near-post but his shot deflected wide off a Wycombe defender. The Chairboys then drafted in Stewart for Andrade.
The Gulls were grateful to Saah for an excellent block-tackle on Morgan and the subsequent corner skewed wide off a Wycombe boot. The tension levels inside Plainmoor were rising, however, as thoughts of numerous late goals conceded seeped into Yellow minds.
It was enough for Knill to freshen up his side, removing Easton for Oastler, who slipped into a midfield role after almost two seasons at right-back. It is a position familiar to the former Portsmouth and QPR youngster, and he quickly settled in alongside Lathrope.
The goal United desperately needed to calm nerves so nearly arrived after another dazzling run by Bodin ended with a pass to Howe in the left channel, who quickly returned the favour but Winfield produced a sensational block to keep Wycombe in the game.
Saah was literally a hair’s breadth from reaching the corner that followed but the Chairboys escaped, and quickly marched up the other end for a cross by Wood, who was inches from finding McClure for a definite equaliser.
United could not hold on, as Morgan broke the offside trap. It was a dubious call but Wycombe took advantage to meet the low cross with a shot from Wood. The first effort was blocked by his own team-mate but the winger scored from the rebound.
Poke momentarily stopped the pain from getting far worse with a decent low save to deny McClure but the winner arrived in dismal fashion for the Gulls.
Ainsworth scuttled over a low cross from the right and United’s defence was caught flat-footed, as McClure sold a quick dummy before smashing the ball past a stranded Poke. There was no hiding from the fact it was a bad goal to concede and a very worrying turnaround.
The Gulls battled hard to the end but defeat number seven was unavoidable and the long trip to Accrington is where this team must show all their resilience and character.
Gulls [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 5 Brian Saah [capt], 16 Angus MacDonald, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 8 Ryan Jarvis, 6 Damon Lathrope, 18 Craig Easton [2 Joe Oastler 66], 15 Billy Bodin; 9 Rene Howe, 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 13 Martin Rice [GK], 14 Lloyd Macklin, 20 Nathan Craig, 21 Thomas Cruise, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 29 Niall Thompson.
Wycombe [4-4-2]: 36 Jordan Archer; 23 Michael Harriman, 5 Dave Winfield, 18 Charles Dunne, 11 Sam Wood; 12 Bruno Andrade [27 Anthony Stewart 59], 8 Stuart Lewis, 28 Josh Scowen, 17 Joel Grant [7 Gareth Ainsworth 49]; 20 Dean Morgan, 29 Matt McClure. Substitutes [not used]: 9 Matt Spring, 15 Dennis Oli, 21 Lee Harrison [GK], 22 Jo Kuffour, 34 Kortney Hause.
Booked: Archer 90
Referee: Mark Haywood
Attendance: 1,793 [103 away].