AFTER a difficult week for all at TQ1, United’s patched-up side secured a hard-fought point at the Kassam Stadium after playing out a goalless draw with a determined Oxford side.
Stand-in ‘keeper Martin Rice produced a confident display between the posts, whilst centre-back Aaron Downes gave another heroic performance to secure a welcome point for the Yellows.
United boss Martin Ling made two enforced changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Barnet – Rice started in place of the injured Michael Poke, whilst just as significantly, Ryan Jarvis took the place of Rene Howe after the Gulls’ top-scorer picked up his fifth booking of the season on Tuesday night.
On a youthful bench, Rice & Jarvis’ places were taken by trainee ‘keeper Conor Thompson and Kirtys Mackenzie, with Niall Thompson replacing Danny Stevens as the Yellows’ wing option.
Oxford manager Chris Wilder made three changes to the side which succumbed 3-2 at home to Dagenham & Redbridge last time out, with Johnny Mullins, Simon Heslop & Liam Davis promoted to the starting line-up at the expense of Michael Raynes, Tony Capaldi & Adam Chapman.
Those three took their places amongst the replacements, with Tyrone Marsh also included in the match-day squad, nudging Luke O’Brien into the stands.
If Rice was experiencing any pre-match nerves, they certainly weren’t on show during the first two minutes, when United’s keeper was called into early action, making a fine double save.
Following a mistake from Craig Easton in the Torquay midfield, James Constable found space to fire
in a shot which Rice was equal to, before regaining composure to catch Sean Rigg’s far-post header following a cross from Simon Heslop.
After that frantic start to proceedings, the game soon became a rather scrappy affair, not aided by the slippery surface. The home side were having the bulk of possession, with the only real opportunity for Ling’s men coming via a familiar source. Kevin Nicholson’s left-footed free-kick though sailed comfortably over the bar on eight minutes.
United’s ever-reliable centre-back pairing of Brian Saah and Downes were dealing comfortably with everything that Oxford were throwing at them, whilst midfield schemer Nathan Craig felt his side should have been awarded a penalty on twenty minutes, as the Welshman tumbled inside the box following some close attention from the Oxford backline. Unfortunately for the travelling Yellow Army, the referee felt the challenge only merited a corner.
On 33 minutes, the Gulls won a free-kick on the edge of the box after Billy Bodin was fouled from behind. This time Craig took on the dead-ball responsibility, but his effort curled just wide of the target.
With chances at a premium, the Gulls could be reasonably happy with their first half endeavours, having restricted the home-side to a handful of openings, although the lack of goalmouth action meant ten-goal Howe’s absence was certainly looming large in Yellow minds during the interval.
Oxford’s top scorer, Tom Craddock, was unable to rejoin the fray after picking up a knock prior to the break, and his place in the U’s frontline was taken by Jon-Paul Pitman.
Pittman was soon involved, and following a neat through ball, broke into the box on 48 minutes, but with the goal gaping, the substitute blazed over. It was the certainly the best opening of the match so far.
The Gulls thought they had taken the lead on 52 minutes, but unfortunately the celebrations were quickly curtailed. Nicholson sent a menacing cross into the box which found the head of Downes, but the goal was immediately ruled out for offside.
The match was beginning to burst into life, and action soon switched to the other end of the field. Pittman found Rigg in the area, but he shot flew wide of Rice’s goal. Moments later, the same player fired off-target when well placed.
Oxford were beginning to pile on the pressure, and United’s defence were having to call on all their experience to keep the hosts at bay.
United were creating precious little up front, and made a change midway through the half, with the hardworking Jarvis replaced by Niall Thompson, who took up his usual role on the right wing, with Bodin switching to the centre-forward slot.
On 70 minutes, Heslop produced an inviting cross into the box, which found the dangerous Constable with his back to goal. Presented with a golden opportunity to fire Oxford in front, Constable turned and shot towards goal but Rice produced a marvellous save to keep the scores level.
Ling again juggled his pack within 15 minutes to go, as United sent on striker Ashley Yeoman
in the place of Damon Lathrope. It was clearly a move designed to win three points rather than settle for one, and the 251 hardy souls that had travelled up from Torbay to support their team hoped that their bravery would be rewarded.
As the clock began to tick down, the pressure on the Yellow goal merely intensified. With seven minutes remaining, Rice was called upon again after a weak header from Joe Oastler fell to Rigg inside the box. Rigg let fly but this time Rice fisted the ball away to safety, and United survived.
Seconds later Pittman was left one on one with Rice but fired wide, before the home side howled for a penalty after Constable tangled with Downes. The imperious Downes though, had done enough to win the ball and the referee waved the appeals away.
As the game approached the 90-minute mark, Easton produced more heroics to clear the ball off the line after an Oxford corner caused chaos inside the six-yard box.
Amazingly, two minutes into injury-time, the Gulls nearly snatched it. Yeoman produced a terrific cross which fell towards Thompson, but Andrew Whing just managed to divert the ball behind at point-blank range to deny United a breakaway victory.
The final whistle brought boos from the home terraces, and although United couldn’t secure the victory to kick-start their away form, this point definitely deserves to take its place in the ‘well-earned’ column.
Gulls (4-3-3): 13 Martin Rice; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope (23 Ashley Yeoman
74), 18 Craig Easton; 15 Billy Bodin, 8 Ryan Jarvis (29 Niall Thompson 68), 20 Nathan Craig. Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 17 Saul Halpin, 21 Thomas Cruise, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie, 33 Connor Thompson.
Referee: Robert Madley