Marquis pen 6
IT was far from a classic and the occasion possibly surpassed the football, but a Boxing Day draw with Bristol Rovers represented the retention of momentum for the Gulls.
John Marquis had a festive Plainmoor buzzing with a neatly converted penalty on six minutes but the visitors warranted their scrappy equaliser from Matt Harrold just before the half-hour, and that was how it remained.
After United’s 1-0 win at Dagenham last weekend and Rovers defeating Portsmouth 2-0, it was hardly a shock when the two managers kept faith with the same starting line-ups.
The one interesting inclusion for United came on the bench, where Courtney Cameron dropped out to allow a return for loan striker Jayden Stockley, who has been restricted to just 30 minutes of action since joining from Bournemouth because of a troublesome calf problem.
After a week of torrential rain, it was a welcome relief that the game kicked-off in pleasant Christmas sunshine for a packed Plainmoor still digesting the turkey, trimmings and terrible TV from the day before.
The pitch, however, took just a couple of minutes to start cutting up and it is huge credit to the Yellow groundstaff for making it playable in the first place, but the early signs suggested a heavy afternoon on the legs.
The first real threat on goal came from a dangerously whipped corner by Jak McCourt that Rovers’ keeper Steve Mildenhall could only half-punch clear but United skipper Lee Mansell was unable to generate enough power on the bouncing ball to break the deadlock.
Within a minute, United were awarded a penalty after a Billy Bodin free-kick was blocked from its goal-bound flight-path by Ollie Clarke inexplicably raising a hand from his position in the wall, which was situated just inside the 18-yard box.
Referee Phil Gibbs immediately spotted the infringement and Marquis stepped up with the confidence of a striker in form to stroke an easy penalty down the middle, with Mildenhall sprawling in hope to his left.
Rovers took a few minutes to recover from the setback and Michael Poke was required to get his gloves dirty in gobbling up a tame header from Harrold. The next foray was far more potent, as Michael Smith sprinted into the right channel and drilled a low drive that United’s custodian fended clear with his legs.
The game had settled into a worrying rhythm that had Rovers on the front-foot and Eliot Richards asked another defensive question with a skidding shot that crept a few inches wide of Poke’s near-post.
The ball had become a complete stranger to Yellow boots and the Gulls were again reliant on Poke to keep the scores level, as he denied Richards with another decent save with his feet but the visitors would not be denied.
A fully deserved equaliser arrived from the subsequent corner, swung over by the left boot of Lee Brown and Harrold was charging in at the back post to bundle the ball over the line.
Such is the bizarre nature of football psychology, United then decided to wake up with a dancing run from Billy Bodin to feed Damien Mozika on the right flank. The Frenchman’s cross squirmed over to the far post, where Jordan Chapell was denied an instant reply by a lunging block from Smith.
It turned out to be a brief flirt with form and there was no denying that the better football was coming from Rovers, a point emphasised by Oliver Norburn fizzing a tasty strike from distance narrowly over.
The pitch was hardly helping but the muddy conditions were the same for both sides, and United were struggling to find cohesion in their play. In truth, Rovers weren’t setting the world alight and a level score-line at half-time was probably fair.
The second period started with an ugly clash of heads between Mozika and Rovers’ defender Mark McChrystal. The game only restarted after prolonged treatment and both men eventually rose to their feet with a newly acquired head bandage.
Plainmoor was crying out for an injection of energy and the Gulls responded with some biting tackles in midfield by McCourt and the tireless Mozika, but the passing remained inconsistent, with Rovers also suffering from the same ailment.
The first real shot of any note since the interval came from the right boot of full-back Smith, who had Poke quickly checking his angles as the powerful effort cleared his crossbar.
United took their queue and a barnstorming spell from McCourt saw the youngster charge all over TQ1 before finally whipping over a terrific cross for Marquis, who glanced inches wide of Mildenhall’s far post.
Rovers immediately returned to the other end for a flurry of crosses into the Yellow box, the last of which was bravely punched clear by Poke with visiting forwards launching their bodies at the dipping ball.
However, the real big surprise in a game lacking sustained quality was the reluctance of either manager to change personnel until 80 minutes were on the clock, when Alan Knill introduced Stockley for Chapell.
The Gulls were slowly gathering momentum in the closing stages and Bodin kept Mildenhall keen with a decent low strike from just outside the box. Rovers were suddenly pegged back and Mozika was desperately unlucky to see his downward header hit the post from an O’Connor cross.
John Ward made his first change by removing David Clarkson for Alefe Santos and Knill quickly followed suit by replacing the weary McCourt with Nathan Craig.
Seven minutes of injury time had Plainmoor buzzing with the prospect of a late decider and United were the side applying more of the pressure, prompting Ward to bring on Ellis Harrison for Richards in the dying seconds.
The final whistle sounded with neither side truly deserving to either win or lose and Yellow thoughts will swiftly turn to the Devon derby with Exeter on Sunday.
United [4-3-3]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Dale Tonge, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 4 Aaron Downes, 21 Thomas Cruise; 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 17 Jak McCourt (20 Nathan Craig 88), 36 Damien Mozika; 12 Jordan Chapell (19 Jayden Stockley 80), 16 John Marquis, 10 Billy Bodin. Substitutes [not used]: 5 Krystian Pearce, 9 Karl Hawley, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 26 Elliot Benyon, 31 Daniel Sullivan.
Booked:Tonge 10, Mansell 43, McCourt 58
Bristol Rovers [4-3-3]: 1 Steve Mildenhall; 2 Michael Smith, 6 Tom Parkes [capt], 29 Mark McChrystal, 14 Lee Brown; 15 Oliver Norburn, 32 John-Joe O’Toole, 24 Ollie Clarke; 7 David Clarkson (33 Alefe Santos 86), 9 Matt Harrold, 10 Eliot Richards (17 Ellis Harrison 90). Substitutes [not used]: 3 Jim Paterson, 18 Mitch Harding, 19 Chris Beardsley, 20 Conor Gough [GK], Tom Lockyer.
Referee: Philip Gibbs
Attendance:3,461 (776 away).