Howe 59, 68
A BREATHLESS and brilliant match had Plainmoor purring, as United battered Rochdale 4-2 in the summer rain, and the two was kind on the visitors.
An incredible afternoon started with Andrew Tutte notching early for Rochdale but the Gulls hit back in explosive fashion. Billy Bodin slotted a tidy equaliser within five minutes and Aaron Downes forced home a second before the break.
United emerged from half-time with Yellow tails raised to the sky and could have totted up a cricket score before the outstanding Rene Howe made it 3-1, and then 4-1 on 68 minutes with a terrific solo goal.
The one disappointment was a penalty conceded by Downes and the Australian was dismissed for a professional foul. Michael Poke instantly turned frowns to smiles by saving the spot-kick, although Ian Craney did squeeze a late consolation for the beleaguered Dale.
A wonderful day ended with debutant Niall Thompson rightly winning man of the match and he was applauded off the pitch by his proud team-mates.
United manager Martin Ling made two enforced changes from the thrilling 2-2 draw with Cheltenham on Tuesday night. Damon Lathrope hobbled with a knee complaint against the Robins and he was replaced in the engine room by Craig Easton.
Lloyd Macklin, another midweek injury victim, had his place filled by flying young winger Thompson, making his full professional bow on the right flank. The extra two slots on the bench went to Ashley Yeoman and Nathan Craig.
Rochdale boss John Coleman enjoyed the luxury of naming an unchanged side from the 1-1 draw at Chesterfield on Tuesday, when a last-minute equaliser denied them all three points.
The visitors were presented with a glorious opportunity to again take the lead on their travels, as a slip in the United midfield allowed Ashley Grimes to feed George Donnelly in the right channel, but the former Plymouth striker scuffed an ugly shot well wide.
For the Gulls, Bodin looked particularly sharp in the early stages, testing Rochdale studs with his twisting runs on a surface heavily slickened by incessant rain in the Bay.
Unfortunately, the wet weather was no excuse for the shoddy United marking from a decisive corner by Jason Kennedy on seven minutes. His skidding delivery perfectly picked out the run of Tutte, who stylishly slotted the ball into Michael’s Poke bottom left-hand corner.
As with Cheltenham’s opener in midweek, Ling will be disappointed with the slack defending from a set-piece and Tutte had the composure to steer home from 15 yards.
In another repeat from Tuesday, United were only behind very briefly. Bodin started the move down the left, exchanging passes with Lee Mansell and Kevin Nicholson before darting into the box for an eventual cross.
Howe was the intended recipient but the ball fizzed away from his left boot for Bodin to drop a shoulder and fire past a hopelessly exposed Josh Lillis in the Dale goal.
Captain Peter Cavanagh almost had Rochdale back in front just a minute later, slapping a wonderful drive from distance beyond the flying Poke, who was airborne as the ball crashed away to safety off his crossbar.
Much to their credit, Dale responded to the setback of a Yellow equaliser by retaining possession and patiently waiting for a chance to emerge. When it did, Tutte curled a decent effort narrowly over from 20 yards.
Mansell broke the pattern with a deflected shot which needed turning wide by Lillis and Howe then found space from a deep cross by Nicholson, but was unable to pick out the late run of his skipper to the edge of the box.
Inevitably, the focus of United’s attack reverted to Bodin and his fizzing cross was headed just wide by Howe. Bodin’s next delivery slipped through the fingers of Lillis, enabling Howe to tee-up Morris for a well-executed right-foot shot but Lillis atoned for his error with a terrific save.
The Gulls would not be denied, however, and Downes had Plainmoor rocking on the half-hour. Nicholson deep corner picked out Mansell at the far post and he nodded the ball down into a dangerous area.
Downes, fast-becoming a new Yellow hero, was in the right place to stick out a hefty Australian boot, and the ball ricocheted happily into the roof of the Rochdale net.
Thompson’s moment to shine arrived soon after and rather than a blast of searing pace, it was a beautifully weighted pass cutting through the Rochdale defence for Howe, who was only denied a certain third goal by Lillis bravely diving at his feet.
United were content to play out the rest of an impressive first 45 minutes with Yellow feet slightly off the pedal. The quest ahead was building on their lead after the interval.
Mission almost accomplished within a couple of minutes of the restart, as a terrific run down the left from Thompson had Rochdale floundering. The youngster then cut inside on his favoured right-foot and curled toward the far corner, only to be denied by a brilliant tip round the post from Lillis.
Thompson was the main man again moments later, this time down bombing down the right and firing over a cross that had Lillis at full-stretch. The loose ball fell to Bodin but his shot on the open goal was brilliantly blocked by Ryan Edwards, and Howe hooked the rebound inches wide.
United were on fire and the excellent Morris started another move from midfield, slipping a pass to Bodin, who cut back on his right and slammed the ball into the Dale crossbar with Lillis well beaten.
The only fear for a rampant Yellow display was a repeat of Tuesday night when a succession of missed chances eventually offered Cheltenham a route back into the game.
Thankfully, this was no repeat performance and the Gulls were handed the third goal their complete dominance deserved. It started with a Nicholson corner, took a few deflections and ended with a Nicholson thunderbolt from 18 yards. Lillis could only parry the ball to Howe, who guided the rebound neatly into the bottom corner.
The three points were confirmed with a quarter of the match still to play, as Howe displayed the perfect combination of strength and poise, outmuscling his marker on the halfway line to race clear and then scoop a wonderfully cool finish past Lillis. It was a delightful goal and all of his own making.
United’s copybook took a huge blot when a slip allowed Donnelly to skip past Downes, who stumbled into the challenge. It was a clear penalty but the subsequent red card seemed a tad harsh on the Australian.
A modicum of revenge was exacted by Poke making a superb save from the spot-kick, diving low to his left and palming clear the effort from Kennedy.
Ling sensed the time was right for a change, ending a brilliant debut for Thompson by introducing the protective instincts of Tom Cruise. Howe was also removed with his temperature rising, giving Ryan Jarvis a chance to join the party.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, Morris broke from midfield and clipped a decent shot narrowly over, while Kennedy continued to lose his personal dual with Poke, as the United custodian beat away another stinging shot with his fists.
Dale had the last laugh but it was a very hollow chuckle, as Craney scuttled a consolation past Poke, who deserved better for his own terrific performance.
Nicholson prevented any late flutter with a superb goal-line clearance from the hapless Kennedy and the Yellow Army could enjoy a fabulous dispay from their team. On this evidence, the Gulls will again be a team to watch this season.
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope, 11 Ian Morris; 29 Niall Thompson (21 Thomas Cruise 74), 9 Rene Howe (8 Ryan Jarvis 77), 15 Billy Bodin. Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 20 Nathan Craig, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Booked: Howe 72
Sent-off: Downes 73
Rochdale (4-4-2): 1 Josh Lillis; 5 Ryan Edwards (23 Ian Craney 69), 19 Matty Pearson, 12 Phil Edwards, 14 Kevin McIntyre; 7 Jason Kennedy, 4 Peter Cavanagh (capt), 8 Andrew Tutte, 11 Ashley Grimes (13 Ray Putterill 55); 9 George Donnelly, 15 Dele Adebola (20 Craig Curran 69). Substitutes (not used): 2 Joe Rafferty, 3 Rhys Bennett, 6 Brian Barry-Murphy, 31 Ben Smith (GK).
Booked: Ryan Edwards 45, Pearson 72
Referee: Gavin Ward
Attendance: 2,731 (207 away).