FT | United 0 – 0 Tranmere
A POINT from the title favourites on the opening day has to go down as a good result but two second-half dismissals for Tranmere will leave United feeling it could have been more.
The game boiled over with Steve McNulty receiving two cautions in a minute of madness shortly after the break and then an elbow from James Norwood left the visitors with nine men for the closing minutes, but not enough time for the Gulls to pinch a win.
The first team selection of the new campaign was a tough one for Kevin Nicholson with so many bright performances in pre-season. Sam Chaney remained as an emergency left-back, while Ruairi Keating partnered Jon-Paul Pittman in attack, with the in-form James Gray a strong option from the bench.
Tranmere boss Micky Mellon included big summer signing Jay McEveley in his starting line-up and the message from Rovers was all about banishing the memory of a painful play-off final loss to Forest Green in May.
A sizzling atmosphere inside Plainmoor only intensified with a proud parade for the Torquay United Ladies and all the youth squads in the first stage of rebuilding an Academy. It was a splendid sight and a reminder that the Torquay United should never, ever be allowed to close again.
Ryan Clarke produced a magnificent save to maintain the optimism on just two minutes, as a point-blank effort from Norwood was brilliantly blocked after a sloppy clearance from a Tranmere free-kick.
Rovers maintained their bright start with a delicious free-kick from Liam Ridehalgh hitting the crossbar and a combination of Clarke and new captain Josh Gowling scrambling the loose ball clear.
Gradually, United began to settle into the game and successive set-pieces whipped in by Jake Gosling, both of which required stout defending from the visitors. A deep corner then found Gowling lurking at the back post but he was unable to make a clean contact and threaten Scott Davies in the Tranmere goal.
A weaving run from Gosling then had Tranmere legs flailing in desperation and the inevitable free-kick arrived. Gosling curled his shot delightfully toward the top corner but it lacked the pace to really trouble Davies.
The game slipped into a midfield lull with the major highlight a fascinating physical battle between Gowling and Tranmere’s muscular forward James Alabi. It was a great tussle all over the pitch but lacking in clear-cut opportunities.
United had to throw bodies on the line four minutes from half-time when a clearance by Ryan Higgins fell to Connor Jennings, but full commitment from McGinty and Gowling ensured the goal-bound shot was blocked.
The second half was just a few minutes old when Gowling suffered what seemed an innocuous blow but a quick sponge from physio Gareth Law soon had the skipper back in the trenches.
It was a lot more than a sponge moments later, as a brutal challenge from McNulty had Chaney completely floored and clearly in distress. There was no question it was a dangerous tackle and a yellow card was very lenient.
Seconds later, however, yellow turned to red, as McNulty exchanged handbags with Keating and referee Allison immediately dished out a caution for each man, meaning a dismissal for McNulty.
Oliver Norburn was quickly withdrawn for Ritchie Sutton to fill the sizeable McNulty hole in defence, as both dugouts swapped their strong opinions on the flashpoint.
To be fair to Tranmere, they reacted better to the incident and a fierce free-kick from Buxton had Clarke diving full length to palm the ball to safety and then a strong challenge by Lathrope caused yet more consternation among the visitors.
If Lathrope was lucky to escape a second booking, Nicholson responded with a very sensible and attacking switch, removing his midfield anchor from the fray and introducing Jamie Reid to give his side more width on the left.
United had to get back to playing football, moving the ball and utilising their extra man. A delightful switch of play from Higgins was perfect for Reid and his whipped cross only just eluded the run of Keating.
Nicholson turned back to his bench for the final 20 minutes, removing Pittman and Gosling for the fresh legs of Gray and Jordan Lee. Tranmere, meanwhile, introduced Andy Cook for Alabi.
Reid then switched passes with Luke Young and a fizzing strike from the lively substitute warmed the hands of a well-positioned Davies. A sweeping United move from the next attack culminated in a shot from Lee into the side-netting.
The Gulls had turned up the tempo and Tranmere had the look of a side content with their point, but that task became a whole lot harder when Norwood was shown a straight red for leading with his arm in an aerial challenge with Gowling.
United had five minutes of normal time to punish the nine men and a surging break from Reid and Lee released Yan Klukowski in the right channel for a low cross that Rovers desperately scrambled over the bar to safety.
It proved to be the final act in a tempestuous start to the campaign.
United (4-4-2): 1 Ryan Clarke; 23 Ryan Higgins, 6 Josh Gowling (capt), 5 Sean McGinty, 7 Sam Chaney; 8 Luke Young, 4 Damon Lathrope (19 Jamie Reid 65), 18 Yan Klukowski, 11 Jake Gosling (15 Jordan Lee 71); 9 Jon-Paul Pittman (17 James Gray 71), 10 Ruairi Keating. Substitutes (not used): 14 Myles Anderson, 20 Neal Osborn (GK).
Booked: Lathrope 7, Keating 55, McGinty 61
Tranmere: (4-3-3): 1 Scott Davies; 2 Adam Buxton, 5 Steve McNulty, 6 Jay McEveley, 3 Liam Ridehalgh; 8 Jay Harris, 24 Jeff Hughes, 15 Oliver Norburn (4 Ritchie Sutton 57); 10 James Norwood, 12 James Alabi (9 Andy Cook 74), 11 Connor Jennings. Substitutes (not used): 16 Jack Dunn, 19 Andy Mangan, 25 Luke Piling.
Booked: McNulty 54
Sent-off: McNulty 55, Norwood 84
Referee: Samuel Allison
Attendance: 3,162 (492 Away)