United were beaten by a second half penalty and a last minute second goal as a rejuvenated Bristol Rovers continued their fine form this afternoon. Lee Brown's spot kick and an Eliot Richards second goal gave Rovers a 2-0 win despite United having the lion's share of possession in a hard-fought ninety minutes.
The largest and most vocal away following of the season gave Rovers great backing, but that only caused the home fans to lift their own voices and get behind the U’s in tremendous style, making for a lively atmosphere in the opening exchanges. Keeper Luke McCormick, looking very assured, made a save from Danny Woodards inside the first 30 seconds to settle any nerves on his home debut while Damian Batt saw a 25 yard dive deflected for a corner after four minutes as United got men forward in a flexible 4-3-3 shape.
The system relied on Lewis Montrose, another making his home debut, to sit at the base of a midfield triangle with Adam Chapman and Tony Capaldi in front of him, while James Constable led the line in the middle of Sean Rigg and Justin Richards. That set up a key encounter with Montrose having to try and contain the dangerous John-Joe O’Toole, playing behind the front two for a Rovers side who have improved beyond recognition since the opening day encounter between these two sides.
It was fascinating from a tactical viewpoint but the game got bogged down, sometimes literally, with a couple of long delays after injuries to Justin Richards and Joe Anyinsah not helping the flow. Richards was forced off after 32 minutes with Alfie Potter coming on up front in his place.
The clearest chances of the first half came in the last eight minutes. First, on 37 minutes, Rigg reversed a clever ball to free Constable inside the box. He took a touch to steady himself and then blasted a venomous shot from twelve yards out but Rovers keeper Steve Mildenhall was equal to it, spreading himself well to parry the effort away.
Capaldi fired a speculative effort well over the bar before the break, then Potter latched on to a Batt cross on 42, settled himself and tried to plant the ball back across Mildenhall from similar distance to Constable. Again Mildenhall was equal to it, saving well and ensuring that we went into the break honours even.
Rigg had an effort fly just wide as the second half started but on 55 United were behind from the spot. A clever ball from O’Toole slipped Ryan Brunt in on the left edge of the area. Jake Wright threw himself into a challenge and perhaps took mostly ball but also some of Brunt, and ref Andy Madley had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Brown needed to retake after the first successful kick had been ruled out for encroachment, but calmly repeated an identical spot kick into the bottom left corner to give Rovers a 1-0 lead.
To their credit United came back strong and on 70 they should have been back on level terms as sub Josh Parker raced away after good play by Batt and pinged a good low cross across from the right. Constable did all he could to get across the covering defender but having won the race could only steer his effort over the bar from close range. Batt then dragged his left footed shot just wide on 78 after more good work from Parker and Potter and the last ten minutes saw Rovers leaving only the game Brunt up front as they defended their lead for all they were worth.
United played with urgency and purpose but just could not find a way to break the ten men down. Instead it took a good save from McCormick to deny Fabian Broghammer from close range as Rovers almost caught them with a sucker punch counter-attack. That save is just about the only one that McCormick has needed to make on his two games for United so far, and yet they have been beaten in both matches. A downwards header from sub Harry Worley went agonisingly wide of the far post before United's fate was sealed as they over committed men forward and Eliot Richards stole away to slip the ball under McCormick and guarantee a win for his side.Credit to Rovers, who will pull away from danger and be a handful for any team between now and the end of the season, but the U's need to turn their dominance of games into points if they are to avoid meeting Rovers again next season.
Fifty/50 winning number 269984 wins £1,047
Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Steve Daniels, Stats by PA Sports