United were full value for a 3-1 win at Torquay this afternoon as they made it three wins from four games. The familiar boot of James Constable, a less common penalty from Damian Batt and a third goal from Simon Heslop with the last kick of the game gave United all three points despite a goal from Aaron Downes for the Gulls that had set up an unnecessarily tense finale.
Having changed things around United’s injury woes struck once again after just seven minutes when Tony Capaldi ‘s back seemed to seize up, with nobody near him. He hobbled off to be replaced by Josh Parker and leave United 4-4-2 for the rest of the game. The back four of Batt, Michael Raynes, Jake Wright, and Luke O’Brien now had Parker, Scott Davies, Andy Whing and Sean Rigg in front of them and a front line of the recalled Constable and Alfie Potter up front.
The first chance of the game came after ten minutes as Raynes flicked a header wide from a well delivered Davies corner from the right, but other than a couple of tame long range efforts from the home side there was little to trouble either keeper in the first half hour.
However the final fifteen minutes of the first half should have seen United well in front as they spurned three golden opportunities.
On 33 home keeper Michael Poke showed what a class act he is with an astonishing save to deny Constable. A dummy by the striker then a shimmy from Potter set Constable in towards goal and although his thunderous shot from just inside the area was on target Poke somehow got enough on the ball to deflect it over the bar. An excellent save from a well worked move.
Another nice piece of movement from Potter on 39 minutes then presented Constable with an even better chance. Potter lifted the ball over giant defender Brian Saah for Constable to sprint clear. Poke came out but was horribly exposed and should have been beaten but Constable placed his shot way too close to the keeper and the chance went missing again.
Two minutes later and it was role-reversal as a through ball from Constable sent Potter scurrying towards goal in the left channel. Again the Torquay defenders were left trailing but again the chance slipped away as Potter’s left footed shot drifted well wide of the right hand post with Poke not needing to intervene this time.
United should have been leading but were grateful to the excellent Luke McCormick for a good save on 43 as Ryan Jarvis found space inside the box and drilled a shot across the keeper which McCormick did very well to get down and save.
United would have been unlucky to be down at the break but five minutes into the second half and they finally made one of their chances count. Full credit to Constable because after missing two similar chances in the first half he had plenty of time to think about things as he once again bore down on keeper Poke. A long ball from Luke O'Brien, missed by Aaron Downes, undid the Gulls and allowed Constable a free run. This time he took the option of going round the keeper before rolling the ball simply into the open net to make it 1-0.
Three minutes later and Downes was again at fault as United doubled their lead. Constable had shown his usual tenacity but Brian Saah and Downes looked to have cut him off. Inexplicably, instead of clearing Downes dallied and allowed Constable to steal the ball. Downes stuck a leg out to try and reprieve the situation and ref Stephen Martin had an easy decision to award a penalty. Batt stepped up to confidently fire the spot-kick home with deadly accuracy.
The Gulls needed something quickly and on 58 minutes they were back in the game. McCormick had done very well to tip a Labadie free kick over the bar but when the corner came in Downes rose highest to nod the ball home and make amends in no small measure for his part in the two United goals.
We had a game back on our hands now and only a great block from Batt prevented former United right back Lee Mansell from levelling matters on 63 as Mansell tried his luck from 18 yards with nobody closing him down. It was end to end stuff now with Raynes flicking another header wide from a Rigg corner, and Torquay raising their game and forcing Raynes and co. to defend well at the other end. It also meant plenty of space for the U's to exploit, as shown on 75 as a flowing move ended with Whing feeding Constable with the striker pinging a left footed strike inches wide of the left-hand post.
Given a very solid engine room where Whing and Davies, on his full debut, showed an excellent understanding and willingness to work hard for the team and keep things simple, United were excellent from front to back. Parker, another to impress on the right wing, was unlucky with a rising left footed shot on 83 that whistled maybe an inch over the bar and had United made more of their chances it could have been much more comfortable than the final scoreline. Indeed they were almost left to rue those opportunities on 87 as Rene Howe was given time and space but couldn't beat the excellent McCormick from ten yards out.
That would have been very unjust: even the home fans voted their keeper as their man of the match. Instead United took advantage of the space as sub Smalley showed great awareness to wait for the run of Heslop, who with his only touch of the entire game blasted the ball home to make it 3-1 as the ref blew for full time.
Three in a row away from home for the U's who now look to build on that set of results with two home games in a week. They face Barnet on Tuesday night and Chesterfield at the Kassam Stadium next Saturday. See you there.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher Stats by PA Sports