Chris Wilder signed off his five-year reign at Oxford United in Sky Bet League 2 as an early strike from Deane Smalley gave them a 1-0 win over a battling Torquay side to make it two wins in a row for the U's.
United started at a terrific tempo and the decisive goal came after just six minutes. Ryan Williams, restored to the right wing, burst inside on his second dangerous run of the afternoon. He slipped the ball inside for Smalley who took a touch to get the ball out of his feet then rolled it smartly past keeper Michael Poke for the lone goal of the afternoon.
Torquay, under Chris Hargreaves, were as disciplined and motivated as the manager was in his two spells with United as a player and came back at the Yellows. Joss Labadie forced Ryan Clarke into an excellent save on 19 as the keeper recovered from spilling a Kevin Nicholson free kick from the edge of the area.
However the back four of David Hunt, Johnny Mullins, Jake Wright and Tom Newey were as resolute as ever, despite staring into a driving wind and heavy rain for the first 45 minutes. United should have been 2-0 up on 31 as he gathered the ball well inside the area, touched it past Poke but saw the keeper somehow recover to reach out a glove and steal the ball from off his toe as he prepared to slide it into the empty net.
As the storm clouds drove in from the west, Torquay made the most of appalling conditions to push forward as hail bounced off the roofs of the stands. Elliott Benyon forced Clarke into a good save just before the break with a dipping effort which bounced just in front of the diving keeper but United had almost literally weathered that storm and will have been pleased to reach the break a goal to the good, having had the worst of the conditions.
Curiously the storm passed at half time although a swirling wind continued to make it hard to play passing football. United now had the wind at their back and in their sails and with Nicky Wroe and Danny Rose pulling the strings in midfield and wide men Ryan Williams and Josh Ruffels stretching the game they started to push the Gulls back.
It did take a brave block from Hunt on 54 to beat away a Benyon blast but generally United were coping well despite Torquay seeing a fair amount of the ball. Smalley had another opportunity to seal the win on 67 as he burst into the box and fired low at goal, only to be thwarted by Anthony O'Connor, who cleared off the line.
Torquay came close to an equaliser in stoppage time when Clarke pushed a Nicholson free-kick onto the bar and Wright, as he cleared under pressure, was nudged into the goal net. He required lengthy treatment on his knee and had to leave the field on a stretcher, although the injury might not be as bad as it looked at first.
There was always an edge to the game with yellow cards and strong challenges but it was competitive rather than overly aggressive and exactly the physical type of game that United will need to win in the second half of the season as the chase for promotion hots up. This win cemented their place in the play-off positions, with games in hand on clubs around them. More importantly it got the ball rolling once again at home. Upwards and onwards.
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Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Darrell Fisher, Stats by OPTA
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