Ben Currie – @bencurrie8
Torquay aimed to halt a run of three disappointing league defeats as they welcomed mid-table Stockport County down to a wild and wintery Westcountry.
A little over two months ago a depleted Gulls side travelled to Lancashire and romped to a 4-0 win. Worryingly, in the time since, the injury crisis has only worsened.
Stockport, who many believe have had an underwhelming season thus far, sit only 2 points behind United and travelled to Devon keen to avenge not only September’s hammering but the 1-4 reverse they suffered at the hands of Solihull on Tuesday night.
After a first-half horror show at Eastleigh in midweek, United reverted to a back four and welcomed Jamie Reid and Asa Hall back into the team with Connor Evans fit enough for the bench. QPR loanee Amrit Bansall-McNulty was handed his first start.
Torquay, shooting towards the Family Stand in the first half, started well, as they often do. Whitfield dragged an early chance wide, Bansall-McNulty shot tamely straight at the keeper, Janneh fizzed a powerful drive just over and Medford-Smith brought a flying save from Stockport stopper Ben Hinchcliffe with a fine volley.
It was far from one-way traffic however, as the returning Shaun MacDonald had to be alert to save smartly with his feet twice in quick succession, as Stockport started to threaten – playing through the Torquay defence with ease. On another occasion, Nyall Bell hit the bar from 8 yards out with the whole goal to aim at, it felt like a big let off. A succession of corners, some very cheaply conceded, continued to crank up the pressure.
Goalless at the break and it was fairly even stuff, the game had a nice ebb and flow to it, end-to-end almost, there was certainly no indication of the complete surrender about to unfold.
Stockport took complete control of the match by scoring twice inside the first five minutes of the second half with two very soft goals that saw United architects of their own downfall.
First: Robbie Cundy misread the bounce of a routine long-ball and whilst he was able to get a foot in by way of recovery, the ball deflected across the box to give Tom Walker the simplest of tap-ins. Two minutes later Torquay failed to clear a corner and when the ball was eventually played across the box, Nyall Bell got in front of Cundy to prod the ball into the corner, 2-0 and United were shell-shocked.
Hall and Reid were taken off, the gamble not paying off as clearly neither were fit. Connor Lemonheigh-Evans was sent on to try and get a hold of the match but he was ring-rusty too. His poorly taken quick free-kick was easily intercepted by Elliott Osbourne, who surged forward and saw his shot take a wicked deflection past the already diving MacDonald for 0-3. Plainmoor fell silent.
Torquay badly needed to stem the bleeding and huffed and puffed without creating anything clear cut, the only consolation coming out of nothing when Ben Whitfield picked the ball up on the right, drifted across the 18 yard line and arrowed a crisp left foot finish into the corner. It was a fine goal but met with barely a ripple of applause, was there time for a grandstand finish?
No was the emphatic answer with Stockport immediately extinguishing any lingering hopes as if indignant by us ruining their clean sheet. Another routine aerial ball saw Cundy in a horrendous position, playing two County attackers onside, and allowing Devante Rodney the freedom of Plainmoor to get the ball under control, pick his spot, and curl a delicious finish into the top corner, with MacDonald an onlooker. 1-4, completely deserved, and the catalyst for hordes of home fans heading for the exits.
Our implosion was not quite complete as the Hatters still found time to pour more misery on The Gulls’ beleagured charges. A debatable free-kick was conceded out wide, on the 18 yard line by Wynter in the second minute of added-on time. The ball was sent in, hard and low, past a poorly positioned wall, for Frank Mulhearn to get ahead of his marker and stab home from inside the 6 yard box for County’s fifth goal of the half.
Torquay United’s humiliation was complete.
MACDONALD 6. Made two excellent saves in the first half, wasn’t at fault for any of the goals although the wall for the 5th was poor, but by then the game had gone. Horribly exposed by an abject back four.
WYNTER 5. Just about the best of the outfield players, pretty much the only one to hold his position or with any semblance of an idea of what he should be doing.
CAMERON 4. A torrid day, started with a nervous, needlessly given away corner and got steadily worse. The man with the armband, needs to lead the team, direct the team, organise the team, sorry to say there was little of that today.
CUNDY 2. Oh dear, I never thought I’d give a 2. Unfortunately, Cundy played like a no.2 today and was at fault for several of the goals and countless other chances besides. It’s not nice to see someone’s performance unravelling like that and towards the end he looked bereft of confidence and not wanting to be out there. What is Aaron Downes teaching these boys?
MEDFORD-SMITH. 3. It’s not nice to slag off a young guy trying to make his way in the game, miles from home but this is absolutely not what we’re looking for. Caught out in possession time and again without the engine to make up the ground. Positionally poor too, this was not a defence working as a unit.
WHITFIELD 5. Can always be relied upon to keep going, even when times are tough. Scored a nice goal and on one occasion ran 30 yards to do the centre-backs’ job for them, pushed himself too hard and then spent the rest of the game feeling his hamstring. Another injury? Just what we need.
BUSE 4. It’s been an impressive start to his career in professional football for Matt Buse but this match really showed his limitations, as he was dominated by an experienced opposition. Not helped by having a half-fit partner alongside him but started to look increasingly out of his depth as the match went on. Never stopped trying, to his credit.
HALL. 4. Not fit enough to start. didn’t shirk the physical nature of the first half, loud and organisational too which has been badly missed of late. Looked like a man who badly needed minutes under his belt but with no apparent opportunity to do so. Subbed on 50 minutes.
BANSAL-MCNULTY 4. Showed a couple of nice touches and link-up play in the first half, rolled a rather tame effort into the goalkeepers hands when he might have done better, went missing In the second half.
REID 4. Not fit, moved increasingly gingerly as match wore on, unable to hassle, harry, press, explosive moment. All the things that make him so dangerous. Cut a very forlorn figured, subbed on the hour.
JANNEH 4. Grew incrementally more frustrated throughout the game as we failed to get the ball to him, and only one effort at goal in the first half.
LEMONHEIGH-EVANS (on for Hall) 4. Not fit, not able to find his usual range of passing. Extremely poor free-kick which led to goal number 3.
KALALA (on for McNulty) 4. Showed a few glimpses with some purposeful running at the Stockport defence, but no end-product. Completely out of sorts.
LEWINGTON (on for Reid) 4. A 4 is possibly generous on this showing as I’m not sure he actually touched the ball more than 3 times in the half-hour he was on. Difficult game to make your debut in though, unfair to judge him on this.
Man of the Match:
Man of the match? In a 1-5 drubbing? Are you insane? It was nice to see Paul Hall do the half-time draw wasn’t it? Happier times.
Score-line may have been even more emphatic had SHAUN MACDONALD not made two very good saves. BEN WHITFIELD scored another fine goal and BEN WYNTER continues to look like the only player truly at ease at this level too. Well done JULIAN GOULDTHORPE too, pitch looked in fine condition.
I thought we might play McNulty in behind the front two but he actually cut inside from the left wing, which lined us up as a more conventional 442. Reverted to a back four after once again trialling a back three in mid-week. A clean-sheet at half-time may have shown the merit of that but the defence was shaky from the start – often requiring last-ditch tackles to compensate for errors – before completely collapsing in the second half. This is a personnel problem, not a formation problem. Crying out for some experience back there, but I know that doesn’t come cheap.
Hall, Evans and Reid all got pitch-time in preference to other squad members. Before the match it looked to be a gamble worth taking, but it soon became apparent that none of them were anything remotely approaching fully fit. It doesn’t speak too highly of those in the squad who have been left out.
Scratching my head as to how we beat these so comfortably just two months ago. They threw men forward in big numbers, no doubt clued up to how frail we are defensively, we could not deal with the overloads and the ball kept coming back towards us. 5-1 was fully deserved and could have been even more had their strikers been more clinical in the first half. They now leapfrog us in the table and on that performance they are only going one direction. Loud and impressive away following, although we gave them far too much to sing about.
It would be cheap to lay into officials too severely when you’ve just witnessed your side meekly surrendering. We all feared the worse when we heard celebrity referee Sam Allison would be rocking up at Plainmoor today, but in truth he handled things generally fairly. If you don’t agree with that then I suggest, on this occasion, you find someone else to direct your ire at today, not at him. There are plenty of candidates. If I was being ultra-critical there might have been one hand-ball that he missed in the box, and I do think Wynter got the ball in the build up to the fifth, but both were immaterial in the overall scheme of things. Kept his cards in his pocket which allowed the game to flow.
The first goal signalled the opening of the floodgates. It had been a fairly even first-half, United certainly created their fair share of opportunities. However, as so often this season, heads dropped upon the first goal and our performance deteriorated spectacularly from then.
Player Spotlight: Ruairi Keating
I thought Keating had a particularly effective second half at Eastleigh on Tuesday night, he was the focal point to much of our play and the ball generally stuck when played to him. It was far from a perfect performance, understandable given his lack of pitch time, but his energy and work-rate, I felt, would earn him another start today. Instead, a half-fit Reid, a misfiring Janneh and Jared Lewington, hurriedly signed from Tiverton, all got pitch-time ahead of him. I am slightly confused as to Keating’s role in the squad at this moment, whilst he is not a consistent performer, he does give you 100% each game and, at the very least, a bit of physical presence up front.
We saw during our run at the back end of last season that Keating possesses the ability to create a goal, he made several key assists, but he was playing with confidence, feeling like a valuable member of the squad. Keating has been extremely bit-part this season and if the manager does not fancy him at this level then I think it would be beneficial to send him out on loan so he can try and get some goals elsewhere. He certainly would not have done any worse than what was served up today.
Pathetic, abysmal, embarrassing. I don’t think I have ever seen such a shambolic defensive display from a TUFC team in all my life. We can only hide behind the excuse of injuries for so long, this performance went beyond that. Some players downed tools, there were definitely some shrinking violets out there.
There was no indication at half-time that we were going to hit the self-destruct button, but after that 5 minute sucker punch following the interval it was obvious that things were only going to get worse as heads dropped and errors became even more frequent. From top to bottom it was not good enough and I include Gary Johnson in that too.
We are lucky to have such an experienced manager, he’s seen it all and won it all at this level before, multiple times, we must not lose sight of that. But he is not beyond criticism. Alternating between a back 3 and a back 4, and alternating goalkeepers, appears to have created an atmosphere of uncertainty and panic in defence, Stockport simply carved us apart at will today. Half-fit players will always be a gamble, and today it didn’t pay off, the forced substitutions of Hall and Reid stymied us for the rest of the match, has Whitfield done himself damage by staying on? There are players in the squad who might be aggrieved by their lack of pitch time. It’s hard to believe that we won 6 matches out of 7 just a few weeks ago.
Few clubs, at any level, could cope with having half of their starting line-up unavailable for selection – and at full-strength I am adamant that we would be a match for any team in this division – however, the situation is what it is and the players available simply must do better than what has been produced of late.
I am still backing Gary Johnson 100%, there is plenty of time left in the season to get back on track, he should not be under pressure in my opinion but the reality is that he will be. It is now the time for certain players to stand up and show that they belong at this level.
Today fell well below the level of the absolute minimum I expect as a fan. Losing is part and parcel of football, but a lack of effort, a lack of communication, lack of organisation, lack of fight etc I cannot tolerate. The list of teams we have lost to in recent weeks is worrying and does not bode well for what’s ahead. We are now mid-table, we are right on the precipice, a couple more poor results will turn what is now an alarming loss of form into a full-blown crisis.
There is plenty of time to turn this situation around and head towards the right end of the table, I’m convinced we have the right man in charge, but certain things do have to change. And fast.
Harrogate Town (A) – 7th December 2019, 3pm Kick Off