I’ve never liked rollercoasters and this one was the twistiest-turniest one I think I’ve ever been on. Sick to the pit of my stomach after the final penalty was missed to bring an end to one of the most entertaining but, ultimately painful, games I have experienced in my 41 years following the Gulls.
Controversy, excitement, one of the highest highs you could ever imagine but nothing to show for it but the realisation we’ll have to go to bloody Dover and Cleethorpes next season.
Just gutting, difficult to stomach and made worse by the knowledge that factors outside our own control made all the difference.
As against Notts County, the Gulls came quickly out of the traps and looked to have taken the lead in the eighth minute when Kyle Cameron headed home a free-kick and the dulcet tones of Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline rang around Ashton Gate.
But no, there was another sound to be heard – long before Cameron’s head hit the ball – with “referee” Simon Mather spotting the smallest of infringements. A supposed push by Joe Lewis on a Hartlepool defender, who didn’t complain and was never going to be involved in the play. If that kind of infringement is spotted anywhere else on the field, it’s not a free-kick. Indeed Lewis and Sherring were both guilty of the same “foul” later in the game and neither was penalised.
Just be consistent Mr Mather, or don’t bother showing up.
Even before then, Cameron had his shirt almost ripped off his chest inside the box – no penalty – and it was the recently converted left-midfielder who came close again with another header soon after, this time over the bar.
Hartlepool took a while to get into the game but once they did, it would be a spell of constant pressure for the Gulls defence to withstand.
Lewis, prone on the deck, managed to deflect a Luke Armstrong shot over the bar, Lucas Covolan saved well from the same player and Rhys Oates caused chaos most of the times he received the ball – the one player from the Pools squad who looks like he could go on to bigger and better things.
Asa Hall had an exquisite volley blocked by Gary Liddle, Adam Randell tested Hartlepool ‘keeper Brad James but, as the pendulum continued to swing one way and then the other, it was the men from the north-east who took the lead 10 minutes before the break.
Oates was predictably at the heart of it, cutting in from the right wing and hitting a shot which was blocked around eight yards out. Armstrong initially appeared to have no idea where the ball had dropped, but it was the Salford loanee who reacted quicker than Sam Sherring, held the Torquay defender off and took an extra touch before firing past Covolan off the underside of the bar.
Worse could have followed before the interval with Oates glancing a header wide when he should have hit the target and then, seconds before Mather blew his whistle, Covolan producing an incredible save to deny the same player.
The Gulls came out strongly again at the start of the second-half, with Simon Johnson lucky to avoid an own goal and Danny Wright, unable to match the heroics of his double against County, trying to beat James at the near post when others were in better position to score.
And then Mr Mather entered the fray again…
A corner from the right, floated over by the excellent Armani Little, was headed into the goal by Cameron (again). And again Mr Mather’s whistle was at his lips to deny the Yellows. A foul on the goalkeeper this time – a goalkeeper who looked a complete liability against a crossed ball and whose mistimed leap was handed an escape route because Cameron’s arm went across his chest. Daylight robbery that Dick Turpin would have been proud of.
And then he decided to complete his own personal hat-trick.
Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, more at home in a slightly withdrawn role after the break, tried to go around Timi Odusina and went to the ground. A clear penalty with contact on the midfielder’s thigh – albeit light – but again no decision.
What on earth had we done or said to Mr Mather in the three games he reffed us previously this season to deserve these decisions? Will he admit any mistakes? Of course not.
On came Benji Kimpioka, Jake Andrews and Billy Waters to boost Torquay’s attacking options but things became a little scrappy for a while as the game began to drift away from the Gulls.
And then came Gary Time.
First up came the missed sitter – Billy Waters somehow scooping the ball a mile over the bar from a couple of yards out, and I am not even certain that Wright’s header wasn’t going to creep into the far corner anyway.
And then the piece de resistance. Just something from the “stuff dreams are made of” playbook.
Covolan ran up to compete at a Torquay corner and stayed in the box when the ball was cleared. Armani Little delivered a pinpoint ball back into the mixer and there rose a green-clad goalkeeper to flick a perfect header past his stranded opposite number and queue commotion in the stands.
Probably the most important goalie goal since Jimmy Glass and potentially the most important in Torquay United’s long history.
By then, my heart rate was probably at a point of severe concern (given the recent Christian Eriksen collapse) and my blood pressure off the scale…but I really didn’t care given there would at least be another 30 minutes to get through.
Hartlepool looked deflated – as you would have to be – and extra-time started as you would have expected with Torquay well on top, Waters having a shot blocked and another effort saved down low by James.
But then came an injury which took the life out of the game and cost Torquay an all-important substitution which might not have ever been made and which, ultimately, might have cost us promotion.
Andrews took a full set of studs down his leg and despite expletive-laden protests, which caused sincere apologies from BT Sport, he had to be withdrawn and replaced by Matt Buse. Nine minutes of treatment, being stitched on the pitch and eventually being taken away on a stretcher.
The second period of extra-time was quiet, compared to the 105 minutes which came before, and despite the odd scare in each box it would be penalties to decide which team could go to St James’ Park (not the real one) and Sixfields and which would have to back to the Bloody Crabble, to give Dover’s ground it’s fully-sponsored name.
And what a shootout it was. Four penalties, four missed. Waters fell over, Wright tried to break the goal and Covolan pulled off two great saves.
Hall, Lewis and Little all scored after Hartlepool had briefly taken the lead; Evans showed bottle with the first penalty of sudden death.
Ryan Donaldson scored to make it 4-3 so up stepped Buse, who probably wouldn’t even have been on the pitch had Andrews not been hurt by a nasty tackle (which of course went unpunished). He opted for power, James got a touch, the ball smashed off the bar and reality struck. Another season in non-league football and probably with a squad which will have undergone a massive overhaul should loanees be unavailable and a few players decide to hang up their boots.
Gutted is not even half of it.
But, and this will be the first and last time you ever see me put this particular cliché in a verdict, we go again!
COVOLAN 10 – how can you not give him the absolute maximum. No fault for the goal, couple of outstanding saves in regulation, two great penalty saves…and a goal. Actually give him 15.
WYNTER 8 – he’d have been one of the players who would shine in a higher division. Excellent performance out wide and further into the centre when the subs meant a reshuffle.
MOXEY 6.5 – not his best game and was picked out as a weak link by Dave Challinor as they constantly moved Oates to the right side to target Moxey – it was where all their best play came from. Is that the end for him?
SHERRING 6.5 – struggled to cope with Armstrong for much of the game and really had to be stronger when faced up with his challenge for Pools’ only goal.
LEWIS 9 – outstanding display. Made a series of crucial blocks, defended like a trojan and stopped a number of dangerous Hartlepool attacks by his excellent positional sense. A real keeper for us.
RANDELL 6.5 – sadly for Torquay fans it wasn’t his best day. He’s had an incredible season but, when it really mattered, he just couldn’t affect the game as he often has. No doubt he’ll go on to a great career and I only hope he’ll have a second loan season. I doubt it though.
HALL 7 – central midfield was not really a place to be today – often bypassed by both sides. Somehow Asa made it through 120 minutes and scored a penalty. He’s one of the players who deserved an awful lot more from this season in general.
LITTLE 8 – best performance from Armani in a good long while. Most of our midfield play – what there was of it – went through him and his passing was much better. Also converted probably the best penalty of the entire shootout.
CAMERON 8.5 – left-wing Kyle was robbed of two goals with very questionable refereeing decisions. Not sure we’ll ever see him play out there again but we know he can do it, even if that means we’ll be playing a lot of long diagonal balls.
WRIGHT 6 – just not Danny’s day. He struggled to make much of an impact in a slightly more withdrawn role in the first 45 minutes. Little bit better in the second period when he was more of a No 9 and almost set up an equaliser before Cov’s late heroics. Over-confident on his penalty, not for the first time.
LEMONHEIGH-EVANS 7 – I want Connor to play in midfield but he gives it 100% up top. Again better in the second half when he swapped roles with Danny, but his best moment was another of those controversial decisions, this time the penalty that wasn’t. Hopefully we can keep hold of him but there will surely be suitors.
ANDREWS 6 – didn’t really have much of an impact in his 20 minutes on the pitch but the impact of his injury was key in the result.
KIMPIOKA 6.5 – chased down a series of lost balls but wasn’t able to end his loan spell with that piece of magic to win it in extra-time.
WATERS 5 – missed an absolute sitter in front of goal with seconds on the clock and then did a John Terry in the shootout, slipping as he went to take his kick and ending up with egg on his face.
BUSE 5 – came on at left-back for the last 15 minutes but that was not, sadly, what he will be remembered for.
Absolutely hopeless. Simon “Bleddy Hell Ref” Mather had officiated us three times before this season and I can’t say I had noticed him in any of those games. This one you couldn’t miss the bumbling fool. Two goals disallowed for infringements which wouldn’t have been given in open play, a penalty shout which pundits said would have been soft if given, but the contact was there. Beggars belief how all three of those went against Torquay and he joins Brett Huxtable, Sam Allison and Darren Deadman on the “refs no longer welcome at Plainmoor” list. If he comes back, I hope Gary and the staff turn the hot water taps off.
Strong, effective and hard to break down, which makes it all the tougher to realise we quite possibly would have won this game comfortably but for the officials. In Rhys Oates they have an outstanding player and, considering how abject they were in our 5-0 win early in the season, they clearly got things back together and that was without the player I thought was their best in our two previous meetings – the now penalty specialist Luke Molyneux. Good luck to Dave Challinor’s men in League Two.
Same as Notts County with an apparent tweak up top, which simply didn’t work. 4-2-3-1 with Cameron on the left wing, not a position I really want to see him in next season. Evans played ahead of Wright in the first half, they switched to much better effect in the second. Hard to even say what the formation was at the end; more like 2-5-3 with so many strikers out there (and a goalkeeper with a ruthless streak).
THE BIG MOMENT
Too many to mention but all involved Simon Mather. BLEDDY HELL REF!
Shame we can’t write a bit more about Lucas Covolan-Ronaldo because he deserved to be written about today…but that’s penalties for you.
MAN OF THE MATCH – LUCAS COVOLAN
Easiest call of the season. Lucas was good enough at his own job, making a couple of excellent saves and producing an all-round display of excellent goalkeeping, but that equaliser is going to live long in my memory even if it didn’t actually lead to a positive outcome.
Joe Lewis was outstanding at the back but I’d like to give a shout out to Armani Little. I’d be the first to say I’ve been disappointed with him since his return to action from injury, and more so in recent games where he has been a weak link. None of that today; he was a driving force in midfield when the ball spent some time in there rather than being moved quickly from end to end. Another player we don’t really know what the future holds for.
Gutted. Just gutted.
See you in August! (Or July if pre-season friendlies are your bag)
Words can’t describe the disappointment…Boys gave it everything and we just come up short 😔 I just want to say a massive thank you to the yellow army not just for today but for the whole season you’ve been unbelievable 💛💛