A new manager, and a new formation to boot, but an old problem helped to inflict Torquay United’s sixth successive defeat at the hands of Port Vale at Plainmoor.
The Gulls did not deserve to lose on Saturday to Micky Adams’ promotion-chasing Vale side, but lose they did after their first-half superiority was destroyed by a deflected goal. That is the sort of thing that happens when everything seems to conspire against you.
But interim boss Alan Knill was quick to stress that United cannot afford any ‘poor us’ stuff in current circumstances – and the fact is that United have now scored only one goal from open play in their last eight games. No team can hope to win matches regularly with that lack of penetration near goal.
In his first game since taking over from the ill Martin Ling, Knill played two men up front, quite a change of attitude after the lone-striker approach which the Gulls have used for so long. Loan signing Elliot Benyon partnered leading scorer Rene Howe.
A lively combination they looked too, especially in the first half, and they ought to score goals against less resolute and powerful defences than the one which Vale put out.
Former Plymouth Argyle centre-half Darren Purse does not tend to win too many friends in opposing camps but he often gets the job done, and he and John McCombe eventually saw off the best that United had to throw at them on Saturday.
Knill promoted Benyon from the bench from the tame midweek 1-0 defeat at Aldershot, the only change, but he also played Ryan Jarvis on the right and Billy Bodin on the left in a 4-4-2 system that was quite a significant departure from the 4-2-3-1 which United had been using before he arrived.
Both teams showed a real appetite for attack in the early stages. Vale’s Jennison Myrie-Williams and Doug Loft both went close for the visitors, but United’s work-rate and some pretty smart build-up play saw them on top. Only a couple of outstanding saves by Vale goalkeeper Chris Neal kept the men from Burslem on terms.
Neal dived full-length to his right to tip a Howe header round a post from a Kevin Nicholson cross, and he also did well to dip over a goalbound free-kick from Bodin from 22 yards.
United did suffer a major setback when central defender Aaron Downes pulled up with hamstring trouble and had to be replaced by young Reading loanee Angus MacDonald in the 25th minute.
Three minutes later, Vale, second best until then, took the lead. Loft tried his luck with a long-range shot, but it was only Calvin Andrew’s touch which confounded Torquay goalkeeper Michael Poke, who probably had Loft’s first effort covered.
Although Vale’s 27-goal leading scorer Tom Pope headed a good chance wide, when Poke failed to come for an Ashley Vincent cross, Torquay still looked capable of a goal before half-time.
Neal saved well from Bodin, and the busy Jarvis had two shots blocked just before the interval.
Increasingly anxious to get back on terms, United’s earlier quality deserted them at times.
Vale’s strength lay down the middle, and the Gulls rather played into their hands.
Stick the ball in the air and hit it long, and Purse and McCombe will win it all day.
Vale realised that they had probably taken the best that United had to throw at them, and they started to fancy themselves on the counter-attack.
It was Poke who was the busier ’keeper in the second half, pulling off smart saves from Pope at a corner and two in quick succession from Andrew in the 71st minute.
Vincent was also clean through with Poke to beat seven minutes later, only for the ball to bobble just before he sliced it wildly wide.
Knill tried Lloyd Macklin for Bodin down United’s left, without marked success, and it is out wide where the Gulls’ new boss will probably try next to give his attack a lift.
Downes’ injury is also a concern, since he has been so consistent this season, but his partner Brian Saah was a deserved man-of-the-match winner. United do not look like conceding many goals – this was their third successive 1-0 defeat – but they are desperate to get themselves in front and work off the bit of confidence that a rare lead may bring.