A new dawn, a new day, a new life…and feeling good
Match 1: 6th August, Torquay 2-2 Burton Albion
While before the match most Gulls fans were hoping for, if not expecting, a win against a Burton side that struggled last year, I will take the point we earned with our second half comeback. I don’t think we played particularly badly, having started and ended the game well, but at 2-0 down it did look bleak, even if those goals were more down to defensive errors.
Firstly, it is worth acknowledging that Burton were tough opponents, and may well prove to be awkward to beat this year for the top sides in the division. Despite losing Russell Penn, the signings of big forwards Justin Richards and Calvin Zola, both experienced players at this level, seemed to make a difference, and Paul Peschisolido tried to play to their strengths with a very direct approach. So, although we did start well, passing it about with confidence, the long balls over the top into the area in between the defensive and midfield lines caused problems, especially with the added muscular presence of the big strikers.
This is basically what led to the first Burton goal early in the second half. The Torquay midfield had been pressing forward, leaving a gap for the Brewers to play the long ball over the top into that Richards could capitalise on. The second goal came shortly after another ball over the top and more defensive confusion – Martin Ling acknowledged after the game that this is something that needs to be worked on. For Burton, it wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. In the second quarter of the game, they had dominated, so you can’t say they didn’t deserve to be ahead.
So we suddenly found ourselves two goals behind after 5 minutes of madness. Most other managers would have reacted with a change, but Ling didn’t, which did make sense and was probably the right decision – we hadn’t been playing particularly badly going forward, so why bother? Having said that, he had been about to make a double substitution when Rene Howe, who was outstanding on his first competitive appearance for us, powered his way through the defensive line, and then dummied and slotted it past Ross Atkins in the Burton goal. Suddenly we looked reinvigorated, and we were on top for the rest of the game. We were rewarded with an equaliser, when a slick passing move ended with a beautiful through ball from Eunan O’Kane found his midfield partner and captain Lee Mansell, who finished with aplomb.
We pressed on for a winner, and were given a lucky break when Parkes was sent off for Burton for a second yellow card for a mistimed tackle on Howe, but it ended as a draw, a fair result in the circumstances. It was by no means a disappointing performance – I would argue that it was one of the most accomplished performances I’ve seen from a Torquay United side since we returned to the Football League, especially tactically. Although we started with a bog standard 4-4-2, it was clear from early on that Ling had set his side out to be fluid, much like the Swindon side he played in under Glenn Hoddle in the 1990s. At times we were playing a 4-3-3, with Ian Morris pushing forward on the left and Danny Stevens cutting inside from the right wing. We also kept it down on the floor, apart from the odd panicked hoof towards the end – we seemed slightly more assured than, say, the times when we had been struggling in games under Paul Buckle.
Our new signings generally impressed. Howe was an all-round revelation – strong and powerful, but very quick with it, and he often tracked back to defend. Bobby Olejnik made a number of smart saves in the goal when the defence had let him down, while Ian Morris showed glimpses of quality and Brian Saah looks a more complete defender than Guy Branston. Kenyan international striker Taiwo Atieno came on for Billy Kee late on and added some useful flick-ons and attacking presence, and I’d like to see him start in our upcoming matches.
The disappointments? Kee, despite having gained more weight over the summer, seemed to be falling over easier than ever, which is a shame because he looked more comfortable when he was on the ball than last season, when Buckle had been playing him on the wing. Centre-back Chris Robertson was still man-handling people and lacking pace – I still believe Mark Ellis is superior to him. Oastler seems to still be adapting to the defensive responsibilities at right back (although he is unlikely to be a fixture there, as Daniel Leadbitter is currently out injured), and Danny Stevens had the odd moment where he looked out of his depth, although his pace was threatening and he looked dangerous when running with the ball at the Burton defence.
But it is early in the season yet – flaws can be ironed out, the squad will gel further, and the players will adapt to the new system. For now, the signs are promising – when we were good, we were very good. We look far more of an accomplished threat going forward than last year – the defensive unit just needs a bit more time. This has only confirmed that we haven’t gone backwards since last year, despite the losses of Buckle, Zebroski and Branston. Given that a number of the sides we expect to be challenging at the top also drew or lost today, it’s certainly not 2 points dropped.