Bristol Rovers' home form starts to gather momentum
IF Rovers can consistently produce the sparkling form that overwhelmed Torquay for 45 minutes in a cracking West Country derby, anything is still possible this season.
On the other hand, many repeats of the lackadaisical opening to the second half, which handed the ten-man visitors an unlikely route back into the game, will surely mean another season of frustration for long-suffering Pirates fans.
The campaign is at a crossroads. Rovers have lost only once in seven games after a wretched start and the foundation has been laid for recovery and prosperity.
But they cannot hope to climb the League Two table while conceding the sort of goals that made hard work of a victory that appeared to be sewn up by the interval.
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Matt Lund was badly out-muscled by Rene Howe before the former Rovers striker produced an exquisite curling finish to halve the deficit on 53 minutes.
Then Tom Parkes allowed another former Pirate Aaron Downes a free run to head home Kevin Nicholson's 59th minute free-kick.
Suddenly all the good work of the first half, which saw Rovers start sharply and never give their opponents a moment to dwell on the ball, was undone.
Blushes were spared when Torquay goalkeeper Michael Poke could only parry Eliot Richards' 77th-minute shot and energetic substitute Wayne Brown crossed for the impressive Tom Eaves to sidefoot the winner.
But the shortcomings which almost threw the game away were not lost on manager Mark McGhee, who was left with mixed feelings.
"There is a bit of frustration because I had such high expectations for the game," he said. "I really felt our first half performance was coming because during the week we had worked on a lot of things.
"The way we played for 45 minutes was everything I had hoped for. What I didn't anticipate was the sloppy start we made to the second half. Credit to Torquay because they hadn't given up the game at that point, despite being two goals down with ten men.
"We deserve a certain amount of credit too because we didn't bottle it at 2-2 and become disjointed. We kept working away to get the winning goal and eventually we got it.
"I wasn't confident that would happen. Having seen the two we conceded, I was concerned Torquay might get a third.
"Once it went 3-2 I thought we would see the game out. But at times I felt we were too open. Perhaps because Torquay were down to ten men we became a bit lax with our shape."
Eaves broke the deadlock on 15 minutes, taking advantage of Poke's hesitancy in advancing to the edge of his box to get behind Downes and lift the ball over the stranded keeper.
Two minutes later Lund showed quick thinking at a free-kick, reacting immediately to the whistle and curling a low shot around a questionable defensive wall to beat Poke at his near post.
McGhee was as surprised as he was impressed. "I told Matty not to take free-kicks. That was my contribution to the goal," he smiled. "He took one a few games ago and hit the roof of the stand."
Torquay were being overrun and when full-back Joe Oastler was sent off on the half-hour for a second bookable offence it seemed only a matter of how many Rovers would score.
Home fans yelled for a straight red card when Oastler clattered into Fabian Broghammer to earn his first caution, causing an injury that saw the winger substituted soon afterwards.
Maybe referee Scott Mathieson had that in mind when he reached for his pocket again as Oastler committed a far more innocuous foul on Broghammer's replacement Lee Brown on Rovers' left flank.
With Eaves a physical presence up front, Joe Anyinsah adding pace down the right and David Clarkson catching the eye with some deft midfield passing, McGhee's men discovered the penetration missing in so many home games this season.
Only the finish was missing as Parkes failed to make proper contact with a cross from the imposing Garry Kenneth, who himself had an effort tipped over after showing great skill for a big defender on the edge of the Torquay box.
Lee Brown fired just wide and Poke saved from Richards before the half ended with the goalkeeper palming over an Eaves header.
It was scintillating football from McGhee's men, which made their error-strewn opening to the second period difficult to fathom and surely down to state of mind.
Once Eaves had restored the lead confidence returned and the on-loan striker should have completed a hat-trick in the closing stages, failing to beat Poke when clear on goal.
McGhee said: "I thought we played very well in the first half against Yeovil here, but this time we scored two goals so it was probably our best 45 minutes at home this season.
"Tom Eaves should have come away with a hat-trick, but the ball got stuck between his feet for his chance at the end.
"I thought his second half performance was terrific when the other players seemed to be conspiring to lose us the game. He and Wayne Brown kept the tempo up and in the end they won us the game."
Torquay boss Martin Ling fumed: "Ten of our 11 players were off their game in the first half, with only Brian Saah doing his job. Sometimes it's easy to play when two goals down because nothing is expected of you."