IT WAS ONE thing for manager Alan Knill to say that a two-week break had done Torquay United some good, it was entirely another for them to prove it against the hottest team in League Two.
Southend United came to town in third place, on an unbeaten run of six wins in seven games, and with their sights set on reaching the top of the table.
The Gulls started the day two points adrift at the bottom, with only one win in 12 league and cup games, and Knill under increasing pressure.
But the high stakes and a windy, mucky old day at Plainmoor brought the fighting spirit out of Knill’s side, and Torquay’s best win of the season gave them a timely and much-needed boost.
Perhaps the most telling tribute came from Southend manager Phil Brown, who readily acknowledged that his team had been outplayed and, crucially, outfought at every turn.
Brown has been using a 4-3-3 formation, and it was Knill’s decision to change from 4-4-2 and match Southend’s system, prompted in part by new loan striker Jayden Stockley’s calf injury, which proved crucial for the Gulls.
Where they had lost out in midfield in a 3-1 defeat at Scunthorpe United a fortnight before, here they battled their opponents for every ball, with teenager Jak McCourt recalled between the always competitive Damien Mozika and skipper Lee Mansell.
As Knill said later, the first thing you do in a dog-fight is fight. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective. And it certainly had the desired effect.
There was not much in it for 20 minutes, Mozika and Southend midfielder Marc Laird swapping long-range efforts over the bar, but even against the strong wind Torquay coped pretty well.
Michael Poke – in a big decision, Knill brought him back for his first game of the season in place of Martin Rice – denied Conor Clifford in one counter-attack, but Mansell, Jordan Chapell and the fit-again Billy Bodin all went close for Torquay before the interval.
Former Exeter City striker Barry Corr tested Poke again just after the restart, but in the 50th minute a moment of quality in a muck-and-nettles afternoon saw Torquay take the lead.
Mozika helped the ball on in midfield and a delightful flick with the outside of Bodin’s left foot slipped Marquis away on the left.
The Millwall loanee had enough space and time to volley a left-foot shot across David Bentley and into the right corner of the net from 15 yards.
Marquis, just as he had done in previous games against Plymouth Argyle and Scunthorpe, worked his proverbial socks off in a lone striker role, and that excellent finish was no more than he deserved for his efforts.
Within a couple more minutes, Torquay were unlucky not to be at least another goal ahead. Aaron Downes headed back a McCourt corner to the far post, Anthony O’Connor hit the bar from close-range and Bodin’s follow-up volley was cleared off the line. Then McCourt beat Bentley with another flag-kick, only to see the ball hit the bar and fly to safety.
Brown made a series of changes, sending on Ryan Leonard, experienced striker Freddy Eastwood and Jack Payne, in an attempt to turn the tide, but Torquay were in no mood to let this one go.
Blackburn loanee O’Connor was outstanding at centre-back, and he had good support from Downes, who put a couple of recent difficult games behind him.
When Southend failed to clear after good work between Chapell and Dale Tonge down the right, Mansell fired just wide from the edge of the area, and in the 75th minute Marquis, gamely chasing a Tonge pass, did not miss Bentley’s bar by much with a rasping angled drive.
Southend seldom looked like saving themselves in the closing stages, Poke coming up with an important catch under pressure from Kevan Hurst’s cross and finally dropping down to smother an Eastwood drive in stoppage-time.
Two weeks before, Torquay’s defeat at Scunthorpe had been painfully punished by results elsewhere. On Saturday their win over Southend saw them gain ground on all their relegation rivals and close to within a point of a position of safety.
What a difference a fortnight can make.