New-look Torquay United came from behind to beat National League South side Hemel Hempstead Town with second-half goals by Danny Wright, Kyle Cameron and Josh Umerah when football finally returned to sunny Plainmoor after six long Covid-19 months of inactivity.
Gary Johnson’s Gulls did fall behind to Matty Bateman’s glancing header in the 56th minute, and they conceded a second set-piece header by Kyle O’Connor-Ajayi to pull it back to 3-2 near the end.
But United did deserve to win, especially on their second-half performance, which featured bright displays by Olaf Koszela and Josh Umerah in attack.
United were without several players, with injuries and another game against AFC Bournemouth under-23s on Tuesday afternoon in mind - they included Jake Andrews, Gary Warren, Armani Little, Owen Price, JJ Evans and longer-term absentee Liam Davis.
Johnson started with a back-three (Louie Slough, Fraser Kerr, Kyle Cameron) with Ben Wynter and Dean Moxey at wing-back and Danny Wright partnering Nelson up front.
Hemel worked hard to keep United at bay in a low-key first half, which included a rapid substitution of new striker Andrew Nelson by Johnson in the 21st minute, moments after the former Dundee forward had been booked for an off-the ball spat.
Johnson was having none of that.
United, with Wynter and Moxey always available down the wings, were starting to get on top before half-time. Wright, Connor Lemonheigh-Evans and Umerah, on for Nelson, all went close.
When Hemel took the lead in the 56th minute, it was against the run of play, Bateman flicking home at the near-post from Ryan Sellers’ inswinging right-wing corner.
But that goal was probably what Torquay needed.
They were level in the 64th minute, Wright calmly dispatching a penalty into the bottom left-hand corner, after Koszela had been fouled trying to convert a spill by Hemel goalie Dean Snedker on Wright’s headed flick.
Snedker twice saved well from the muscular Umerah before, in the 67th minute, Cameron’s powerful header smacked against the underside of the bar, down and over the line on the linesman’s call... 2-1.
United, switching from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 after Koszela replaced defender Louie Slough, started to play some good stuff, Koszela lively down the right wing.
Umerah had threatened to turn and get a telling shot away well before he did just that in the 81st minute - 3-1.
But just when United looked as if they might run out more comfortable winners, O’Connor-Ajayi powered home a far-post header from a corner two minutes later.
The visitors never gave up hope of grabbing a draw, but Torquay certainly deserved their win. All that was missing was the atmosphere of the Yellow Army.
Torquay United 3 Hemel Hempstead Town 2
Torquay United (3-5-2): Covolan; Slough (Koszela 55), Kerr (Bamford 77), Cameron; Wynter, Whitfield (Piper 79), Nemane, Lemonheigh-Evans, Moxey (Edmondson 77); Nelson (Umerah 21), Wright (Cadby 77).
Booked: Wright 20.
Hemel Hempstead Town (4-4-2): Boness (Snedker 46); Kponhomou, Kinnane (Jefford 46), Perkins, Sellers (Akabuine 70); Lacey, Howells (O’Connor-Ajayi 74), Cook, Young (Beccles-Richards 14); Bateman (Webb 61), Moore (Vine 61); subs not used - Bunga.
Booked: Sellers 20.
Referee: Marc Whaley (Plymouth)