BY PAUL BREEN
One year ago, Torquay United’s ‘Great Escape’ from relegation earned manager Kevin Nicholson the nickname Ranieri of the Riviera. Having been dead and buried, as the cliché goes, the Gulls rose above the threat of relegation in the penultimate weekend of last season and promised to fly high this time around. After all, their form between early spring and the end of April was as good as any team in the division including those in the play-offs.
Sadly, a number of factors got in the way of those ambitions to mount a promotion bid this time around and very soon, once again, the club found itself locked in a struggle to survive. Just like Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City, Torquay found themselves on the edge of the relegation zone by Christmas, despite having ended the previous season in a blaze of glory. Down in Devon, there was no distraction of Champions League football but there was plenty of drama in the boardroom, with new owners taking charge. Like many of those out to make a profit in the football business, these owners came in with grand promises that soon faded into the harsh economic reality of limited funds spent on the playing side.
The Gulls had started the season with ambitions of competing against Lincoln City, Tranmere Rovers and Aldershot, fellow former league clubs fighting for a return to League Two. Instead, they soon found themselves snared at the wrong end of the division and competing with teams from places not instantly recognisable on the map of English football. Amongst such opponents they faced North Ferriby United who play in a village outside of Hull, close to the Humber Bridge.
A defeat there in August provided a wake-up call for a Torquay squad that had been stripped down over the summer, rather than bulked up for the expected promotion challenge. Ownership issues had caused a lack of investment in the playing squad, which was to worsen as the season progressed. By the end, they would find themselves in the dangerous position of not even having a reserve goalkeeper on the substitutes’ bench in their closing games. All it took at any time was for one bad challenge or even one deliberate challenge to leave the Gulls without a goalkeeper in a key game at a time when every single point was becoming priceless.
However, despite such challenges, they fought on with limited resources and a startling lack of consistency against the weaker teams in the division. Over the course of the season, Torquay seemed able to beat leading lights such as Forest Green and Gateshead, and then lose to the likes of Woking, Guiseley, and Maidstone, their competitors in the relegation scrap. Unlike Leicester City who had changed their manager from Claudio Ranieri to Craig Shakespeare and risen up the Premier League, Torquay’s problem was not one of motivation; it was a lack of resource, and a manager being asked to write a survival mission with barely enough ink to get through each match day programme.
Come the closing weeks of the season, relegation seemed certain. Having failed to pick up points in key games against the teams around them in the weeks before, they faced three of the division’s top clubs in their last five games. In the first of these they drew with Aldershot Town on a day of glorious sunshine tempered by the poor fortune of all their main relegation rivals winning on the same afternoon. Next up was an Easter trip to Lincoln where two late goals sent the Gulls crashing to a 2-1 defeat that left them four points from safety with only three games left to play.
By now, the club seemed past the point of rescue – not just because of the threat of relegation, but in danger of facing extinction as a professional football club. Again, supporters raised questions about the motives of the owners, Gaming International. Though some money had been invested in the squad, it barely covered enough listed substitutes to fill the matchday bench. Rumours abounded on club forums that the owners actually wanted the club to get relegated so they could go part time and sell off their home ground – Plainmoor – to housing developers.
Now it seemed that not even the Ranieri of the Riviera could conjure up enough magic to save a club on its last legs. Just like many of English football’s bigger names, Torquay United seemed to have become the plaything of investors rather than people who cared about the club’s history. It seemed as pointless to ask Torquay’s owners about the heritage of the club, as it would be to ask the owners of clubs such as Charlton Athletic and Coventry City to name the years when their clubs won the FA Cup. Torquay might have won few cups in their history, but they have had their moments and their characters down through the years.
Relegated to the National League South and without a ground, the club would face oblivion, with its history remembered by only those few thousand loyal fans who have followed them through thick and thin – up, down and through the lower divisions. At best, in such a scenario, fans could dream that Plainmoor might end up like the old Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough, replaced by a shiny new stadium on the Riverside. Up there by the smog on the Tees, a housing estate has replaced the old ground but a powerful sense of history still remains with streets and sculptures recalling past glories. For Torquay, if relegated, there seemed little hope of any statues marking the spot where Derek ‘the Dude’ Dawkins once struck a winning goal against Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup. Or where a police dog ran onto the pitch and snapped the legs of tough-tackling defender Jim McNichol, to earn the injury time that first saved the club from relegation to the non-league.
Amongst the fan base it was accepted that relegation would be a disaster, much as it is for Leyton Orient one division higher. There may well have never been a comeback if the club got relegated to the Conference South, just a couple of divisions above Dulwich Hamlet, Greenwich Borough and Dorking Wanderers. But then, when all seemed lost, the Gulls won 3-1 at home to Braintree on Easter Monday, before following this up with victory over promotion contenders Dover Athletic. These results lifted them out of the relegation zone and set up a final day battle with North Ferriby’s villagers on Saturday 29th April; possibly the most important date in the history of Torquay United Football Club.
After a nervous start, a goal in each half sealed the required victory for the Gulls and they stay safe for another season. For the second time in a row, Kevin Nicholson’s team sealed a great escape, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a relegation battle that seemed to have ended two weeks previously with defeat at Lincoln. But amidst the euphoria, ownership issues still remain and just like at Coventry, Charlton, Blackpool, and Leyton Orient, until these are resolved a shadow still hangs over the future of this proud little club down in the south west of England.
It would be a terrible shame if they fell off the football map, and this time around they haven’t. Last year’s Ranieri is this year’s Shakespeare, but unless there is investment in the summer the same old story is going to be acted out once again next season. Kevin Nicholson has shown his mettle for a fight. Now his team needs solid investment and a foundation of support from the owners to try and get Torquay back to where they belong. That might be the lower reaches of the Football League, but that seems like dizzy heights when you’re staring down the ladder at the possibility of visits to Whitehawk and Hemel Hempstead. Not, by the way, that there’s anything wrong with football at that level. Some of it is a very high standard and the atmosphere in games there puts the higher divisions to shame. Fans mix and mingle, and enjoy the playing of the game, as much as the winning.
The problem for a team like Torquay is that they probably could not survive at this level, because of their economics and even their geography. Though their name is never likely to be up in lights in the West End, they’re used to staging matches against clubs of a similar size and history. Hopefully then, a year from now, the script will be very different to the trials of this past two seasons. Well done to Kevin Nicholson and his threadbare squad on staying up, and thanks too for the opportunity they give their fans in visiting new and interesting places, such as Ferriby, slightly off the beaten track of English football but worth a visit all the same.