BY PAUL BREEN
Summer is still here (allegedly) and the season not yet started, but Torquay United are once again making headlines in a fight for survival. Well, maybe not headlines in a week when Manchester United are about to unload a hundred million pounds on a single player. Somewhere in the small print on the sports pages, you might find the story of the south coast club in desperate and urgent need of a new investor.
After a chaotic few years, the foam appeared to have settled on the south coast. Last season the club engineered a near-miracle survival from relegation in the closing stages of the National League. Manager Kevin Nicholson found himself hailed as the Ranieri of the Riviera. Then news broke of a potential takeover by a company called Gaming International. They specialise in the leisure industry, and have a subsidiary company called Stadia UK which runs greyhound tracks, motorsport events, and various promotions, not just in Britain but also in Japan.
From the start though, Gaming International’s involvement drew mixed responses from supporters and even people within the club. On the plus side, they seemed to bring a guarantee of cash flow and deep knowledge of the leisure industry. In the year when everyone has been trying to catch Pokemon, Torquay’s men in yellow shirts stood on the verge of being big in Japan.
But there was always an undercurrent of doubt, particularly in the company’s intentions for the club’s home ground of 105 years – Plainmoor – currently owned by Torbay Council. The fear was not so much that the club might move to a new stadium in a different location, as had been proposed earlier in the year when there was another suggestion of a takeover by an American company, rather the fear was that Gaming International was more interested in the assets than the club itself. Supporters feared the loss of their home ground with nothing to replace it in the long run, and the football club dying in the process.
Those fears grew stronger over the summer as Gaming International expressed interest in acquiring Plainmoor from Torbay Council, and gaining freehold. On this stumbling block, the whole deal collapsed and Torquay United now find themselves in desperate search of new investors. That search appears to be compounded by the fact that they now owe money to Gaming International who may well have their own side of the story and feel a sense of injustice too that people within football and the local community seem to mistrust their intentions.
But – another but – the historic landscape of English football has become littered with the bones of clubs that have fallen by the wayside after risky investments. There is a horrible injustice, reflective of society, in a game where Manchester United’s likely new superstar Paul Pogba earns enough in a week to keep five National League clubs in business. Most of us after all have lives far closer to the Torquays of this world than the teams at the top of the league pyramid.
We struggle to survive, always no more than a couple of pay cheques away from being unable to afford the rent, the heating bills, and the basic everyday costs of going from one day to the next. Torquay are at this stage, so very cruelly soon after making headlines for the right reasons just a couple of months ago. And this isn’t a story of greed or getting ideas above their station. This is a case of trying to find a sense of stability and making a very simple wrong decision along the way, of taking investors at face value, before pulling out because of doubts – going with the heart in the beginning, and then following the head in the end.
I’m sure we could all easily get sucked in by the lure of grand promises and many people have, sometimes losing their entire life savings along the way. For Torquay supporters right now, there’s a fear not of losing their savings but of losing their life’s investments – the emotional attachment to their football club.
Hopefully, though, some good will come from all this and the club will find the investors that it deserves. There was a time in a more equitable world of British football that little Torquay always appeared in half a dozen lines in the sports pages of Sunday papers, playing the likes of Halifax, Scarborough, Newport, Gillingham, Crewe Alexandra, and even Rushden & Diamonds (remember them?).
Some of those teams still exist. Some don’t. Some shed their old skins and came back in a new form, Glasgow Rangers style. Torquay just hope they get a chance to fight their way back onto the sports pages for the right reasons, like in those good old days that maybe didn’t even seem so great at the time. Teenage star Lee Sharpe ripping Newport County apart as the Gulls hit six, Derek Dawkins snatching a legendary winner against Tottenham Hotspur in the league cup, Kevin Nicholson’s curling free kick rescuing a point at Gillingham, and then the great escape at the end of last season.
Those were stories that had the Gulls making news for all the right reasons. Hopefully the same will happen at the end of this uncertainty right now, and the club’s gamble of withdrawing from a risky investment will pay off.
Mid-summer’s supposed to be the start of fresh hope and first Saturdays when everybody’s equal. Back in school, George Orwell told us that the world goes wrong when we’re led to believe that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. There’s something rotten in the pig pen, and the possible demise of clubs like Torquay, as others pay out millions on a weekly basis, is a reminder that this game’s gone badly wrong somewhere along the line. Torquay’s struggle is the struggle of every one of us and even those with no love of football must sense the sadness in what’s happening to a world that really is becoming a game of two halves. Hopefully the Gulls will find a way through this and carry on the struggle for the next generation of their supporters.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.