BY PAUL BREEN
Leicester City might be dominating most of the headlines right now, but down along the south coast the local papers are labelling another man as their regional Ranieri.
Back in August 2012, Kevin Nicholson lined up at left-back for Torquay United in the League Cup against a Leicester City team with Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel, and Danny Drinkwater in their ranks. None, aside from the goalkeeper, were household names at the time. Indeed, Torquay could lay claim to having the blockbuster name wearing yellow and blue on the night, with former Arsenal trainee Tom Cruise in their ranks.
In the end, championship side Leicester City ran out winners by four goals to nil, with new signing – former non-league striker Jamie Vardy – getting one of their goals. Nobody on that summer’s night could have imagined the rollercoaster journey for both clubs, now at opposite ends of the league, in the seasons that followed.
Leicester have gone on to the dizzy heights of certain Champions League qualification and a probable first Premier League title. Torquay, on the other hand, slipped almost to the verge of extinction, staring down the gun barrel of certain relegation to footballing No Man’s Land just a few short months ago.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of in being in English football’s lower leagues. Some clubs with a fantastic history grace these divisions. Dulwich Hamlet for example in the Isthmian League. Bishop Auckland in the Northern League. Many of these clubs are strongly rooted in a proud tradition of amateur or semi-professional football. But for a side like Torquay to fall into the sixth tier of English football, the National League South, it would probably spell the end of their existence as a professional club.
Torquay as a place has always conjured up images of escape, holidays to the English Riviera in the shadow of palm trees. John Cleese made a comedy out of it. Agatha Christie went there to write books. Neither of these legends, though, could have scripted some of the great escapes conjured up by Torquay United in recent decades, particularly since the introduction of promotion from the non-league at the expense of the regular league’s bottom clubs.
But none of these compare to the achievements of Kevin Nicholson, the Riviera’s new Ranieri. In late September 2015 he took charge of the team he’d played for making 314 appearances between 2007 and 2014. Nobody expected much. The team was on the slide, and in financial difficulty. Fans forums labelled Kevin as being out of his depth, lacking the experience for a relegation dogfight. One of football’s nice guys in a business where nice guys just don’t cut too much ice. The former Sheffield Wednesday trainee and England C international appeared to be on a hiding to nothing. Damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.
Despite the high point of a 4-1 hammering of Forest Green on Boxing Day, Torquay slipped further and further down the table, in an unstoppable descent, until they hit rock bottom in February. Then crucial victories over relegation rivals Boreham Wood and Welling United kindled the faint spark of a dream that relegation could be avoided.
Still ten points off the drop, Kevin Nicholson had by now fashioned a team in his own image and filled them with enthusiasm for the fight against all the odds. He also possesses a quality which is often rarely found in managers where they are prepared to admit their weaknesses, and admit too that they’re learning along the way. He never gave up the dream of surviving the relegation battle, even when so far adrift of the rest. At the same time never took the possibility of escape for granted, and not even now when it’s so close – hence the local press comparisons to Claudio Ranieri.
He has also shown himself to be a Torquay man through and through, passionate about the place, the club, and the job he has been given. Knowing the history and the character of his club has perhaps been vital in the relegation battle. After all, this is a club that has a history of more ups and downs than an episode of Fawlty Towers, the heights of John Cleese often followed soon after by the misfortunes of Manuel. In Torquay’s case there never seems to be a dull middle. It’s either a promotion battle, a near miss in the play-offs, or a flirtation with relegation, and a last day battle for survival such as in 2001 when they had to win at Barnet to be safe. An epic 3-2 battle ensued in north London, which saw the Gulls preserve their league status that day.
Think too of their first great escape in the debut season of relegation from the league. Then they were saved from a final day drop through the basement by a very unlikely source of attack, possibly the most famous dog in football history since Pickles; the mongrel collie that found the stolen Jules Rimet World Cup trophy in 1966. Torquay were rescued from their own pickle on the final Saturday afternoon of a season that had also seen league giants such as Burnley contending with the threat of dropping into the Conference, finishing 22nd in the end.
On that famous afternoon Torquay United were losing two-nil at home to Crewe Alexandra and heading for relegation when a police dog by the name of Bryn ran onto the pitch and took a bite out of Scottish defender Jim McNichol’s leg. Thanks to this, a long period of injury time ensued, and Torquay striker Paul Dobson eventually struck an equaliser in the 94th minute to keep Torquay in the league and send Lincoln City down instead.
This season there has been nothing quite so dramatic for the men from Plainmoor, but the bite in their attack has come from a striker released by Bristol Rovers, from a famous football family. Nathan Blissett is the nephew of former Watford, England and AC Milan star Luther Blissett. At 25 he has been slow to find consistency in his career but since signing for Torquay at the turn of the year he has been integral to their survival bid. If Kevin Nicholson has been Torquay’s Ranieri, then Nathan Blissett is their Jamie Vardy. His six goals have made him a cult hero to compare with others of the past such as Paul Dobson and David Graham who were the heroes of similar scraps to avoid relegation.
Yet none of those strikers have ever had to face such a critical period in the club’s history. Their game against Altrincham on Tuesday night 12th April was deemed the most important ever. Having been ten points adrift in February, Kevin Nicholson’s men dragged themselves out of the relegation zone with the kind of form only ever seen at Torquay in play-off or promotion seasons. With a series of hard fought wins and a few speed humps along the way, they went into the Altrincham game knowing that victory would put the seal on an amazing turnaround and probably condemn Altrincham to the drop. Strangely significant too, since in the era before the advent of promotion and relegation at this level, Altrincham dominated the non-league in the 70s and 80s, often at times when the likes of Torquay and Halifax struggled. Ironic then that the Manchester team now see themselves locked in a life and death battle with these two former fourth division sides.
The battle then took on great significance on a south coast spring night as the season nears its end. Torquay, from the start, had the better of affairs. They won 2-0, without even the name of Nathan Blissett, their Vardy, on the scoreboard. Instead it was Luke Young, a survivor of past squads, and Shaun Harrad, a newcomer of the Nicholson era, who scored the crucial goals. By the end a mighty weight was lifted from the shoulders of the assembled crowd at Plainmoor, and fears of facing that dreaded drop dissipated.
The fight’s not over yet though for the Ranieri of the Riviera. Three big games await but this team stands on the verge of being one of those rare sides that achieves cult status without actually winning anything. It has echoes of those seasons in the late 1980s under the management of Cyril Knowles, and a team with the likes of Lee Sharpe, David Caldwell, and Derek Dawkins who scored in a famous League Cup win over Tottenham Hotspur, Nice One Cyril’s former club. That team got to the play-offs and a Sherpa Van trophy appearance at Wembley, within two years of almost dropping out of the league.
That gives hope then to the present Torquay side because if they can emulate Leicester City and go from great escape to table topping form in the course of a single calendar year then Kevin Nicholson will surely be remembered as fondly as his Italian counterpart in the East Midlands. And there’s every chance that can become a reality if this current team stays together and replicates their end of season form through the whole of the next season.
We can just hope though that in this cruel world of ever changing ownership, which is going to hit Torquay in the summer, that Kevin is kept on and given the chance to bring this team to its full potential. Supporting Charlton Athletic myself, I know what happens to a club when new owners come in and get rid of people whose heart and soul goes into the club that they work for. Maybe it took Kevin a while to get going but once revved up, there’s been no stopping this team and come the weekend, hopefully for Torquay it will be full steam ahead to survival. There’s as much of a miracle in that, in many ways, as Leicester’s achievement of winning the league.
Of course the fight isn’t over yet for either team but that’s the fun of football. We can never know what the script is going to throw up next, but I’m predicting a happy ending for both Ranieris.
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.