League Two is poor this year – there’s no way of getting away from it. Look at the BBC’s version of the table – the Last 10 Games column is an excellent demonstration of the total lack of consistency and form for pretty much every single team in the division. That’s either going to be because every team in the league is excellent, or every team in the league is poor. And after watching quite a bit of League Two football over the last few years, I’m pretty sure it’s not because they are all excellent.
There has been something of a talent drain in the lower leagues in recent years, particularly in League Two – the best players have either been bought up by League One and Championship clubs, often just to sit on the bench or even the reserves, or they get bought up the big spenders in League Two, often just to sit on the bench or even in the reserves. Of course, lower league sides are primarily built around teams rather than individual, and I’d like to think at Torquay we’ve been one of the great examples of how that can work. But talented individuals aren’t exactly a hindrance.
Take Eunan O’Kane, for instance – a key player for us through the last two campaigns which saw us finish seventh and sixth; a naturally gifted playmaker who can open up lower league defences with ease. Bought for £170,000 by Bournemouth this summer, he has made just nine starts in all competitions so far this season for the Cherries. A League Two match winner has become a League One bench-warmer. And we do miss him. A year ago he single-handedly tore Plymouth apart at Plainmoor to give us our biggest ever win over Argyle – this year we stumbled to a 0-0 draw against them. We do seem to lack a bit of star quality in midfield at the moment.
But this is not to say we’re not working on it. Former Wales youth international Nathan Craig, signed towards the end of last season from Caenarfon Town, has been given his first team baptism this season and has been excellent. He’s still a bit raw, lacking in experience as O’Kane was when he first arrived from Ireland, but I’m sure he’s going to be as important a player for us as O’Kane became once he has developed further. Credit must go to Martin Ling for spotting him, for it seemed the career of the former Everton youth player was on the metaphorical scrapheap.
Credit to the manager also for the faith he has shown in Aaron Downes. I was unconvinced by the signing of the Australian in the summer: not due to his ability, as he was and is clearly a talented centre-back, but because of his injury record, and the lack of a ready-made replacement in case he is struck down again. But he has been so good in the games that I’ve seen, I think it overwrites any potential concerns, none of which have emerged thus far. And the alternative, academy graduate Kirtys MacKenzie, impressed on his debut a few weeks ago, so Downes’ almost-inevitable upcoming suspension shouldn’t be feared.
That being said, I still think we lack depth. We are relying heavily on talented but inexperienced academy graduates to back up the first team – a noble decision but one that requires enormous faith in unproven players. MacKenzie, Ashley Yeoman and Niall Thomspon have all featured – in the latter pair’s case since Lloyd Macklin and Ian Morris were ruled out with long-term injuries. These sit alongside Craig and young defender Tom Cruise in a youthful, inexperienced but evidently talented squad.
The problem comes with the mixed messages being sent out by the club. On the one hand, a thin squad heavily orientated around medium or long-term player development suggests a squad in transition after the loss of O’Kane, Mark Ellis and Bobby Olejnik over the summer – surely we would not be aiming for promotion, but building for the future. But on the other, Ling has openly stated that the aim is promotion, something that hasn’t been adjusted despite the various injuries and poor results that we have accumulated so far this season.
This is probably because we do actually sit 8th in the table. Somehow. I have no idea how – presumably via those six wins and seven draws we’ve picked up along the way. But in terms of performances, it hasn’t been all that great. Though we have raised our game against the better sides in the division – we are unbeaten against the top three, the outstanding sides of the division, so far this season – we haven’t been particularly good against some of the weaker sides, including defeats to Bristol Rovers, Wycombe and Barnet (as well as the enormously disappointing FA Cup defeat to Harrogate Town, which could cost us). It has been very frustrating – you just know that if we performed as well against those teams as we had against Gillingham, we could be battling for promotion.
But then we are battling for promotion. Sitting just outside the play-offs is a great place to be in at this stage, especially considering our inconsistency. It’s easy to get carried away with the bad performances – it’s easy to get carried away with the good ones too, as we’re just as close to the bottom of the table as we are to the top in terms of points; I don’t believe we have been the eigth best team in the division so far, or have looked like a team that would be capable of promotion in any other season. But I suppose whether or not the league table is representative is irrelevant – if the aim is promotion, it’s helpful to be towards the top of the table.
However, it is worth remembering that it is still only November – the media like to hype up the league tables from the first day, but it is still early in the season. Back in the pre-internet era, Ceefax wouldn’t have had dotted lines showing the promotion, play-off and relegation places on their tables at this point in the season. With a squad the size of ours at the moment, I’m not particularly confident that we can last the course. We do at least have a buffer to the bottom – we’re not going to get relegated as there are too many teams in the division that are worse than us and won’t improve enough over the course of the season, so we don’t have that to worry about. But promotion is within our own hands. That is the benefit of a poor league – you don’t have to be all that special to remain in contact, though it leaves the nagging feeling that you’re not far away from leaving the opposition trailing in your dust.
This is now going to be a test of the ambition of the club. After two consecutive play-off campaigns, we now have a solid base to build from, and a league in which we are certainly capable of being serious contenders in. But we have a small squad that is heavily reliant on individuals – centre-backs Downes and Brian Saah, midfield anchor man Damon Lathrope, inconsistent but potentially brilliant young winger Billy Bodin, and the outstanding goal machine Rene Howe. Though we have 27 players registered, 2 are injured and 10 are effectively reserves that aren’t competing for starting berths.
Last season we relied on a small squad, which ended up back-firing when they tired during the final weeks of the season, costing us promotion. But there has been virtually no transfer activity since the start of the season, bar the signing of teenage goalkeeper Connor Thompson. The end of the loan window draws ever nearer.
Torquay have a fantastic chance of promotion this year. But while we are in a great position already, we could be doing even better. And that’s why it’s both simultaneously satisfying and frustrating to be a Torquay fan at the moment – we could do it, but we might blow it again. Let’s hope we can put a run of results together and make it third time lucky – I get the feeling that may be all it would take.
Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger
James tweets at @jbennetttufc