I’ve never been one for talking up my team at the start of the season for the sake of it. Being an eternal optimist in the lower leagues is only going to lead to greater disappointment on the inevitable day everything falls to pieces. Sometimes it’s best to accept that you’re in for a long, tough season and the outcome at the end might not be particularly favourable.
So if you want to put us towards the bottom of your predicted League Two table this summer, feel free to do so. There’s certainly a case to be made that we will struggle this year – two of our best players, striker Rene Howe and centre-back Brian Saah, have moved on to pastures new for the grand total of £0, and our form in the second half of the season was woeful despite a late revival that saw us climb out of the relegation battle at the very end. If I was a neutral, looking at the comings and goings at Plainmoor, I would certainly put us close to the relegation zone, if not in it.
However, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that we definitely will be in another relegation fight. The atmosphere at the club has lifted since the end of last season – we’ve come down from the bleak landscape of Dartmoor and are currently sitting in the quiet, picturesque Dart Valley, with hopes of heading for the seaside at some point. Last season ended with attacks on nearly everyone involved from the fans, but this has largely settled. The narrative has been formed and Martin Ling has been deemed the scapegoat. Whether or not that is actually true is up for debate but this is what the fans have decided has happened, which means no mass protests against the bored.
That’s not to say the club hasn’t faced any criticism from the fans this summer. Particular focus has been on transfers, with the general mood being one of impatience at the lack of signings. Of course the club are stuck between a rock and a hard place here – if they say nothing, the response will be “why isn’t the club doing anything to sign players?”, but if they hint at potential signings in particular positions (as eventually began to happen) and those signings don’t materialise, the response will be “you promised us those signings – why haven’t they materialised?”
This isn’t a Torquay-specific problem, of course – every club has fans like that. But it would be fair to say that there are particular circumstances behind this. Torquay United does have a reputation amongst its fans for not being the most assertive club in the transfer market, which is a long-running issue – it was the case when Mike Bateson was owner and was probably also the case with previous owners. We don’t spend big money on players – we are yet to sign anyone for a six-figure sum – and we tend to sign young Premier League rejects or players with something to prove rather than the “big names” of League Two. We also have our fair share of transfer horror stories the same as any club. The fans aren’t impatient for the sake of it – there’s a “seen it all before” aspect to their concerns.
But while our transfer activity wasn’t particularly rapid this year, the signings did eventually arrive and have, by our standards, been quite impressive: right-back Dale Tonge has arrived from Rotherham, midfielder Ben Harding from Northampton, young winger Courtney Cameron from Aston Villa, and former Birmingham centre-back Krystian Pearce from Notts County. Meanwhile, fan favourite Elliot Benyon has returned permanently after his loan spell at the end of the season and will fill one of the two striker spots, while Sheffield United winger Jordan Chapell has done likewise.
Overall, our starting line-up at the moment doesn’t look dreadful – there’s a good combination of youth and experience, and we look solid defensively. Inevitably there are going to be question marks over some of those players, but it’s League Two so that’s to be expected.
However, it does have something of a workmanlike feel to it, prioritising defensive solidity and graft over flair and creativity. The suggestion is that we will be playing in a “traditional” style – 4-4-2 with two quick wingers and an as-yet unsigned target man in the middle, with Benyon as the poacher feeding off the scraps. This is a radical departure from the possession football we played under Ling, which would occasionally be conservative but could also prove very effective at opening up defences. Alan Knill is no doubt building his tactics around the players, but he is also bringing in players to fit this style – it’s unlikely that Nathan Craig will start in midfield so it looks as if we will not have a playmaker in the middle.
Can that work in 2013 in League Two? Fans may talk about “the good old days” and how teams still play like that today, but is it true? I’m sure that style of football will be effective in individual matches, but is it enough to sustain a good run through the season?
I would suggest that we may start the season quite well and pick up some early wins. But I have my doubts as to whether we can sustain that – teams will find a way of stopping us. Tactical flexibility will be important, and I’m sure Knill has thought of that. Whether we have the budget to accommodate various options within the squad is a different matter, though – we don’t have the deepest squad in the world even now, with a number of gaps in the squad being filled by young and inexperienced youth team graduates.
It was the same in 2006-07. Ian Atkins helped drag the club out of the relegation zone late on in the previous season and was rewarded with the job full time. He built a solid traditional-style side with a striking partnership of Mickey Evans and Jamie Ward, and we started quite well. But then the wheels came off. Granted, there were other factors in our collapse as well – the arrival of new chairman Chris Roberts, which would prove to be a calamity, would be the most destabilising, but we were also hit by the retirement of Evans in November and eventually the sale of Ward in January. But when Atkins was replaced as manager by Lubos Kubik, we had gone 10 matches without a win.
I have no idea where we will be in the table come next May. It’s more likely that we will be closer to the bottom than the top – I very much doubt we will be in contention for promotion, or even close. But I don’t think that is the objective this season – we’re in rebuilding mode once again, so staying out of the relegation battle would be a major achievement. However, there’s no such thing as mid-table mediocrity in League Two.
Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger
James tweets at @jabennett_