David Cameron Walker

Posts Tagged ‘Martin Ling’

Waiting on a sunny day…

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

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_

Survival – but this is only the beginning…

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

It is an issue in football that we look at a season in a linear way, from start to finish, rather than as part of a continuum. The football, in the words of David Mitchell, is officially going on forever – it will never stop. And yet so much is determined by where a club finishes the season – short, medium and long-term plans, and whether or not players and managers get to keep their jobs.

It is absolutely vital that clubs do not dwell on their finishing positions. This works both ways: clubs should take positives from disappointing final positions, but they should also examine themselves during the successes. So many times clubs have taken good form at the end of the season and used the momentum to start the following campaign, and similarly poor form can also lead to slow starts.

I certainly believe that this is how it has panned out for Torquay. After a largely strong 2011-12, where we battled for automatic promotion, our form collapsed during April, leading to missing out on finishing in the top 3 and then failing in the play-offs. I don’t think we have recovered our form since. Many observers, fans and neutrals, have put our struggles this year down to extraordinary circumstances, namely Martin Ling’s illness and assistant manage Shaun Taylor’s disastrous tenure in charge before the arrival of Alan Knill, or, if extended further, the sale of key players in the summer. It’s easy to frame it this way because it takes blame away from those at the club – the players, the management team and the board. Instead, it can be put down to chance – “we were unlucky because of Excuses X, Y and Z”, rather than because people at the club made mistakes.

The truth is we were pretty poor all season. At the end of 2011-12, our playing style had devolved from a slick attacking passing style into a more dour, defensive strategy. We were aiming to win 1-0 in every match. Eventually this caught up with the squad – with a small squad and Ling’s refusal to rotate the starting 11, the players were clearly mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the season. Something fundamental seemed to have changed in the squad, as we were little better. There were exciting matches with plenty of goals – indeed, Plainmoor is towards the top of the charts for most goals scored at League Two stadiums this season. We beat Rochdale 4-2, and Aldershot 4-3 after being 3-0 down at half time. At times, it felt as if the Torquay of the first half of 2011-12 was threatening to break through. But there were also lots of unadventurous performances, and a number of painful late draws and defeats, particularly in December when it seemed like every match was being thrown away in the last 15 minutes, which no doubt was taking a toll on the players’ mental state.

Being a manager relies a lot on trust, and you do wonder that by “footballing reasons” and a “lack of enthusiasm”, chairwoman Thea Bristow was implying that the players no longer trusted Ling. His last match in charge was a 1-1 draw against Exeter, which was treated a positive result at the time, but only because we were without a win in 5 and were widely expected to lose to our Devon rivals. By the time of our next match, again against Exeter due to various postponements, he had been taken ill in circumstances that are still yet to be fully explained.

It’s a difficult one to explain. I have criticised Ling here in the past, and I was particularly pessimistic about our chances around the time he went away. But I was in a minority at that time – the position we were in was considered to be good because of our games in hand; very few fans believed we’d be sucked into a relegation battle. After our win at Exeter, at which point it was not known how long Ling would be away, Sky Sports’ pundits seriously discussed the possibility of us making a late push for the play-offs. It was clearly a ridiculous statement even at the time, knowing how bad we had been in the previous weeks, but the fact that it was being considered shows that from a positive perspective, there was still hope that our season could be salvaged.

That’s why the official line from the club of “footballing reasons” for Ling’s dismissal doesn’t quite fit. To claim that Ling should be sacked when he left the club in a position that some at the time felt was promising seems unusually harsh from a board that has always been incredibly patient with managers. Something doesn’t quite add up.

Our season collapsed after Ling went off sick, when Taylor took over managerial responsibilities. A bad run of form had been coming for some times, but it’s impossible to tell whether Ling going away all of a sudden and control being handed over to the inexperienced Taylor was decisive or not, so surely the correct approach should be to give the permanent manager the benefit of the doubt, given that he had proven himself a capable manager in his 18 months in charge.

Under Taylor we won 1 and then lost 5 in a row, before Knill was brought in to steady the rapidly-sinking ship. It took him a further 7 matches to pick up his first win in charge, suggesting a lot of work was needed to rebuild the shattered confidence of the squad. It’s difficult to judge when the damage to this was done – the run of conceding late goals over Christmas, or the terrible form under Taylor. The decisions made since seem to indicate that the board believe it was the former, but I’m not so sure.

The key to understanding what has happened is when the decision to sack Ling was made, and this is unclear. The board, fronted initially by Simon Baker until a late change of chairman to Thea Bristow, always implied that the plan was that Ling was to keep his job, and Knill himself said that he was just hired to do a temporary job while Ling was away. But there were one or two signs that maybe Ling wouldn’t be kept on, such as the appearance of Chris Brass on the touchline alongside Knill at Accrington, and the publicly-indicated removal of Knill’s “interim” title. These could potentially point at a subtle transition of power happening behind the scenes, suggesting the decision to sack Ling was made some time previously.

If this did actually happen, it has definitely worked – amongst fans, the decision to sack Ling now has been largely positively received; if Ling had been sacked at the time he went off sick, I should imagine the reaction would have been mixed. Was this the intention – to engineer a transition of power without anyone noticing? I doubt it, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that a lot goes on in football clubs that we never get to hear about, for obvious reasons.

Either way, what’s done is done – we could argue about the reasons and motivations for Ling’s sacking all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that he has been sacked and Knill has been appointed on a permanent basis. For me, it’s too early to judge whether or not this is a good move – he has a good record in League Two and had a positive impact on the squad at the end of the season, but at the same time, the permanent appointment of Ian Atkins, who saved us from relegation to the Conference in 2006, was similarly well-received and ended up being a false dawn.

And, to come back to my original point, this is the key lesson to learn. We cannot go into the summer treating our survival as a victory, with everyone thinking that we’re great because we didn’t go down. As a club, we have to realise that we only survived in this way because we were in a relegation battle to begin with, something that should never have been allowed to happen considering the position we were in last summer – a play-off team with over £500,000 earned from player sales. The club needs a period of serious self-examination in order to understand why we slipped into that situation.

Already positive steps are being taken which is a good sign, but at the same time, there is no radical change on the horizon – it still appears to be the same old Torquay. For example, Knill has stated that he plans to go into next season with a squad of 14-15 senior players plus “development players” (i.e. reserves), which indicates he is not being given much money to work with. The small squads we have had have proven our downfall over the past two seasons, and it seems we haven’t learnt our lesson. I fear that the good times may be over and that the next few seasons may be a struggle for us – in League Two, clubs have to keep moving forward to stay in this division. Complacency is frequently disastrous.

It makes you wonder how much of the criticisms of Ling are actually of criticisms of decisions made by him and not of decisions made by the board – was it his choice to only start the season with 2 senior centre-backs, was it his decision to not have another option in attack, and was it his choice to not spend money in January to bolster the squad? Lots of questions remain unanswered. I don’t know what the future has in store for him, but I am sure he is capable of managing at this level effectively, and I wish him all the best.

Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger

James tweets at @jabennett_

Gulls’ results spiralling out of control

Saturday, January 26th, 2013


One of the positive features Torquay fans like to claim about the club’s owning consortium is that the chairman stands on the terraces, just like any other fan. And yet the way the club has acted in recent weeks suggests they are about as in touch with the fans as David Icke is in touch with reality. As we slide ever closer to the drop zone and the weeks tick by without a win, we now head to the home of our bitterest rivals needing a result in front of the TV cameras and Peter Beagrie in order to spark our season back into life.

Despite my frustration at our poor performances, which have seen us go 6 matches without a win, it’s not like I didn’t see this coming. My last two blog posts here have suggested that struggles were on the horizon, due in part to a lack of squad depth. Now if I can see that coming, surely you’d think that the club could see that. Remember that £500,000+ we made in the summer on transfer fees? Still hasn’t been spent. We still have pretty much the same squad as we did in the summer, bar the addition of Reading’s Angus MacDonald on loan as centre-back cover.

It’s difficult to put one’s finger on why our form has dipped so drastically compared to last year when our first XI isn’t that much worse than last year – you could claim that Eunan O’Kane’s absence has been felt, but certainly Mark Ellis and Bobby Olejnik have been replaced well by Aaron Downes and Michael Poke. The problem may be tactical – after the 4-1 battering by Southend (a result that had been coming from some time), it was clear that the combination of 3 defensive players in the middle (Mansell, Lathrope and Easton) wasn’t working. A switch from 4-5-1 to 4-2-3-1, playing Ryan Jarvis as a deep-lying forward supporting Rene Howe, worked initially, bringing consecutive wins against York and Dagenham, it now looks more like a papering over of the cracks, as we haven’t won since.

Moreover, those 6 matches without a win have all been decided by goals coming in the last 10 minutes – defeat at Bradford, before throwing away wins against Northampton and Plymouth, throwing away draws against Wimbledon and Burton, and losing a win against Exeter. Two of those, you will notice, have cost us wins against our local rivals – not popular. Such a lack of killer instinct in being able to see matches out is what cost us dearly in 2006-07, the year we were relegated to the Conference. To me, it shows a lack of character in the side. And all the while, the centre-backs involved – Downes and either Saah or MacDonald – have been largely blameless.

The full-back positions have been a concern of mine. Joe Oastler has largely held his place in the side despite several mistakes, a couple of dreadful performances, and good performances from back-up Daniel Leadbitter. Meanwhile, Kevin Nicholson, who again has made numerous mistakes and has looked a shadow of the player he was last year, is seemingly undroppable – his back-up, Thomas Cruise, has barely had a sniff of an appearance of late. Where’s the competition? Where’s the motivation to play well if you’ve got no competition?

Midfield is also clearly an issue, with a almost total lack of creativity, pace and penetration. Lee Mansell’s tireless energy has almost vanished, leaving him as just another average League Two ball-winner instead of charging from box to box Steven Gerrard-style as he did last year. Nathan Craig would fit the bill perfectly if played in the middle, but instead he has been marginalised to the flanks, a role he is not suited to at all – it has echoes of the role that Ian Morris played last year, for which he was similarly criticised. Morris’ absence with a knee injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season has been felt, as he too could be providing that creativity. But the Irishman has not been replaced in the squad despite the long-term nature of his injury. Similarly, instead of replacing Lloyd Macklin, out with a broken metatarsal for the last few months, Niall Thompson has been thrust into the spotlight, and despite some early positive showings off the bench, the teenager’s fearlessness has been lost, replaced by hesitation and nervousness – such is the risk of playing youngsters who aren’t ready to make the step up.

Billy Bodin has also been a major disappointment. Though I was not his biggest fan last season, I was excited when we signed him in the summer. But he has consistently under-performed this season, and any enforced absence from the side is greeted as almost a relief. He is still young and developing too, so you expect inconsistency, but perhaps he is feeling the pressure caused by his fee and the resulting hype.

The problem seems to be a cumulative one – a number of under-performing players, some of whom perhaps over-achieved relative to their ability last season, and a lack of options and competition, with confidence now severely damaged by poor results. And yet as the spiral begins to quicken, what are the club doing? Well, we’ve got Richard Logan on trial, who had recently struggled to set Conference South alight for Dorchester after being released by Wycombe. But that’s about it. There has hardly even been any communication from the board.

Some may argue that it’s not the board’s job to say something. But it can’t just be left to the manager (you’ll notice that I’ve barely mentioned Martin Ling, and with good reason, because I don’t blame him for this). When a club is going through a rough patch, fans will naturally look to the figures of authority for reassurance – transparency is vital. All Torquay fans have had recently is the odd statement about us not being in relegation trouble, despite all the facts pointing to exactly that. It’s incredibly worrying when you know your team is in serious trouble and yet no one is officially acknowledging it, though at least in the last couple of games Ling has done so. I’m sure he would like more players too. I know it’s a bit of a lower league cliché, but every other club is strengthening, or attempting to strengthen, except us – and we expect to improve?

Obviously I don’t want the club to be put in jeopardy with ridiculous spending beyond our means. But at the same time, we’ll lose a lot of money if we are relegated too – even now, attendances are dropping as more and more fans have become disenchanted with the performances on the pitch. The owning consortium have done a great job until now – we have our Football League status, trips to Wembley and Old Trafford, and a shining new stand to prove it. But it’s worth remembering that Paul Bristow sunk his hand in his pocket to get us promoted from the Conference, and then again the following year to keep us in the league. The problem is he’s no longer with us, and no one else is seemingly willing to do what he did – even Bodin would never have arrived but for a generous £50,000 donation from a fan. Even if we survive this year (and it’s still far from certain), I worry for next year. In this league, in the 21st century, you can’t not spend money and expect to do well.

As I said in my last entry, this season and this situation is a test of the club’s ambition. The board claims to be aiming for League One. You can’t say that their actions so far this season suggest that.

Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger

James tweets at @jbennetttufc

39 long, galling years of waiting

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Contrary to the many chants you may hear at St James Park, Home Park or Plainmoor, there are 3 teams in Devon (in the Football League, anyway), and it’s fair to say the yellow corner of the county is the smallest. Our fiercest rivalry is with Exeter, as they are the “middle” team in the county and we’ve been in the same division as them for more seasons than Plymouth. In the same sense, Plymouth also consider Exeter to be their biggest rival for the same reason, even though they are closer to Torquay. Plymouth vs Torquay is probably third in the hierarchy of Devon derbies.

The competitive encounters we’ve had with Argyle have been fleeting, and, to put it simply, our record hasn’t been great. Excluding our win in January 2000 in the Football League Trophy (and while we’d love that to be relevant in any way possible, it’s about as relevant as our wins over them in the Devon Bowl or testimonials), the last time we’d beaten them in a competitive match was on April 1st 1972, a 2-1 win at Plainmoor, which was only our 5th victory over them in the Football League. Our league record since then? 5 draws and 5 defeats (including a humiliating 4-0 loss at home in 2000, which has scarred me for life). Poor form.

This year is the first time in a decade that we have both been in the same division. It’s been a galling 10 years too – first they were promoted out of what was then Division 3 in 2001/02, and then they were promoted again in 2003/04, which overshadowed our own promotion into what became League One. After that, we were relegated 2 times in 3 years and spent 2 years out of the Football League as they pushed for the Premier League.

But in the last 3 years, not only have we got ourselves back up to the fourth tier again, but their world has come crashing down, along with their league position. Now I don’t mean to wish ill on them, but it is good for us, in that we actually have local rivals to play for once, as opposed to our nearest rivals being Wycombe or someone equally far away. The South West can be a cold, lonely place sometimes.

Their collapse also gave us the best opportunity we would ever have to end our 39 years of mild frustration. Given that we had also dispatched Bristol Rovers and Mr Buckle earlier in the year, and Argyle’s terrible run of form contrasting our recent resurgence, we felt that we should win – that we had to win, really. It was also important for Martin Ling that we win – our poor run of a month ago, as I’ve discussed previously, had brought in the vultures, and while they had been silenced by a run of 4 straight wins that took us clear of the danger zone, tripping up against a poor side who also just happened to be one of our biggest rivals would no doubt bring them and their miserable negative nonsense back again. It didn’t help matters when Ling decided to tempt fate by revealing he didn’t think he’d ever won 5 games in a row as a manager…

However, thankfully everything went to plan. Although Argyle’s mixture of experienced heads and youngsters successfully stifled our passing game in the first half with an aggressive high pressing style, in the second half it all fell into place, largely thanks to a couple of moments of magic from Eunan O’Kane. The young Irishman, our highly-rated number 10, smashed in the first from just outside the area not long after the half-time break, and then a few moments later added a second with one of the best goals I have ever seen live – a wonderful 35-yard lob over a stranded Romain Larrieu’s head.

Plymouth heads dropped and it looked like it could become rather uncomfortable for our Cornis…I mean West Devonian friends. Several good chances later, Danny Stevens, a man reborn in recent weeks after slotting in to Ling’s 4-3-3 system very effectively, ran straight through the Argyle defence to add a third. Suddenly it looked as if we would avenge the many thrashings they had given us down the years, but after a late consolation from Will Atkinson, they managed to regain enough energy in the last 10 minutes to at least keep us awake until the final whistle.

But even so, a glorious win – our first competitive win over Plymouth for 10 years, a first league win over them for 39 years, and our biggest ever win over them. Added to the win over Buckle and Bristol Rovers at the start of the year, this win, and this run of form, is firmly cementing Ling’s place in the affections of the fans, not least because we are doing it the Torquay way – playing very attractive, passing, fluid football.

The next big target? Well, another cup upset at Bramall Lane next weekend would be nice, but realistically, it’s to get our first win at Home Park for 40 years on January 2nd. After that, we can start to think about a play-off push again. And I don’t see any reason why we can’t achieve either of those things. After the misery and negativity surrounding the club in October, positivity reigns supreme again.

Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger

James tweets at @jbennettf1

Whinge when we’re winning…

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Save the moment for posterity, Gulls fans – 4th in the table. Not only that but a comfortable win against Northampton on Saturday combined with Crawley Town beating Morecambe or vice versa would almost certainly put us into the top 3. Who’d have bet on that at the start of the season?

And yet before last week’s dumping of Macclesfield, the mood around the club was a complete contrast. On the fan sites there were already people harking back to the “good old days” of Paul Buckle – yes, after just 5 matches, 2 of which were wins and 2 were draws. It’s absolutely staggering how fans can lurch between extreme opinions, let alone when the results don’t even warrant it. All that had happened was a defeat at home to Crawley, who looked like a quality side and fully deserved their win, and a draw at Dagenham, which is a difficult place to go to – last time we played there we lost 5-3. There were complaints that a season of mid-table mediocrity for the sake of stability (even though our form up until that point had suggested we were doing better than that anyway) was too “low key” and unambitious – this from the fan base of a club that last season only just scraped into the play-offs and had since lost its manager and key players, and is traditionally on the cusp of falling out of the 92 best-supported clubs in England. Lacking perspective a bit?

It’s also worth pointing out that before last weekend’s game, we were level on points with Bristol Rovers, and we are now 3 points above them – that is, Bristol Rovers, the side that Paul Buckle left us for, that he has had free reign to create a League Two super-squad for the sole purpose of getting promoted, and that we beat 2-1 in Bristol. And some Torquay fans want him back?

No, I’m quite satisfied with Martin Ling, thanks – he is doing a fantastic job here. OK, so we’ve had a succession of slow starts in matches, and don’t usually pick our game up until the second half. And the football we have played has like the fans, lurched from one extreme to another – we were poor against Crawley, in the first half at Dagenham, and even at Aldershot where we won 1-0, but we have also played some beautiful passing football, particularly in the second half last weekend, when we took an in-form Macclesfield apart. Ultimately, the results are there to see – 1 defeat in 6 league matches, 11 points on the board, and 4th in the table behind only Crawley, Morecambe and Rotherham – and I expect at least 2 of those to be towards the top come the end of the season.

On the player front, we have seen some interesting developments. Our Northern Ireland U21 international striker Billy Kee has left after a year at the club, the former Leicester man departing for Burton due to “home sickness”. Many have mourned his departure but personally I could never see the potential so many were shouting about. I always saw him as a bit one dimensional – I don’t remember him ever demonstrating any noteworthy skilfulness, and big bumbling centre forwards are slowly becoming a thing of the past. As his replacement, we have signed Billy Bodin on loan from Swindon – the winger-cum-striker certainly livened up proceedings when he was introduced at Dagenham, but was missing for the Macclesfield game as he was on international duty with the Wales U21s.

We were also without the injured Rene Howe, for me our star performer this season. But Chris McPhee stepped into the breach up front and did an admirable job, scoring a fortuitous but deserved goal. He was then substituted by Mark Ellis, usually a centre-back but in his younger days a centre-forward, and in a rather surreal moment at the very end of the game, he made enough of a nuisance of himself to create the 3rd goal for Eunan O’Kane. After Stevenage’s success using Darius Charles as an auxiliary striker at the end of last season, perhaps this is the start of something…

So onwards to Sixfields, and a match which will see us up against 2 notable former players. Jake Robinson played for us last year while on loan from Shrewsbury, but should avoid the boos. A man who will not, however, is Bayo Akinfenwa. The big striker starred for us in League One 7 seasons ago, resurrecting his flagging career, but after we were relegated, he refused a new contract and decided to follow the money to Swansea, thus making himself a very unpopular figure with the Torquay fans who worshipped him just a few weeks previously. Hopefully Brian Saah and Chris Robertson will keep him quiet.

This may be branded as a transition year, but if we keep playing the way we have, and keep picking up points to the ratio we have so far, we will be up there at the end of the season. But in League Two, consistency is the key…

Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger

James tweets at @jbennettf1

Revenge is a dish best served after two matches

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Before our trip to north Bristol, I expected that soon I’d have to write a report about our great comeback against Burton Albion on the opening day and battling performance in the League Cup against Southampton midweek, before Paul Buckle and his newly-assembled team of League Two stars taught us a lesson in lower league football. The thought barely entered my mind that, for the first time since this, we could actually win at the Mem…

It wasn’t so much the victory as the manner of it that made this, for me, our most satisfying victory since promotion from the Conference. We didn’t perform that much better than against Burton, and indeed when we took the lead it was against the run of play. But after our two goals, the first from Taiwo Atieno and the second a penalty converted by Rene Howe after Atieno was brought down by Rovers ‘keeper Scott Bevan, we looked comfortable and could have knocked in another 2 or 3 in the second half. Rovers could have as well, but they didn’t take their chances either.

No, what was most satisfying was the fact that it all went horribly wrong for Buckle.

Now I have nothing against Bucks on a personal level, unlike some – a number of inebriated Torquay fans stood in front of me and hurled unrepeatable abuse at him for the 90 minutes, which I found quite grating. But having said that, there is an element of hubris about his defection and large raid on the whole of League Two, not just us, so to see him ranting at the referee who consistently seemed to give decisions against Rovers, and gesturing to his players furiously inside his technical area, while Torquay fans chanted “you’re getting sacked in the morning” in the direction of the home dugout, was rather hilarious. Making a tit of himself on the Football League Show was the icing on the cake. Pride comes before the fall and all that.

Plus what was also quite satisfying was the poor performances on the pitch from some of our former players, namely Bevan, who conceded the penalty and flapped at several crosses; Mustapha Carayol, who was booked; Craig Stanley, who was also booked and didn’t look like half the player he was when he was with us; and Chris Zebroski, who didn’t even start the game and, when he did enter the fray, missed a chance at the death to equalise.

Meanwhile, on our side, Lee Mansell had another captain’s game in midfield. Buckle had largely played him at right-back last year but Martin Ling has moved him into the midfield, and he has had three excellent games there, including scoring two goals. Our new strike partnership of Atieno and Howe (who has looked particularly good despite claiming to be only 80% fit) seems absolutely lethal – two big guys who are great with their feet. Brian Saah and Ian Morris also improved over their Burton performances.

But what impresses me most about how we have been playing is the style. Against Burton, we were very fluid, keeping the ball on the floor and passing with confidence, with through balls from Eunan O’Kane opening up the Brewers defence. There seemed to be a Total Football dimension to the play, a reminder than Ling and assistant manager Shaun Taylor were part of the great Swindon team of the early 1990s that played some very attractive football under Glenn Hoddle en route to the Premier League. Sometimes the formation was 4-4-2. Sometimes it was 4-4-1-1, with Howe tracking back to defend. Sometimes it was 4-3-3 with Morris pushing forward on the left. Joe Oastler pushed forward from right back to occasionally make it a 3-5-2, with Danny Stevens cutting inside and running at Burton defenders.

From both games that I’ve seen, I can honestly say that this Torquay side is, at the moment, the most dangerous going forward that I can remember, even including the days when Rodney Jack was paired with Jason Roberts, or the all-Scottish partnership of David Graham and Martin Gritton that got us promoted to League One in 2003-04.

However, it is worth acknowledging that Burton were tough opponents, and may well prove to be awkward to beat this year for the top sides in the division. The signings of big forwards Justin Richards and Calvin Zola seem to have improved them in attack, and Paul Peschisolido played to their strengths with a very direct approach. The long balls over the top into the area in between the defensive and midfield lines caused problems, especially with the muscular presence of the big strikers.

This is what led to both their goals in 5 minutes of madness early in the second half. And that is symptomatic of a wider issue in the team at the moment – we don’t quite seem to be as solid defensively as we were last year. As well as two quick goals in the first game, we also left holes against Southampton and you don’t do that against such a clinical, talented side – hence why the scoreline was deceptively large and wasn’t a reflection on the fact that for a large part of the game we battered the side that tore Leeds apart just 3 days before.

With Bristol Rovers, though, we were a bit more solid, although it is fair to say that Rovers did have a number of good chances that they didn’t take. If there are any Pirates reading this that didn’t go on Saturday, I can reassure you that it was by no means a disastrous performance and that you should expect good (though maybe not great) things this year, although Buckle’s insistence to Mark Clemmit of the BBC that his players were “excellent” despite the defeat is a bit daft – trust me, we’re used to his excruciatingly positive interviews after defeats, and they don’t get any easier to swallow.

This week before the Rovers game I read FourFourTwo’s season preview, in which they placed us 17th in their predictions for League Two, only just above penniless Argyle. I was a bit annoyed by that – we might have lost our manager and a couple of key players, but we have an equally good, if not better manager and some equally good, if not better new faces. At least by beating Rovers, we have gone some way to proving that my pre-season optimism was more than just the usual delusional positivity – we might be in transition but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be at the sharp end of the table come May. Discount us at your peril, football magazines…

Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger

James tweets at @jbennettf1

Back To The Future?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Torquay United’s promotion campaign came to an end in the play-off final with a disappointing performance and 1-0 defeat, after which the manager departed for a bigger club and took some of the club’s best players with him – but I’m not necessarily talking about last season. I could also be talking about my very first season as a Gulls fan, 1997-98.

I began attending matches as a 6 year old in November 1997, visiting Ninian Park to see us draw 1-1 with Cardiff, followed a month later by my first home game against Watford in the FA Cup. I quickly realised I was on to a good thing as it took until we played Rotherham at home just before the end of the season for me to see Torquay lose for the first time.

In hindsight, it was a great season for the club, and we were unlucky to miss out on automatic promotion. Kevin Hodges had built a very good squad on a minuscule budget (as ever at Plainmoor) that combined all-round quality with strength in depth. That he played with a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation, with Andy Gurney and Paul Gibbs as wing-backs, seems unusual now but at the time it worked brilliantly. Up front, St Vincent’s finest Rodney Jack, became my childhood hero by scoring bags of goals.

Our form dipped at the end of the year, dropping us out of the automatic promotion places. We made it to Wembley but lost 1-0 to Colchester thanks to a rather soft penalty. After that, it all fell apart rapidly. As had been expected, Hodges left for relegated Plymouth, and he was followed there by Gibbs and Steve McCall, two important pieces of the puzzle. Wes Saunders was controversially appointed as his replacement, despite his inexperience in management. Adding to the problems, one of his first actions was arranging the sale of Jack to Crewe for £650,000.

So it was a depleted side that headed into the 1998-99 season, and it was no surprise that, after more departures in the months to come, we would finish 20th, narrowly avoiding relegation to the Conference just a year after nearly being automatically promoted to Division Two.

Fast-forward to the off-season we are in right now, and the situation is eerily similar. We narrowly lost to Stevenage in the play-off final at Old Trafford, and within a matter of days, manager Paul Buckle and assistant Shaun North were heading up the M5 to relegated Bristol Rovers, taking goalkeeper Scott Bevan, star striker Chris Zebroski, and loanee from Morecambe Craig Stanley with them. Their current signings total stands at 15, including some very good players for this level – it’s hard not to look on in envy.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of Torquay fans are less than happy at the situation, assuming that he must have tapped our players up before the end of the season and seeing it as an unfair raid on the club. But as far as I’m concerned, it is a free market, and it isn’t unusual that managers take players with them to their next club. It’s not good that our talented squad has been dismantled slightly, but it is worth remembering that the two players he has signed directly from Torquay were expected to leave anyway, and Stanley wasn’t even our player. There is also one key player he didn’t get – defender Guy Branston, who was given an offer he couldn’t refuse by Bradford.

So it will be a new look Torquay side that heads into the 2011-12 side. But despite the similarities, I don’t believe we are in anywhere near as bad a position as in 1998-99. For one, we have a more experienced manager in former Leyton Orient and Cambridge boss Martin Ling, who is very much a fan of good passing football, something that is always traditionally appreciated by Gulls fans. He has brought in former Swindon defender Shaun Taylor as his assistant, and also has already made a few signings, including former Orient defender Brian Saah, former Falkirk ‘keeper Robert Olejnik, powerful striker Rene Howe, and left winger Ian Morris from Scunthorpe.

But the most intriguing signing for me is Chris McPhee from Kidderminster. The utility man previously played for us in 2006-07, the season in which we were relegated to the Conference, and he became a figure of fun (to put it kindly) after a number of poor performances. But he has since made a name for himself in the Conference at Ebbsfleet (he scored their winner in the FA Trophy Final against us a year after we released him!) and the Harriers, for whom he scored 17 goals last year.

Ling clearly has an idea of the shape he wants his team to be, which has arguably been lacking in recent seasons with players often playing out of position, so it looks like a balanced first XI. Added to this, while we have lost a couple of key players, most of the play-off final side remains, as well as some promising young players emerging from our academy.

The consensus amongst fans that we can’t repeat last year’s feats – most would be happy with a season of mid-table mediocrity, as unlikely as that may be in such a close and competitive league. But we’ve punched above our weight many times before, such as last year.

Despite my initial reservations, I am cautiously optimistic for our chances this season – on paper, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about, although we do have a habit of doing things the hard way…

Written by James Bennet We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger

James tweets at @Jbennetf1