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_