At the end of November, things looked irretrievable. Torquay had won just three games all season, two of which were away from home. We were also out of all three cup competitions, denying us potential revenue. There would be matches where we didn’t score and never looked like scoring; there would be others where we did score, but never looked like conceding fewer than the opposition. The centre of midfield was struggling both to create and to control. And we knew we had no money to sack the manager, who seemed at a loss in the face of results spiralling out of control.
But gradually, there were green shoots. We had struggled for a stable defensive partnership all season. At centre-back, Aaron Downes had been out injured, Krystian Pearce suffered a worrying ailment, and loan signing Aaron O’Connor missed a match while on international duty, leading to left-back Tom Cruise standing in at centre-back in a number of games, being about as effective as a chocolate fireguard in the position. But after everything had panned out, O’Connor and Downes had begun to form a relatively solid partnership, while Cruise slotted in at left-back ahead of club veteran Kevin Nicholson, who more than ever was looking like he was running through treacle and was a frequent target for opposition attacks.
The loan signings began to come in, though Paul McCallum made a difference up front before heading back to West Ham, and the additions of John Marquis and Jayden Stockley gave us realistic options for the first time in a while. Marquis in particular made an enormous difference to the attack, scoring three goals in four appearances. His ability in holding the ball up allowed Knill to put five into midfield, allowing us to control games much more effectively and giving young loanee Jak McCourt more freedom to create. With Downes back, we were also a threat from corners once again. Come December, wins against Southend and Dagenham, and a draw at home with Bristol Rovers, suddenly saw us gain some momentum. For a moment, there was optimism around Plainmoor.
However, we always knew the festive period would be crucial. As well as the game against not-so-local rivals Rovers, we also faced Exeter at home and Plymouth away. The bad news arrived on the day of the former, with Marquis out having aggravated a cyst. With Stockley already injured, we were forced to start with Karl Hawley as the lone front man, something he is not at all suited to. To make matters worse, he missed a penalty early on.
That said, the performance against Exeter was not dreadful. We controlled the midfield well, and Billy Bodin caused problems on the wing, but we lacked the final ball. Defensive errors were eventually our undoing, getting caught on the break. Still, it was not the performance of a team who had completely lost faith in the manager. The reports from the Plymouth game, which we lost 2-0, were more concerning, but we were still only two games removed from a three-match unbeaten run.
That’s what is so surprising about the decision to sack Knill now. It strikes me as a purely reactionary decision, aimed at appeasing those fans annoyed by defeats to our two local rivals. There’s little footballing or financial logic to the decision – numerous other managers have commented that they believe us to be unlucky and deserving of a higher league position (well, the league table never lies but…), and we are very short of money. We are still paying Martin Ling’s salary due to his one-year rolling contract, and Knill has the same type of contract, meaning we’ll be paying him until next January too unless he gets another job. At least Chris Brass had already gone – the compensation we received from Bury for his services may have proven crucial in the decision to dismiss Knill.
And yet now the fans are expecting us to hire another manager, to put a third manager on the payroll. And not any old manager: an experienced fire-fighter, who would no doubt command a decent salary, or to poach former player Chris Hargreaves from the Bournemouth coaching stuff, which would require considerable compensation. Oh, and don’t forget we have a squad with numerous deficiencies too which needs overhauling if we’re going to get out of this. It seems possible that Knill ally Damien Mozika, an increasingly impressive performer in recent weeks as he recovers from long-term injury, will not be signing a contract and will leave for pastures new.
It’s all well and good wanting a new manager and wanting an entirely revamped playing squad and wanting experience and wanting youth, but it seems very unlikely that we have the funds to achieve this. This is why the decision to sack Knill now surprises and disappoints me. After all the poor results and performances we have seen, now is the time they decide to change things, when things weren’t actually looking that bleak and it didn’t seem necessary to have to spend big on paying him off.
I’m no fan of Knill’s management style, but it feels like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic unless we suddenly find out tomorrow that we’ve had a huge amount of new investment from a generous sugar daddy – and even that is still no guarantee that it’ll save us from relegation, which itself would be incredibly costly.
This suggests there are problems that run deeper within the club than just the management structure. Too many decisions have been made in recent months with the purpose of keeping the fans happy instead of for the actual benefit of the club. The fans booed one of Knill’s substitutions against Exeter – the substitution had an immediate positive impact, when sub Elliot Benyon crossed for Hawley to score moments after coming on. These are the fans that the decision is meant to appease. The board are pandering to people who don’t know how to run a football club.
The frustrating thing is whoever is appointed will go through the same arc as the previous managers: they’ll be welcomed with open arms by virtue of not being the previous manager, they’ll be hailed as the messiah when the team wins a match or two, and then when the team loses a few matches, the fans will make a complete u-turn, pretend they never liked him to begin with, and call for him to be sacked until he inevitably is. How is it possible for a manager to succeed in this environment?
On one of the fans’ forums today, I saw a comment that said Chris Hargreaves would not take the Northampton job because it’s a “poisoned chalice.” And the Torquay job isn’t?
There’s only one way this club is going at the moment, and that’s not the fault of Alan Knill.
Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger
James tweets at @jabennett_