David Cameron Walker

Posts Tagged ‘Torquay United’

The end is nigh….

Monday, March 10th, 2014

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It’s odd being doomed to relegation at this time of year. I always assumed relegation to the Conference (well, the second one) would come after a year-long scrap, just missing out on survival in the last week or two of the season. I didn’t think we’d go down the same way as last time – with the wimpiest of whimpers.

There’s not an awful lot to add to what I’ve written previous. We’ve been increasingly atrocious all season. There were excuses in the early months, injuries being the main one – our defensive woes were put down to our main centre-backs being unavailable and being forced to play left-back Tom Cruise in that position, something he was ill suited to. Initially it seemed this was true: Aaron Downes and Krystian Pearce returned and we looked much more solid defensively. But it didn’t last.

Added to this, our woes in front of goal have continued. Despite loaning a whole host of young strikers, no one has yet replicated the presence and finishing of John Marquis, who has ended up on loan at Northampton, where our ex-manager just happens to now be employed.

I can’t help but feel smug about the way things have panned out since Knill was sacked after what I wrote last time – even though citing myself isn’t cool, it’s worth noting that most of what I said has come to pass. Yes, we didn’t have to pay Bournemouth compensation for the services of Chris Hargreaves, and Knill getting another job shortly after meant that (presumably) we didn’t have to pay up his full contract, so we’re slightly less financially screwed than I thought. But the decision to sack Knill and replace him with a rookie manager now looks to have been a catastrophic blunder which will ultimately cost us everything we have worked for over the last seven years.

For one, the squad has been weakened. Knill knew what the issues with the squad were at the time we left – our form had dipped slightly after our mini-revival, but that was largely due to the loss of Marquis, who was holding the attack together on his own. By sacking Knill, not only did we lose Marquis, but we lost him to one of our relegation rivals. We also lost Damien Mozika, who was on the verge of signing a permanent contract with the club until Knill was sacked, and promptly left when he did – this says a lot considering he seemingly hasn’t joined up with another club since.

But in spite of this, Knill is still largely the fall guy as far as Torquay fans are concerned – he built the squad, therefore it’s his fault. Never mind that those fans were the ones demanding he be hired after saving us from relegation last year. Never mind that the squad he built was praised in the summer by the same fans who are now ridiculing him. Never mind that he was playing the direct style of football some of the most vocal fans wanted him to play. Never mind that the budget has become increasingly tight here and he had little room for manoeuvre or error. Never mind that he lost his chosen assistant manager Chris Brass to a relegation rival and was never allowed to hire a replacement, a sure sign that the board were no longer backing him. Never mind that his future replacement as manager was openly criticising him on television and saying that he wanted the job, knowing that he was popular enough at the club to have some influence.

As for Hargreaves, he has looked increasingly out of his depth at the helm. Ever since he took over, he has largely persisting with starting with three strikers, a bizarre tactic that was never going to be sustainable even if it worked in his first match in charge. His loan signing record has been poor. He has radically changed the composition of the line-up every week, which isn’t something that can be put down to squad rotation – I know that trying the same failing thing twice or more will probably produce the same results, but it suggests he doesn’t have any idea of who his best team is. And the performances have continued to be abysmal.

I have sympathy with him because it’s his first job in management and it couldn’t be a worse situation – taking over a club seemingly en route to relegation with little money to spend to get out of it, players who have either given up or are intent on undermining any manager that drops them, and a fanbase that lurches from declaring managers and players to be saviours to declaring them to be villains. It’s a poisonous position to be in generally, let alone when you’re learning as you go along.

The blame doesn’t lie with either Knill or Hargreaves. It lies with the owners of the club. It’s been a recurring theme in my blog entries over the past couple of years, but the complacent attitude in which the club has been run since at least the start of 2012 was always going to lead us into trouble. League Two is not a division where you can choose to stand still and be fine – you have to be moving forward to stand still, because every team is striving to improve, be it to get promoted to League One or avoid relegation to the Conference, an improving league with many large clubs which is producing strong teams capable of at least being safe in mid-table, if not pushing for consecutive promotions.

It was during our promotion push at the tail end of 2011-12 that it became apparent. Martin Ling did a fantastic job of getting us into the hunt but was not provided with any extra money to try and secure promotion, perhaps due to an idea running through the club at the time that it was “too early” for us to get promoted. We started the following season with an even more restricted squad, with the £500,000-odd we earned from transfer fees in the summer not reinvested in the squad – instead, it was spent on the new stand (which was necessary) and updating the training facilities (which was both unnecessary and has been a complete disaster – these facilities still aren’t ready to use). They assumed Ling could pull off more miracles and sacked him when he did not, even though he wasn’t in charge when our form spiralled out of control. Knill seems to have suffered a similar fate, sacked for having no more rabbits to pull out, and surely Hargreaves is equally doomed.

We have been in a tailspin since the end of 2011-12, when the squad ran out of steam during the last month and a half of the season. Without any inside information, it seems as if the playing budget has been cut time and again, and yet the board are still expecting the manager in charge to pull off miracles. But this time, making up 10 points plus goal difference to ensure our Football League survival for next season is one miracle too far – we cannot survive this.

The real worry is that unless there is a dramatic change of culture in the way the club is run, we may be staring at relegation from the Conference too, let alone attempting to get back into the Football League. There’s no place for complacency in running a football club. If they didn’t learn that last year, when will they ever learn?

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

James tweets at @jabennett_

Paying for three managers…

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

AlanKnillIt’s difficult to explain the conflict in emotions I have today. Alan Knill is gone. A few weeks ago, I would have been satisfied. And yet now that the decision has been made, I feel disappointed.

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_

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

Verging on glory and self-destruction

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

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

Benched

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

In my final article of last season, after Torquay not so much crashed out of the play-offs as slid off it into a ditch, I ended on a positive note, saying “if we can keep the bulk of it together, make the right signings in the summer and steer clear of injuries, we have a great chance of another promotion push next season.” Now I’ve realised that the scenario I hoped for comprised a combination of possible scenarios that together makes an unlikely one.

“Keeping the squad together.” Sounds a lot easier than it is for a small club like us, and inevitably this one is marked with a cross – we failed. Losing Eunan O’Kane, as I said at the time, was an inevitability, although he hung around long enough to make us think he might actually stay. Not only that, but Bobby Olejnik, arguably our star performer of the season, left for a wad of cash to Peterborough, a move he deserved on the basis of his considerable talented. We’ve replaced him with Michael Poke, a safe, reliable choice. No complaints.

The problem starts in defence. Having lost Chris Robertson to Preston on Deadline Day in January, we then sold Mark Ellis to Crewe in the summer. Now I don’t believe either player to be a great loss. However, the combined loss does add a bit of instability, especially considering our mean defence was the main reason we did so well last season. Added to this, we’ve only replaced these two centre-backs with one, the talented but notably injury-prone Australian Aaron Downes, formerly of Chesterfield. This is a concern because we now not only don’t have a proper back-up centre-back (the only alternatives are unfortunately-named left-back Tom Cruise or academy graduate Kirtys MacKenzie), one of the main centre-backs is also more likely to be injured. Martin Ling toyed with signing Jerel Ifil after he came on trial, but decided against it, meaning we start the season with two senior specialist centre-backs. A bit baffling.

In midfield, it seems Ling’s decided that he will be replace O’Kane with, err, nobody. Again, this seems like an odd decision. OK, this is perhaps overlooking Billy Bodin’s permanent arrival, albeit one that was only bankrolled by a generous donation by a fan. But he’s a winger, not a playmaker. Neither is Craig Easton, seemingly brought in as a back-up defensive midfielder. At the moment it seems as if O’Kane’s replacement as playmaker will be the far less exciting Ian Morris, a good player but not really the same type of player or indeed as good.

Up front, it’s basically Rene Howe or bust. Taiwo Atieno, who held the fort when the big man was either injured or suspended, has been released in favour of Ryan Jarvis. But Jarvis has been utilised more as a winger. He played up front in the play-off finale against Cheltenham. He doesn’t look like the sort of player who could score loads of goals in a season. Howe does, providing he doesn’t get injured or suspended.

The future is seemingly being staked on youngsters – former Everton youth player Nathan Craig (Cymru am byth etc), academy products MacKenzie, Niall Thompson, Ashley Yeoman and Saul Halpin, and talented winger Lloyd Macklin who very nearly got given the boot after a season in which he made only one league start and was caught tweeting from the sub’s bench. Banking on these ahead of signing established League Two players in this situation is a bit like letting Matt Bellamy of Muse run the country for a week – it might be cool, but it might also end up being catastrophically awful. Contrary to what Hansen said, you can win with kids but only if they’re good enough.

So this £300,000 from the sale of Olejnik, £80,000 from the sale of Ellis, and £170,000 from the sale of O’Kane…what’s it been spent on? Umm, I don’t know. We’ve signed Poke, Downes, Cruise, Easton, Bodin and Jarvis. One cost a fee, which was paid for by a fan. That leaves well over £500,000.

It seems the main focus of the club’s spending is on facilities. The new main stand, Bristow’s Bench, was opened last week with a friendly against Stoke City. It’s better than what was there before, I guess – a gap, and before that, the creaking old Grandstand. Another £150,000 is to be invested in the training facilities to get them up to scratch. This is all well and good, taking us into the 21st century at last and all that. But I’m anxious. Sometimes (and you do see this occasionally) clubs can take their eye off the ball, thinking they are in safe hands and focusing on off-field matters instead of the playing squad. To think this isn’t a gamble is naive. There is the possibility it could go wrong.

I like Martin Ling. He did an exceptional job last year. But even great managers make mistakes. The problem is, in League Two, it only takes a mistake or two to drop you from promotion contention to relegation contention. I wouldn’t say I’m worried but it is unnerving to see the club act like this, as if they think we’ll be safe for another year because we did well last year and the year before; because we have a great manager and a great physio who has turned player fitness at the club around. We’ve had enormous success under this board – are they taking that for granted? I don’t know, but I am slightly concerned.

We’ve never been a wealthy club, so I won’t say we should spend loads of money on players – we shouldn’t have to. But at the same time, you can tighten the purse-strings too much. And this after receiving more transfer revenue than in any other summer that I can remember. I can’t find an adequate explanation. It’s not as if the board would have spent the money on magic beans. It’s odd.

This isn’t me just being negative for the sake of it. Last year I was cautiously optimistic, although I wasn’t expecting success. This year I’m not expecting success for a different reason. I suppose the play-offs are still a possibility, but we’d need more signings and for Ling to add sufficient onto the sum of the parts he has at his disposal.

But there are a lot of big-spending or just big clubs in this division this season. It’s hard not to be jealous of the squads of the likes of Rotherham and Fleetwood. We can only hope that, like last year, such spending tactics won’t work and we can sneak in there. But then lightning rarely strikes twice. Apart from with that bloke who got struck seven times. Maybe there is a chink of optimism in there somewhere.

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

James tweets at @jbennetttufc

So near and yet so far…

Friday, May 25th, 2012

*sigh* Play-offs again! It’s becoming a regular feature of a Torquay United season. For the fourth time in the last five years, they found themselves in that great money-spinning promotion shootout after a fine season, but I can’t help but feel it is one that is tinged with disappointment and the knowledge that had we done a little bit better, we may have bypassed them altogether.

Looking at the fixtures at the start of 2012, it seemed as if the toughest month of Torquay’s run-in would be March – trips to our old nemesis Crawley, Rotherham, our bogey team Burton, in-form Swindon and unpredictable Barnet were split by home matches against Aldershot, Bristol Rovers and Port Vale. We believed that if we could get a fair whack of points from these, the club would be looking good for the play-offs. As it happens, they won six, drew once and lost only to Swindon, way beyond expectations. It now felt as if automatic promotion was in Torquay’s grasp, let alone the play-offs.

With our run of form leading up to the final few games, most observers probably would have put their money on us. Even I began to believe we could do it, which is always a dangerous thing as I am a curse on such things. Surely our final month of matches was enough – home to Accrington, away to Oxford, home to Southend, away to Wimbledon, home to Crewe, and away to Hereford. A couple of tricky ties but our rivals would surely slip up as well.

What happened seems to be nothing short of calamitous. The win against Accrington was our last of the season. At Oxford, always a tough place to go, we were leading 1-0 and had a second debatably ruled out just after half time. We then proceeded to throw it away, conceded two quick goals and Ian Morris clumsily got himself sent off. I had been listening on the radio at the time, but after that I gave up. I felt something had shifted.

I am a firm believer that momentum is crucial in football. Talent is important, of course, but form, morale and self-belief can overpower this – hence Chelsea winning the Champions League this year. I believe going 2-1 down after leading 1-0 and then having a man sent off killed the momentum we had built up over the previous couple of months. Even though we equalised in the last minute, I still felt it didn’t matter, because it felt as if we had blown it.

I was right. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it’s true. A gritty 0-0 draw against Southend followed – we weren’t able to convert our chances, something that would become a running theme over the final few games. At Wimbledon, we were surprisingly beaten 2-0, a sure sign that things were starting to go wrong. But then there was the final hammer blow. Torquay led 1-0 against Crewe, the form side of the division, going into the closing stages, but we allowed the talented young side to bombard us and pin us back onto our own box in the final minutes, and paid for this when Nick Powell scored an equaliser deep into stoppage time.

For me, that was it – showing a lack of mental fortitude in such a situation was enough evidence that we weren’t going up. Had we held onto the win, we would have been in 3rd going into the last week of action, against a Hereford side fighting for their lives, having just beaten our closest rivals Crawley. But most importantly, we would have regained an element of confidence and momentum. Blowing it in such a way destroyed confidence.

And so it came to pass that at Hereford, in the first half, the team put in one of the worst performances I have ever seen from a Torquay side. Nothing worked – we were hoofing it long up to the struggling Rene Howe, our short passes were being intercepted, and we missed a few great chances, while Hereford looked like scoring every time they came forward, and just about did score every time they came forward. 3-0 down at half-time to the side in 23rd is nothing short of embarrassing. Two goals in the second half gave us a tiny bit of hope but realistically it was all over, and it had been all over for a week.

Morale was thus low heading into the play-offs, a great way of ensuring we wouldn’t win – form is key in the play-offs, so to go into them with poor form means you’ve lost half the battle already. The trip to Cheltenham was a great disappointment, not only because Torquay lost but because they had a chance to win – Cheltenham weren’t all that great compared to some of the sides we’ve beaten this year (aside from their key players, Pack and McGlashan in particular), and the two goals they scored were soft, particularly the second – but because we performed so poorly in the second half when we were behind. And it happened again at home – we started well, as we had done in Cheltenham, but the second half performance was again flat, allowing them to accelerate away for the win.

So no Wembley trip this year, although that’s no great shame as we’ve been in enough finals in recent years – it’s time for someone else to have a turn. No, the disappointment was not getting automatic promotion, as it was within our grasp and we threw it away. Why? My own personal opinion is that it is a combination of mental failings and fatigue as a result of a small squad. The latter is unavoidable, as we don’t have the money to build a strong squad of 25 players like our rivals do – we’re a small club, we always will be, and I wouldn’t change that.

But the former is a problem – of those four play-off campaigns, we failed in disappointing circumstances in three of them, along with losing the FA Trophy Final to Ebbsfleet. While we clearly have the core of a very good squad here (and thus we are not overachieving), we also seem to have a lack of mental toughness when it comes to the big occasions – some players turn anonymous while others run around like headless chickens due to an adrenaline overload. This does need to be sorted out.

But I have faith that it will be, because of what we have achieved this year in what was supposed to be a ‘transition year’ for the club. After Paul Buckle left along with several key players after the defeat to Stevenage at Old Trafford last year, we couldn’t possibly have imagined that we would come within an inch of automatic promotion, and for that Martin Ling deserves an enormous amount of credit. It hasn’t been an easy year – we have been carrying injuries for a while; we have had several high pressure derbies, nearly all of which we won; we have been missing our grandstand which has reduced attendances and forced the players to change in some portakabins (though perhaps it worked!); and we played some great football, some of the best I have seen in my 15 years supporting the club.

And this from a side that was considerably different to last year. The additions of Bobby Olejnik and Brian Saah have been crucial to our defence, which is now the steadiest it has been for years. Rene Howe was excellent up front, although his sendings-off were a disappointment – we missed him at the end when he was limping around in the last few games, no longer as effective as he had been. And Ling himself is an upgrade on Paul Buckle – he is tactically astute, he makes the right substitutions, and he doesn’t have Buckle’s annoying habit of blaming everyone else for his own team’s failings. Though he is not particularly popular with Cambridge fans, he has taken one club out of this division before, and with more time to mould his own squad over the summer, he has every chance of doing it again with us next season.

As I said earlier, we have the core of a great squad, and with our new stand, Bristow’s Bench, nearing completion, there will once again be a sense of normality around the club again. Though it now seems likely that Eunan O’Kane will be heading off to bigger and brighter things (and deservedly so), if we can keep it the bulk of it together, make the right signings in the summer and steer clear of injuries, we have a great chance of another promotion push next season. While the end of the season was disappointing, we must look at the whole campaign and realise what we have achieved and what we could achieve once again. Roll on August 18th!

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

James tweets at @jbennettf1

“There’s a long, long, long way to go”

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

It would be easy for me to come out and gloat with this blog entry. To a certain extent, it’s unavoidable – our form has been tremendous. Ever since our lowest point of the season so far, heavy back-to-back defeats against Gillingham and Southend, we have played 12 league games, of which we have lost only 1 and won 9, including the two victories over Plymouth. We have now reached the dizzying heights of 6th, where we finished last year. And we’re well ahead of where we were last year too. The sky seems to be the limit.

The one hiccup was the defeat at Accrington, but there is little shame in that as they are a side in form and notoriously difficult to beat. The more disappointing upshot of that match was Rene Howe’s sending off, which resulted in a 4-match ban. But Taiwo Atieno, who was drafted in as his replacement, has done an excellent job, keeping Howe out of the side for the game after his suspension ended at Morecambe. The most surprising statistic of the season, given Howe’s good form earlier in the year, is that we are unbeaten with the big striker not in the side, so he will have to work hard to get back into the starting XI.

We now have a settled team. Brian Saah’s injury has allowed the partnership between Chris Robertson and Mark Ellis to flourish. Having three very good centre-backs for this level has been a rarity for us over the years as the smaller squads and playing budgets usually mean our back-ups aren’t quite up to the same standard as our main pairing. Ian Morris has also battled his way into the side after injury and is improving with every game, grabbing his first goal for the club against Macclesfield. Danny Stevens has been excellent on the other wing, our formation and style of play suiting him perfectly, Joe Oastler has adapted very well to the right-back role, Kevin Nicholson has created and scored in equal measure, and Lee Mansell and Damon Lathrope have been working exceptionally hard in the centre of midfield.

But the key men for us have been playmaker Eunan O’Kane and goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, who are clearly capable of playing at a much higher level. And that remains the main obstacle to the possibility of success this season. There has reportedly been interest in O’Kane from higher clubs, including West Ham United according to one national newspaper, but Martin Ling has stated that there have been no bids for him or any of our other players.

Keeping O’Kane is imperative to any promotion aspirations we may have. Although this season was supposed to be only a transition year, our form and position is not a fluke – we have played well since the first match. We are in a promotion battle now, so we should make a decent effort to get promoted, though if we don’t, it wouldn’t be a big disappointment, as expectations have been relatively low all season. To maintain this push, we will need luck with injuries (preferably a lack of) and suspensions, but also to keep our squad together, and Eunan is the most important of them all. Most of our play goes through him – in the game he missed through suspension at Port Vale, we carried much less of a threat going forward, and were lucky to come away from a cold evening in the Potteries with a point.

Olejnik, too, is vital – a fantastic shot-stopper, he is already one of the best goalkeepers I can remember playing for the club, and that is a list that includes Neville Southall, Andy Marriott and, err, Matt Gregg…

Promotion is now a realistic proposition. If we get the luck we had last year, and don’t sell anyone, we have a team capable of a play-off place at least. The other factor is the form of the teams around us, and I don’t believe there are any teams around us I particularly fear, apart from Crawley who, although not looking as menacing as they once did, will surely now cruise to the title. We have been one of the most consistent teams in the top half lately, and that includes good results with teams that are up there, such as the win over Swindon on Boxing Day (silencing di Canio in the process, which must be a rarity), and a tight draw with Oxford.

It’s another close year at the top of League Two, and whoever goes up automatically and gets into the play-offs will be a case of who slips up the least often and, unlike some of the other teams in and around the top 7, we had experience of this last year, and got all the way to Old Trafford too. But as the boss said after our win at Morecambe, “There’s a long, long, long way to go” – with an extra long to emphasise that.

Finally, while all this was going on, Paul Buckle was sacked by Bristol Rovers, and it is only appropriate for me to pass comment on that. Amidst all the schadenfreude, it’s hard to not feel at least a little bit sorry for him. In the grand scheme of things, it is a harsh decision to be sacked so early into a tenure regardless of form, especially considering how much money the board gave him in the summer to build his own team. But the other side of that is the fact that the team he built consistently failed to perform. And, ultimately, there will be little sympathy from us because he left us for a “bigger club”, one that by the time he left was in a relegation scrap, as opposed to his former club which is pushing for promotion. Shame…

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

James tweets at @jbennettf1

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