The 2011-2012 season will go down in the history books as one of late failure for Torquay United FC. As I sat with some fellow Torquay supporters watching the game in a pub in Euston on Thursday night the final whistle blew and I looked around at the disappointed faces around the table. But when the season started none of us expected that we would’ve been in that situation anyway.
A lot of us had the usual fears at the end of the previous season which ended in Play Off final defeat at Old Trafford to Stevenage. Manager Paul Buckle left to go to Bristol Rovers after 4 very good seasons and with him went players like Scott Bevan, Guy Branston, Craig Stanley, Jake Robinson and Chris Zebroski. So, no manager, players leaving and the usual obligatory play off hangover. Replacements for Buckle were debated left, right and centre. The usual suspects as you can imagine, broadly defined into categories of “daft” “no chance of getting”, “misty eyedness towards ex-players despite them having no experience” and “I’ve never heard of him so he must be shit”. Then it was announced that Martin Ling was appointed manager. I must admit I was underwhelmed. His name was never mentionned on any of the forums (there are three – one for kids and idiots, one for older idiots and one based in London for the educated realists, apart from Pikey) or indeed in the local rag. But the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to it. He’d done a really good job at Leyton Orient and had a reputation for playing decent football but he hadn’t so well at Cambridge under a daft chairman. The reaction on the forums was the usual mixed bag. Some accused the board of making a terrible choice, some even went as far as inviting Cambridge fans to shit-stir on Torquay forums. “He’s not got a Plan B” they said. Yawn.
Simon Baker, the chairman, also spelt out around the same time that it was going to be a season of transition at Plainmoor. The old grandstand needed replacing, the training ground needed upgrading and the youth development programme needed extra funding. He said that he wanted an experienced manager who needed to work within the constraints of a reduced budget with a good knowledge of the loan market. Some again on the forums berated the lack of ambition, I think the phrase used was “it wasn’t going to put bums on seats”. Which in hindsight was inspired seeing as the main seated stand was due to be demolished anyway. Then came the new players. Rene Howe arrived on a free from the Posh, Robert Olejnik, a former Austrian under 21 goalkeeper arrived from Falkirk, Brian Saah came from Cambridge where he played for Ling (and at the Orient), Ian Morris was nabbed in a dawn raid when he was having a decent trial at Hereford, but had a bit of pedigree (Leeds, Scunthorpe and Chesterfield), and Daniel Leadbitter arrived from Newcastle. For the record, Leadbitter was our first proper right back signing for 4 seasons since Paul Hinshelwood.
Pre-season reports of the new signings were quite promising. Olejnik was solid, Saah was athletic, Morris looked decent, Howe had a touch of class but carried a bit too much weight and after a trial period Kenyan international Taiwo Atieno was added to bolster the striking options. “Fans favourite” Billy Kee was homesick for the East Midlands and left to join Paul Peschisolido at Burton Albion. But we’d also weathered the Buckle poaching storm. Fears that Chris Robertson and the talented Eunan O’Kane were going to join him at the Memorial Stadium never materialised.
We started off with a draw at home to Burton, then a 1-4 defeat at Premiership bound Southampton after having a right good go at them in the first half. This was a game I missed due to Ealing being looted and on fire. Then came Bristol Rovers away. The Lourdes game for the more reactionary element of our support, although at the time I think I used another word beginning with R. It was a mis-match. Howe and Atieno combined as well as Andy Cole and Dwight York did and Rovers were flattered by a 1-2 scoreline. A pathetic Judas banner was unveiled. Scant reward for an openly ambitious man who guided us back into the football league and almost got us up to League 1. People down in my home county can be a little bit strange sometimes so I stood with the home supporters for this match as sometimes my temper and tolerance gets stretched to the absolute maximum.
We won the next game 1-0 at Aldershot but it was a poor game and then followed this up with a 1-3 home defeat to the dreaded Crawley Town managed by that awful mascara-wearing convicted fraudster Jabba the Hut. This was the start of a bad run. We’d scraped a draw at Dagenham and Redbridge in possibly the worst game of football I’d seen in years. Two awful sides trying their hardest to impress but only succeeding to try and make the other team look better in a perverse show of negative oneupmanship. The first boos of the season from our band of idiots rang out at half time. JB bristled. We improved a little after the break but it was desperate stuff. Martin Ling said that he’d given them a rocket at half time. I had a beer or two in the welcoming club house afterwards and then returned to the car where I usually parked it in the fantastically named Gay Gardens mulling over the price I’d paid to get in (22 quid) and just how awful that match had been. Perhaps we were in for that long and hard season.
Macclesfield were up next and were beaten 3-0 at Plainmoor. But then we had a win-less run of 8 games including a couple of shockers at Bradford and Southend. Things were quite comfortable at the Valley Parade until they had a man sent off which galvanised a poor side and incensed a partisan crowd. We were totally outplayed by ten men. More boos and more support shown for Guy Branston who’d done “A Buckle” and left Torquay for more money who was now sitting on the subs bench for Bradford, than for the Torquay players on the pitch. They’d even printed special edition Guy Branston t-shirts for the occasion. You see I told you there were strange. It even moved our Dutch supporter, Rob, into labelling them as “cunts”. JB bristled and turned to face them with a look of disgust.
We cheered ourselves up with the usual excellent Battered Minke Whale and Chips from the North Sea Fish Bar in Chesterfield on the way back. Obviously it’s not the Faroe Islands as the minke whale is actually haddock but the size of what you get is so immense that it can’t be just a fish. JB loves his minke whale and Pikey’s first impression of eating the best fish and chips in the land was “yeah, not bad” accompanied by the usual daft grin.
Roots Hall was the next port of call and my visit back to a ground where I’d chain smoked myself César Menotti style back in 2004 as Torquay clinched promotion to League 1. This time wasn’t going to end in such glory though despite a good Real Ale session in Southend’s Weatherspoons in the town centre. A place full of people who’ve been on the Jeremy Kyle show several times already. For this game Martin Ling had included popular centre half Mark Ellis after supporters started to call for him to play. It happens a lot a Torquay. More support gets shown for the victim on the bench rather than the team on it. At his best he’s a combative centre half, but usually his lack of positioning and general awareness means that although the diving headers away and the last gasp tackles look good, it hides his shortcomings as a player.
Roots Hall hadn’t changed since 2004 apart from the electronic turnstile and the £21 to get in. I suppose we are paying for that turnstile. The game started. Huge cheers for Mark Ellis but little for the rest of side. In the end we were beaten 4-1 by a poor Southend side who were your typical Paul Sturrock side, they drag you down to an awful level of football and then beat you by better finishing. Just before half time, JB started the off pitch fightback. He’d been simmering since Bradford and decided to give some of our jacket potato element a piece of his mind. Kev continued this in the second half and then tried battering the main culprit after the match. Another desperately poor performance. Were the Ling doubters right? Words like “Shocking” “disgrace” and the obligatory “no Plan B” (no Strickland Banks either no doubt) populated the forums I’d started to avoid.
I don’t what was said in the dressing room or on the training pitch after that terrible match against Southend but we then went on a fabulous run of just losing twice in 18 games including a game we shouldn’t have lost in the cup away to Sheffield United. Everything was comfortable until the people’s champion centre half under no real pressure sliced a clearance into his own net and the Blades then showed a bit of class to win the game 3-2. No disgrace in losing to a side with a £3.5 million pound striker, even if he was a “f**king rapist”. Crewe, AFC Wimbledon, Chester, Barnet, Hereford, Plymouth, “Paolo Di Canio’s” Swindon were all put to the sword. The Swindon match in particular epitomised the new way we were playing. Organised, calm, measured, controlled and clinical enough to capitalise on the chances we created and then showing considerable resolve not to buckle under severe pressure. Olejnik was fast turning out to be the best goalkeeper at Torquay for a very long time, the back four of Oastler (rapidly improving from a shaky start at right back), Saah (the calming influence), Robertson or Ellis and the ever present Nicholson formed a very solid foundation. Damon Lathrope played in the Makélélé role, Captain Lee Mansell switched back into midfield after a few enforced seasons at right back provided the energy and ball winning capabilty, Eunan O’Kane was then free to be creative alongside two very disciplined wingers in Danny Stevens and Swindon loanee Billy Bodin who provided width, gave O’Kane space and pushed the full backs back. On top we have the fast improving and weight shedding Rene Howe who had power, awareness, no little pace and the ability to produce an excellent finish. Even when he was injured or suspended Taiwo Atieno despite his doubters came in and an did a very good job. We didn’t win at Accrington but we never have and we never will!
The form continued into the new year. Bodin went back to Swindon, Robertson left to join Preston. Ryan Jarvis signed from Walsall, Angus MacDonald came in on a youth loan from Reading. Mark Ellis came back into the first team and a fit again Ian Morris was drafted back in. The two new players were there as back-up more than to add anything extra to the squad. We had a series of three 2-1 wins (including Plymouth away) and then 4 straight 1-0 wins before being beaten by Bradford and Gillingham. A lovely win a Crawley helped the cause further, the safety points total was eclipsed and in my mind everything else was a bonus. The team went through March unbeaten apart from a fully deserved defeat at Swindon. The Easter weekend brought a narrow home win at home to Accrington and then a mad dash up to Oxford on Easter monday where a speculative late effort from Atieno got us a very decent draw after Ian Morris had been sent off. Martin Ling said after the game that our promotion bid was running on adrenalin alone. The implications of having a smaller first team squad then our promotion rivals was starting to rear it’s ugly head. In the end not having those 2 or 3 extra players in the squad who could come on and make a positive difference cost us first the automatic promotion slot and then a disappointing defeat in the play offs. A last gasp equaliser from Crewe at Plainmoor (divine payback for Paul Dobson’s late strike in 1987 perhaps?) was a season defining moment just as much as the limp display at AFC Wimbledon. Physically and mentally tired players carrying various knocks and struggling to main the excellent form was the main reason we didn’t quite make it this season. The fact that we’d given ourselves a shot at both was testament to both the players and the manager who’d given so much.
The 2011-2012 season for Torquay should be remembered as a completely unexpected one in the minds of Torquay supporters. On paper we had absolutely no right to be there or thereabouts all season on the playing budget, small crowds and small squad that we had. We have a pragmatic manager, a committed players and a board of competent directors who are making sure that solid foundations are in place before the playing budget can be improved and attract better players to the club. We need more people through the gate as well, especially the ones who haven’t forgiven the club for not beating Exeter in the play off semi final and not beating Crawley in the FA the season before last. In a modern football supporting world full of reactionary fools who have no stomach for defeat but have insatiable desires to moan and find scapegoats, the sensible, calm and pragmatic supporter stands out like a sore thumb. But I like standing out like a sore thumb. I can’t wait for the new season though. If Luton Town get promoted into the football league I can dust off the “Judas” banner once again.