People who have the cross to bear in life of knowing me, know that I’m a bit of an oddball. An awkward fucker, one who usually swims against the tide, someone who always goes against the grain etc etc. It’s probably true in a way. With my relationship with football it’s becoming a similar story.
For followers of my twitter feed you’ll know that I photograph Non League football. Over the years the level of football, I both enjoy watching and photographing, has plummeted down from the National League to as local as it gets (Huddersfield and District League). This season for example I’m yet to watch a match in England, everything has been in Wales. From the fairly plush hard standing at Nantlle Vale, to the company of my mate Beth’s 4 year Schnoodle (Schnauzer/Poodle cross) who has begun to enjoy barking at Welsh goalkeepers retrieving the ball from behind the goal at Garw. This is a marked improvement for the dog from trips last season to the Peak District (Furness Vale) when it was a miserably cold day, bearing gale force winds in Bronte Country (Broomhill) and picking a fight with half the Caerphilly Town substitutes bench at Ynyshir Albion and not get encouraged by the local Cocker Spaniel having a celebratory dump on the centre circle at full time.
In recent years I have become quite reclusive in nature, so going where there’s the least amount of people possible to spoil a lovely game of football has become the priority. It’s a lifestyle choice, I feel very lucky that I earn enough money to make sure that I can lead a fairly independent life. Maybe it’s choice I always wanted (am not a people person) or maybe it’s the advent of social media but I’m bored to death about how everyone has to have, for the most part, an uneducated opinion on any level of football (or life in general for that matter). I was reading the Guardian football section on Monday and almost every report contained some talking point about VAR. I think I’d rather staple my eyelids to a piss-drenched carpet than read about that or entertain any debate whether it’s good for the game, or not. On the other hand I’m also bored shit-less of Non League Snobs. You know, the type of hypocritical cunt who goes on and on about how fucking chummy the Non League Football scene is and how fucking noble it is compared to the current Premier League over-marketed shit-show but then supports Arsenal in the background. Believe it or not there’s also some massive egos in the non league photography world. Social media does allow twats to promote themselves to death. Love not money, my arse.
So, onto Torquay United. I was born 3 miles away from Plainmoor in a sleepy village which had two pubs, two shops and post office. My first match was on Boxing Day in 1980 when Torquay lost 2-3 at home to a Wimbledon side featuring Dario Gradi as manager and from what I can remember from the programme Kevin Gage, Alan Cork, Steve Galliers and current AFC Wimbledon manager Wally Downes all played. Maybe even Wally had a wee bet on the outcome. We’ll never know, eh? I’ve watched hundreds of matches over the years both home and away. I’ve been a season ticket holder as an exile, I’ve sponsored players (which was the death knell for Waide Fairhurst) and I’ve driven thousands of miles to watch them. The football has always been fairly irrelevant for me, it’s always been about travelling to the match with likeminded idiots in pursuit of a decent day and just maybe a decent result. I’ve been involved on various forums. Torquay have 3. One for the kids, one for the old fuckers and another one set up by the exiles.
I think, when looking back, the first seeds of trouble were sown during the Paul Buckle era. He’d taken over when the club had dropped into the Conference for the first time. He cobbled a team together in double quick time that challenged Gary Waddock’s excellent Aldershot team and then gradually ran out of steam which ended up culminating in a Play Off Semi Final defeat to Exeter when we hit the self destruct button with 20 minutes to go in the second leg. The hangover after that defeat lingered around for months afterwards. The locals never really forgave Buckle and he had to get rid of a couple of players who were going to be quite disruptive. One of them, Steve Woods, was told that he wasn’t going to get a new contract and then he went straight to the Director of Football (Colin Lee) to bitch about Buckle. Buckle got rid. He had to do it. The guy was going to be a dick about not playing. This supposed ruthlessness didn’t go down too well with the locals. Ok, he was a decent enough player but his knees were fucked and really a club with finances as tight as Torquay’s shouldn’t’ve offered him a new contract because the locals have some retarded sense of sentimentality. Anyways, with Woods out of the player the team improved, with Chris Hargreaves imperious, and dragged themselves kicking and screaming into the play offs via Histon in semis then calmly disposing of Cambridge United in the Final. When the player of the season awards came around Hargreaves should’ve been a shoe-in, as Captain of a much improved side that got itself promoted. But no, the locals all voted for Steve Woods as a big “fuck you” to Paul Buckle. That’s right, the player of the season when the team got promoted was a player who left the club in January. I have to say that this, in my mind fucktardary, started the decline of my love for my local club.
Another 2 excellent seasons under Buckle concluding in a Play Off Final defeat to Stevenage at Old Trafford followed before he left for Bristol Rovers before my favourite ever season of football under Martin Ling. Clever and tactically astute, he played a brand of excellent counter attacking football employing the excellent Rene Howe up front with Eunan O’Kane behind him. The season ended badly in a Play Off Semi Final defeat to Cheltenham. Ling’s second season was less impressive. Things were happening behind the scenes and gradually the money was being pulled when it became apparent a failed FA Cup run, with a home defeat to Harrogate, was pivotal in even more funding getting pulled. Unfortunately Ling left due to mental health issues, his assistant Shaun Taylor took over and the team dropped like a stone. After a truly awful defeat (awful enough to make a shy exiled supporter erupt like Krakatoa) to an equally shit Aldershot Alan Knill (now assistant to Chris Wilder at Sheffield United) took over and arrested the slide guaranteeing another season the Football League.
Knill was never liked by the locals, and more importantly nor by senior pros like Lee Mansell and Kevin Nicholson. Chris Hargreaves stuck the knife into Knill’s back on the BBC Spotlight sofa saying “Something had to change”. Knill lost his assistant and he wasn’t replaced. He lost his job in early January. Mansell went on YouTube expressing his glee than Alan (Knill) had gotten his marching orders. Nicholson, who was finished as a player, had a petty “Lazarus” shirt made for him by the goalkeeping coach as it became truly apparent that Knill had been completely shafted. Hargreaves took over. Led us to relegation back into Non League. Mansell had jumped ship to Bristol Rovers, Nicholson left when his contract wasn’t renewed. Hargreaves then led us to a crap first season in the Conference. He was then put on gardening leave after new owners took the club over. Paul Cox took over but it was a shambles and he was gone as soon as he realised he wasn’t going to get paid. The locals clamoured for a hero and got Kevin Nicholson. Completely unproven and completely out of his depth. He spent what little he had unwisely and the club had to go cap in hand to an investor who provided the funds on the proviso that the club’s ownership defaulted to them if the repayments weren’t met. They weren’t. After we stumbled to yet another marketed “Great Escape”, he was allowed to start the next season. It turned out to be a car crash and not before long Nicholson was sacked. Locals outraged. Gary Owers was poached after relative success at Bath City. But like Knill he was never liked and the results weren’t forthcoming and we plummeted into the Conference South. He had managed to turn headless shite into well organised shite but it was never going to be enough. He was seen as a stooge by the locals who were suspicious of the new owners.
I have to say by this time I’d had quite enough of reading all of the bullshit being spouted on Social Media and various Forums. It was a truly embittering experience. I’d stopped going to games both home and away. During the Nicholson era I even started enjoying defeats as I dearly hoped that would hasten his departure and annoy the locals who’d clamoured for him to be manager in the first place. Schadenfreude kicked in. Owers was sacked after a poor start (and had a cup of tea or coffee thrown at him at one match by a “Loyal Supporter”) and was replaced by Gary Johnson, quite surprisingly. I say surprisingly as nobody was expecting a manager of his calibre to be appointed. Embittered nonsense was replaced by teenage adulation as Johnson managed to turn everything around pretty quickly. It was more than fickle. This massive new love-in for the new manager had made the locals completely blind to whatever the fuck the new owners were doing in the background and as with all teams who go on a decent run the club was overrun with idiots travelling in big numbers making idiots of themselves lauding it up at places like Weston Super Mare and really making idiots of themselves at Bath City. Fighting, chucking fireworks, acting like helmets. I went to a couple of away matches that season but I was annoyed that they segregated the match at Wealdstone as I wanted to roam away from the idiots, which thankfully I did with more success at Hemel Hempstead. I felt zero affinity with the club or it’s supporters.
The final straw came at that Bath City match. I listened to it on the way back from photographing a game at Hepworth (near Holmfirth) on a bitterly cold January day, where incidentally I fell in love with a Ford Focus driving brunette who’d boxed me into a corner in the car park. I heard of all the stupidity emanating from Twerton Park via TUFC Radio. Torquay were 1-2 up, then missed a penalty to go 1-3 up. I found myself willing Bath City to win and I drove around the bottom of Sheffield on the way to Haddock and Chip heaven in Chesterfield and they duly did. With a winning goal coming from Ryan Brunt, a big lump who our lot wanted to sign from Exeter City when he was released, the irony being that Torquay fans never like signing players from Exeter. If they’re not good enough for a club two divisions above, then there’s absolutely no point signing them, right? I punched the steering wheel in delight going around the off cambered roundabout near Dronfield and felt no regrets in doing so.
This season has been more of the same really. The club has been doing well back in the Conference but then recently has had a shite run of it and once again the lack of proper support at the club shines through. People bitching on Twitter. Clichés galore about lost dressing rooms and lack of Plan Bs. Millennials falling over themselves to express either “banter”, or the more common and very binary world of either “over the top delight” or “outrage” through the medium of Giphy or posting entitled gibberish. “Announce relegation” was my particular favourite recently as yet another young pillock doesn’t understand the basic mechanics of football that sometimes you draw or lose games.
So after almost 39 years of having Torquay United in my life, it’s time to say goodbye. No doubt I’ll buckle (no pun intended) and try to keep abreast of results from time to time but I’m not active on the forum anymore, have absolutely no intention of going back to it and I stopped following the club on any social media platform. In some ways I wonder if this self imposed exile will ever make my heart grow fond again but there’s a much bigger part of me who really couldn’t give two fucks if it doesn’t.