What is going on at Plainmoor?
I care a lot about Torquay United. I’ve been a fan since the 1997/98 season and I’ve lost count of how many games I’ve been to, both home and away. There’s just something special about supporting a lower league club, unlike supporting the big club because “they’re the best”, even though you don’t go to see them play every week. Once again this weekend I will be heading down to Plainmoor to see us face Burton Albion.
But there has been a worrying turn of events in recent days, culminating in the departure of captain Chris Hargreaves. The talk is that he is returning to Oxford United, currently 2nd in the BSP. He’s not exactly young but he’s still the lynchpin of the team, holding the midfield together. He’s also one of the most popular players with the fans, with his own blog and his own book recalling our promotion year last year. He scored the first of our 2 goals in the play-off final at Wembley too.
So why has he gone? His contract was up at the end of the season, and rumour suggests that he was only offered a coaching deal but he wants to carry on playing. Which is fair enough – I honestly believe that age is irrelevent and he is good enough, so why force him to retire? It seems very strange on the surface and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are machinations under the surface, because this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Striker Tim Sills, who scored the other goal in the play-off final and is another very popular player, was sold to Stevenage last week. Another popular player, Chris Todd, has been loaned out again recently, whilst Kevin Nicholson, another wise old head, is expected to leave soon as well. The club’s longest serving player, Steve Woods, left under a cloud at pretty much this time last year after being told he wouldn’t get a new deal. He later criticised manager Paul Buckle, saying we got promoted despite of him and not because of him. There have been numerous other incidents of players falling out with Buckle or not getting a chance to show how good they are as well.
It just seems very weird that we are disposing of some of our best and most popular players, and for Buckle to then spin it in an interview yesterday by saying that it shows how far we’ve come as a club – we are currently struggling, 20th in League Two and on the same points as 22nd, with 23rd and 24th being relegated to the Blue Square Premier at the end of the season. Regardless of how good they are on the pitch, you need experienced leaders and characters in the dressing room to raise morale. We need all the experience and leadership we can get. But instead, they’re getting rid of the experienced players and signing a bunch of kids on loan. We are nearing the limit of the number of loan players we are allowed in the squad and in the team, and I very much doubt that we’ll be able to afford to sign them permanently in the summer. So not only do we not have the experience to get us out of this relegation fight, but we have no solid foundations for next season as well. But Buckle continues to insist that all is well, as we have 8th best form in the division, even though we’ve lost our last 3 games…delusion is the word I’m thinking of here.
It was the same when we were relegated 3 seasons ago. We were left with just a small handful players when all the others departed. We had had several loan players – it got to the extent that when making substitutions, the manager had to take off certain players in order to bring on others to not go over the limit. Now I fear we are heading in the same direction. You may say that no player is bigger than the team, but radically changing the side in a situation like this, taking the heart and soul of the team out and casting it aside with little respect given, is a massive gamble.
All the while, there is no consideration of other factors. The fans are very upset. I am very upset. I was not particularly upset when Woods went last year, or when Todd was loaned out. I wasn’t that surprised when Sills went either. But now the departure of Hargreaves, who has played every game he has been available for and always gives 100% every time he goes out onto the pitch, has upset me, and I, like many Torquay fans, am now seeing things in a different light. It suddenly seems very suspicious.
Adding to the suspicion, chief executive Colin Lee has today released a statement saying Hargreaves has not left yet, and blamed ‘social networking sites’ (i.e. fans forums) for spreading malicious rumours. He completely ignores the fact that the official website, which he states is the only reliable news source, categorically stated that Hargreaves was leaving in a preview for tomorrow’s game (until that bit was suddenly altered…). It is bewildering.
Some may defend the manager, saying we have got to give him a chance to bring in other players. But we have never brought in players in situations like this when we have been in League Two. Successive managers have promised the additions of quality signings and year after year they fail to materialise. So why should I trust him? One player we were linked with signed for Wycombe yesterday. Clearly playing for a team struggling in the relgation zone in League One is more attractive. We aren’t an attractive club – Torquay is out of the way and we don’t have much money for wages. Some may argue that we have to get rid of players like Hargreaves and Sills to gain money to spend on players – but why them? Why not other players who have been playing poorly today? It just seems that, as ever, Buckle has his favourites and he doesn’t want to let them go, but is happy to get rid of other experienced players. I have no proof of this of course, but it is almost as if he feels threatened by them, afraid that they will launch a coup to try and get him out, and by bringing in inexperienced players, he can tell them what to do and they will listen. It reminds me of Max Mosley of the FIA last year, being more than happy to let teams like Ferrari and McLaren leave the sport so that he can bring in lots of small independent teams who will do as they are told.
It is a bad time for the club. I haven’t felt this worried in a long time. If we don’t win the game tomorrow, I fear the fans will start becoming much more vocal in their dissent. There is already talk of a boycott for tomorrow, let alone if we keep losing. We cannot afford to have less fans coming through the gate – we struggle enough with small crowds as it is. Buckle has never been a particularly popular manager at the club, but the owning consortium have stayed loyal to him throughout. And I can’t see the players being particularly happy with the departures of some of their friends at the hands of the manager. The ingredients are there for disaster…