It’s 20th July, the day of Torquay’s first pre-season friendly (of sorts) of the summer. It’s a charity match against the Royal Marines of nearby Lympstone, with whom the squad have been doing an intensive commando course this week. All proceeds are going to Help for Heroes. From a footballing perspective it’s not that significant – we’ll have to wait until the matches against Leeds and Stoke to get a more accurate representation of how the squad is, as they say, “shaping up” and what Martin Ling’s plans are for the season.
At the moment, we seem to be stuck in a period where not a lot is happening. After the initial transfer dealings, things have gone a bit quiet, especially over the identity of the centre-back that we’re supposed to be signing. Meanwhile, plenty of League Two centre-backs continue to complete deals to sign for other clubs. Ling’s shortlist has, in his words, gradually been reduced, presumably because of this.
I’m not worried that we won’t sign anyone, or even that the player we will sign won’t be very good. The club has moved on from the Bateson era, passing through the first weeks of summer without doing much, and then ending up with a host of trialists in the friendlies, a sub-par squad for the first game and a stack of loans through the season. The club is run far better now than it was back then, which explains why we’ve only had one season of struggle since the consortium took over.
What I’m concerned about is squad depth. We have always had small squads – we are not amongst the financial giants of League Two, so we’ve never been able to afford them. However, in recent years we have at least had enough cover, alongside some pretty good fortune with injuries (to which credit must go to club physio Damien Davey and his team).
In particular, I’m thinking about the defence here. At the start of last season, Oastler was first choice right-back (despite not being a natural in that position at this level – he progressed well through the year, though) with Leadbitter and Mansell as cover; Nicholson was first choice left-back with Rowe-Turner as cover; and Saah, Robertson and Ellis battled over the two centre-back starting spots, with Tom Aldred and Angus MacDonald brought in on loan during the season as cover after injury and transfer respectively.
This year, things are much the same but with a subtle difference: right-back remains unchanged, and Rowe-Turner has been replaced by Tom Cruise as left-back cover. However, with Ling only looking for one centre-back to replace both Robertson and Ellis, Cruise is now effectively cover for centre-back as well – to put it another way, we are down one defender on last year.
This concerns me – not worried, but concerned. Because that puts us only two injuries away from being in trouble – if Nicholson and Saah or the new guy are simultaneously injured, we’re stuck. It would likely mean Oastler at centre-back, which would mean Mansell (necessitating changes to the midfield as well) or the unconvincing Leadbitter at right-back. Just two injuries would mean massive changes to the starting line-up, or being forced to bring another centre-back in on loan. Instability can derail a season.
I think we’re taking an unnecessary gamble based on our good fortune with injuries in the past – I say “good fortune”, but even last year Saah was out for several weeks injured over Christmas. It didn’t end up being a problem because we had two solid centre-backs to replace him. The same eventuality now would mean Cruise at centre-back, a player who has only ever made 3 league appearances and, as far as I know, isn’t a specialist centre-back – Ling talks about signing someone who can cover left-sided centre-back and left-back positions but he is primarily a left-back. The whole thing has an air of the barrel being scraped.
So why do we have one less defender? At first you might think it’s because the signing of Craig Easton means we have an extra midfielder compared to last year. But we don’t, now that Chris McPhee has been released. Equally, Billy Bodin is a straight replacement (of sorts) for Taiwo Atieno. Actually we have signed less players than we have released: Poke, Cruise, MacKenzie, Easton and Bodin for Olejnik, Rowe-Turner, Ellis, Palmer, McPhee and Atieno, with the last centre-back as a permanent replacement for Robertson who left in January.
The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the players that we have signed, or at least some of them, are being paid considerably more than the ones we’ve released, which does make sense. But you have to wonder if this is a good idea. Yes, it’s great to see a Torquay squad not spread so thinly that it’s barely noticeable – I’d suggest that at the moment, pending the new centre-back, we have a better first XI than we did last year. The problem is that we don’t have the same depth – injuries and suspensions could potentially hit us harder.
I have two other minor concerns as well. One is the ongoing Eunan O’Kane saga. It looked certain that he was going to leave, in particular to Crawley. As of today, he is still a Torquay player. The concern is that once we get into the new season, clubs further up the food chain will realise their deficiencies and will target him, leaving us little time to bring in a replacement – and a season without a playmaker isn’t one that I look forward to. It’s all well and good Eunan bringing in some cash if we can spend it – a deadline day move could be a disastrous scenario if the fax machine “breaks down” again. Having said this, Morris can play in the middle as a playmaker as well. We do seem to have more midfield and wing options, especially considering Nathan Craig should see some action this year.
The other is up front. Jarvis and Bodin were both played as wingers last year, though I would at least consider Ryan as a striker. Either way, it still leaves us relying more on Howe, which is a tad risky knowing his history of injuries and suspensions. Rene is a great striker and could potentially bag over 20 goals in a season – he’s that good when he’s on form. However, after him and Jarvis we’re left with Ashley Yeoman, who is now 20 but has barely played at league level.
It’s not a major issue itself as we barely lost when Howe wasn’t playing anyway, even with Atieno as the main striker. But (and I hate to be a prophet of doom), if this was to be combined with losing O’Kane and other issues elsewhere, it could be disastrous.
Now people may scoff at my concern about this apocalyptic scenario, and it is true that it is very unlikely – I’m feeling far more positive about next season than I was after the play-off defeat, at which point it looked likely that we would lose a few players and start next season with a weaker squad. But anyone who dismisses this as mere fantasy should ask themselves why teams get relegated? Yes, with some it’s because they never had a good squad to begin with, and for others money plays a big role. But with other teams, you think “why did they get relegated? They had a good squad, a good manager and/or did well last year. What could possibly have gone wrong?” The margins between a successful season and a terrible season are thin, particularly at this level – I would say the vast majority of teams at this level are a couple of long-term injuries, suspensions or heart-breaking defeats away from a bad year. Form and momentum is often more important than star quality in determining where a team ends up.
In your pre-season predictions, it would be perfectly reasonable to put Torquay as play-off contenders but it would also be perfectly reasonable to put Torquay as relegation candidates – football has a habit of surprising people. Good and bad seasons often appear when you least expect them – something I’ve learned from doing the Ultimate Championship predictions every year for the last decade is that things never pan out the way I, you or anyone else expected them to, and that there is always a surprise package or two at either end of the table.
I would suggest we at Plainmoor are more likely to be looking at the top of the table than the bottom this year, but I’m not going to object if anyone suggests otherwise. I don’t know, and no one else does either. League Two is the most unpredictable division of the Football League, and not just because it’s the one people usually know the least about…