The Welsh Gull

Torquay United, the Football League and other stuff

O’Kane, transfer fees and confidence

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At Torquay, we’ve always gone by with the attitude that spending big transfer fees doesn’t matter, because we’ve proven that we don’t need to do it. It seems to be happening again this year that the club is falling into a state of naive complacency.

In the beginning, God created Mike Bateson, and granted him the ownership of Torquay United. Now Mike was a careful man, far-sighted and conservative but sometimes overlooked what was happening before his very eyes. I will not blame him for Chris Roberts or our resulting slide into the Conference. However, one cannot avoid the fact that we stared relegation in the face a few times before that. We were very fortunate. I have been recently looking back through the squads and some of them defy belief – so many poor signings that were clearly made because the contemporary manager was trying to negotiate the tricky path to survival under an immensely restrictive budget.

Then came the consortium. It is a story that, until now, has been a positive one untouched by revisionists, and I don’t intend on rewriting history just yet. Put briefly, Paul Bristow saved our collective arses. But for his generosity, we would undoubtedly still be a Conference club, and not a particularly big one with any prospect of getting out of there any time soon. His was a terrible loss in 2010 and it is only right that the new stand should be named in his honour.

The key difference between the Bateson era and the consortium era is that the purse strings have been loosened somewhat. This was absolutely the right decision – Bateson was a good man for this club, no doubt, but he was a man of his time, and inevitably his methods of running a football club would be out of place in the year 2012. It is a valid point that football clubs, morally at least, should not be spending beyond their means, but equally no one wants to see a football club run into the ground because the owner was too tight to spend anything. The consortium’s relative Keynesian approach has seen 4 top 6 finishes in the last 5 seasons, our best run of form in decades – clearly it works.

However, the events, and revelations, of the past few weeks trouble me. It all has the feel of the Bateson era again – we’ve benefited financially from the sales of players and yet, one player aside, the.

Firstly, Bobby Olejnik left for Peterborough – £300,000 is the reported fee. A very good deal for us. Michael Poke was brought in to replace him – a solid ‘keeper, but it is fair to say that he is not as good as Olejnik. Poke has been back-up at a couple of Championship clubs. Olejnik has just signed to be a number 1. But I’m not complaining.

Secondly, Mark Ellis was sold to Crewe. The figure is believed to be in the region of £80,000. Again, this is a very good deal for us, as I don’t believe Ellis to be all that special – I held the same opinion about selling Chris Robertson in January. The first signs of trouble are in this area, though – we have shrunk the number of senior centre-backs we have from 3 to 2 (Tom Cruise is not a centre-back specialist, and in any case, he is a replacement for Rowe-Turner) and then brought in Aaron Downes, a capable player but one who has had 3 knee injuries in the past 3 years, as a replacement. That’s right – we’ve got rid of cover and then brought in an injury-prone player as first choice. A big risk in such a crucial position for us, one which was very important to our success last year.

And now, after much speculation, Eunan O’Kane has finally departed for AFC Bournemouth. If the talk about release clauses is accurate, the fee is believed to be around £170,000. This is a big loss for us – he is our most important player. Loyalist fans have already tried to bat this one away by saying “he wasn’t even that good last year”, “we’ll play a different formation”, “Player X will cover it” and “we’ll sign someone”. I’ll cover these each individually.

– “he wasn’t even that good last year” – anyone who says this firstly has little understanding of what a playmaker is supposed to do. Take Xavi – he doesn’t need to do much during the game, and indeed is a relatively untalented player for someone who has achieved so much; all he has to do is provide one or two killer balls a game, and that’s exactly what he does.

Think of O’Kane in the same sense – he can be totally anonymous for 80 minutes, and yet he can afford to be if he creates the winning goal, because that’s his job. And he wasn’t totally anonymous for 80 minutes in the games I saw – often he would be heavily marked, but he also tracked back a lot and put in some great tackles and blocks.

The fact is I saw one of the few games he didn’t play in last year against Port Vale, and we looked terrible without him. It was only Olejnik and our defenders that saved the day – but don’t worry because we’ve still got th…oh wait.

– “we’ll play a different formation” – we won’t play 4-4-2, because Martin Ling likes 4-5-1 and anyone who knows anything about football tactics will tell you that 4-5-1 is better than 4-4-2 for the type of football that we play.

– “Player X will cover it” – I’ve seen several names here, all of which are either nonsense or risky. Craig Easton is a defensive midfielder, 33 years old, and played 3 games last year – he has almost certainly been brought up as back-up for Damon Lathrope, as someone who can “do a job” in football terms.
Ian Morris is a good player, underrated by many, but also overrated by a few too. He’s not going to fill the void left by O’Kane. Nathan Craig is young and unproven – clearly he is talented, but if he’s all that good, why was he playing in the Welsh Premier League? I understand that he has been messed around earlier in his career but players don’t get totally lost in the system.

– “we’ll sign someone” – this is a risk because it is now July 26th (yes, I know the season starts later, but it’s still July 26th) and the best players have been snapped up already. Usually in the past if we had gaps in our starting XI by this time, it usually ended up being filled by a have-a-go trialist, with varying results. Obviously we aren’t in the Bateson era any more (but more on that shortly), but uncertainty is not a good thing. There is also the loan market, but Ling doesn’t like using it, and we’ve had just as many bad players as good ones from that – for every Jason Roberts there has been a Jamal Easter.

To me, the suggestions that Ling has made indicate that he may not pursue a replacement as he is confident in the players he has, particularly Morris and Craig. That makes me nervous as both would be as risky as signing an unknown, for one hasn’t played for the club before and the other has played in that role and didn’t look capable of matching Eunan’s creativity.

The other card he can play is the signing of Billy Bodin. I do think we missed him after he returned to Swindon in January, but the way some fans have talked about him in recent months suggests he is some kind of messianic figure who will change everything for us, when in fact all I saw from him was a good youngster with a bit of flair and spark who liked to run around in circles, like a young Martin Phillips. Beware of false prophets, and all that.

But what’s this? Announced today, it seems that £50,000 of the £70,000 we paid for Bodin came from a fan, and that without this generous bequest we wouldn’t have been able to “afford” to sign him – “we” being the club that has just made £550,000 in transfer fees this summer. OK, so Eunan hadn’t gone when the deal was done, but it would be naive to think that he wasn’t going to go, especially with such a relatively low release clause in his contract.

It does make you wonder where this money is going, or has gone. Suggestions have been made that it is going towards the new stand and training facilities, while rumours imply that the money is going out in other directions. Speaking as someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of everything going on at the club, I’m unsettled by this, because all I see is money coming in and none going out. There will be many casual Torquay fans who will be thinking the same, because all they read is what is in the Herald Express every week. Surely this damages local confidence – all one sees is the best players leaving for big money and a couple of risky replacements being drafted in on free transfers.

The club needs to be honest about what is going on, otherwise they risk throwing away the goodwill they have built up in what has been a positive five years. If they are scared about being criticised for putting the money into other areas rather than the squad, then they should just face up to that, because they will be criticised regardless.

And I will criticise them for that. Yes, the stand does look nice, but I can think of plenty of other clubs that decided to go chasing the dream with new stands or stadia and it ended up being a hindrance because they put all their eggs in one basket. The Kassam Stadium didn’t look so great in the Conference. The Ricoh Arena won’t look so great in League One. Different circumstances for each, of course, but the point is the same.

Providing the club is financially stable, which in this case it is, the playing squad should always be the priority. Because if fans aren’t happy with the squad, they won’t go to the matches, and if people don’t go to the matches, the club will have no money. Investing money injects confidence into the club. I’m not asking for recklessness – I’m not asking for the club to throw silly wages at a Mo Camara again. But the club has to be seen to be doing something positive with this money that they have earned, otherwise people will turn on or away from the club, and that will not only hit the finances but it will further undermine performances on the pitch and you end up in a spiral of decline.

We’ve got £530,000 left of transfer fees, and the 3 players leaving will have freed up quite a bit of the wage budget too. The club should either spend some of it on a Eunan replacement (and pretty sharpish at that), or come clean and tell us exactly where the money’s going and why they think that it’s better to do this way. Because at the moment the club is either being complacent with the squad (because I don’t believe that the current squad, as it stands, is anywhere near good enough to go up) or naive in expecting fans not to be concerned.

Money does matter, as much as we don’t want it to. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s 1985 – clubs need to invest to compete, and if they don’t, they get relegated. You can blame Torquay’s lack of power in the transfer market all you like on location, but to me that’s just the Devon inferiority complex speaking – players are happy to up sticks and go to the most hostile locations if the price is right. We allow ourselves to be bullied by bigger clubs, agents and players by being too conservative. We didn’t in the Conference, and that’s why we were successful there – League Two may be a step up but surely that doesn’t justify regression back to Batesonian (or Cameronian, even) austerity, especially with such a massive windfall this off-season. This needs to change or we will soon find ourselves back down in the Conference, and this time that ravine will be that much taller and steeper.

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Written by James Bennett

July 26, 2012 at 22:11

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