At a crossroads…
It’s about time I did a Torquay United post. I came into this season meaning to do more but simply haven’t bothered. I think this in part is down to the fact that our form has been so erratic of late – one minute it seems appropriate to write an article criticising the team, but the next it seems more appropriate to write one praising them. I’ve felt reluctant to openly criticise the team in a blog post or article because there have been plenty of positives, but neither am I feeling overwhelmingly upbeat about the season so far – there have been missed opportunities and some terrible performances.
It would be harsh of me to be too critical of our current standing given that we’re only a point off the play-offs, unbeaten at home and have just beaten the side that’s top of the table. Having said that, I do believe there is an underlying weakness in the squad – it’s too small. With Macklin and Morris out long-term and Ling unwilling to throw many of the “reserve” players into the action unless necessary, there is a distinct lack of competition in the side. Take the left-back role: Joe Oastler hasn’t been playing brilliantly this season so far, and was particularly bad against Bristol Rovers even before he was sent off. However, but for the fact that he did get sent off, it would have been unlikely that Dan Leadbitter would have realistically taken his place in the side for Tuesday’s match against Gillingham. Considering Leadbitter has taken his opportunity well, perhaps this reluctance of Ling’s to change things could be backfiring – if Oastler gets his place back straight away, I would be disappointed and concerned.
There is an interesting paradox in Ling’s management style that has only become apparent of late. Though his tactics are modern and progressive – attractive short-passing football in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation – he has a distinctly old-fashioned approach to other aspects, namely his brute honesty in his post-match press conferences that occasionally make it seem like he’s trying to deflect blame away from himself but simultaneously suggesting he’s not in control of the squad, and his reluctance to rotate his squad. The latter cost us dearly at the end of last year, and I’m concerned it will again this year – with a squad of only 15 players realistically likely to feature in the starting XI, including only two senior centre-backs, it does not only mean a lack of competition for places, but also means that certain players could end up quite tired if they keep playing from here through to the end of the season.
It’s concerning because while we are playing well right now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be playing well come April. League Two is incredibly close at the moment, with the vast majority of teams in the division a couple of wins away from the play-offs or a couple of defeats away from staring into the abyss. If this continues, a bad run of form at any time could be costly. There’s usually at least one team that plummets over the course of the season – last year, Macclesfield and Burton started well but ended up at the bottom, in the Silkmen’s case bottom of all. League Two is not the division to throw everything on the first half of the season and hope it sticks.
The other worry, as ever, is losing our best players, and the fact that we are discussing this is both a blessing and a potential curse. The two obvious candidates are Rene Howe, by far and away our player of the season so far, and Nathan Craig, who is fulfilling all the promise that observers suggested he had. While I think January may be too soon for bigger clubs to come in for Craig, it’s never good to be a small club with a very good striker. Strikers tend to be the most sort-after players in January, because there are always teams struggling to score and/or looking for goal-scorers – witness Peterborough signing Barnett from Crawley and Sinclair from Macclesfield last year. The result is the lost striker becomes difficult to replace – again, Macclesfield’s downfall can be traced to them losing Sinclair. I don’t want to bang on about Macclesfield too much, because I think we are in a better position than they were (financially, in terms of the squad and in terms of the league table), but…
This is the problem with being a Torquay United fan, or indeed the fan of any small lower league club – even when things are going well, you’re always looking over your shoulder to see how far you are away from relegation. Why this is I don’t really know, since the Conference is nothing to be afraid of, though losing Football League status does at least carry a certain symbolic weight. Nor do I think we will get relegated – there are clearly worse teams out there. I just believe we could be doing better, and it wouldn’t take much – loan players don’t have to be expensive. The lack of depth in the squad has concerned me since before the season began and Ling hasn’t yet acted on it, even after two long-term injuries. It’s just a case of waiting to see whether or not it will hold – if it does, we may have another successful year, but I have my doubts. It’s possible to get promoted with a squad of 17, but it’s about as likely as, oh I don’t know, Edgar Davids becoming player-manager of Barnet…oh wait.