Leroy Rosenior the manager
Ah, Leroy Rosenior. The pundit who isn’t Steve Claridge on the Football League Show, and therefore one of the most popular men in football. Those not familiar with the lower leagues beyond the last few years may just assume that he is there because he is a decent pundit, or because of his playing career, which itself was largely unremarkable – his greatest achievements were a League Cup runners-up medal at QPR, 1987 Fulham Player of the Year and a solitary cap for mighty Sierra Leone. The more aware Football League Show viewer may know that he was also once manager of Torquay United for 10 minutes.
Few, though, would appreciate the scale of the challenge he overcame in 2004 to get Torquay promoted to League One. The context is absolutely vital to demonstrating this.
Leroy arrived at Plainmoor in the summer of 2002 after the resignation of Roy McFarland. The former Derby and Cambridge manager had guided the Gulls to a disappointing 19th in the league, which gave him little breathing room when chairman Mike Bateson decided that assistant manager David Preece couldn’t be retained if he didn’t continue as a player for the club. McFarland’s resignation was followed by the appointment of Rosenior, whose managerial career had included failures at Gloucester City and Merthyr Tydfil. Surely the cheap option – surely a disaster waiting to happen.
Actually, no. A solid first season meant that Torquay finished 9th, a first top half finish in what was then Division Three for the first time in 3 years. The attractive attacking football on offer was a contrast to the long ball slugs of the McFarland season. Instead of grinding out draws, matches became contests where the object was to score one more than the other. It was a breath of fresh air.
The following year, Leroy had a settled side. The addition of former Plymouth defender Craig Taylor (brother of current assistant manager Shaun) added solidity at the back, while a fully fit Martin Gritton complemented goal machine David Graham in an all-Scottish attack. The creative influence of Alex Russell and Jason Fowler in midfield could not be underestimated, while the late loan signing of Liam Rosenior, who added pace and trickery on the wing, helped us over the line. After a dramatic last day, Torquay were promoted in 3rd place.
Graham departed for Wigan for £215,000 in the summer after promotion and would never hit the same heights again. Nor would Leroy’s Torquay, but at least they gave it a good go in League One. On a shoestring once again, the team became increasingly reliant on Russell’s creativity, but lacked a holding midfielder until the loan signing of Darren Garner late on. We also lacked a first choice goalkeeper for much of the season – alongside Arjan van Heusden and Kevin Dearden, who competed in 2003-04, the Gulls also saw Bertrand Bossu, Olafur Gottskalksson, Phil Barnes, Paul Jarvie and Andy Marriott feature between the posts.
And yet despite this instability, a slow defence and numerous poor signings, we nearly survived. Adebayo Akinfenwa monstered League One defences in his first full season of English football, gaining momentum as his goal tally increased, while Leon Constantine also proved a goal threat during his loan spell, though proved a flop after he was signed for a club record £75,000. In the end, it again came down to the last day. Defeat to Colchester combined with a last minute winner for MK Dons against a second string Tranmere side already confirmed in the play-offs sent us back down.
The departures of Russell and Akinfenwa on freebies over the summer probably doomed Leroy to failure the following season, and he departed in January 2006, the dressing room having been lost. And while I suppose nearly every managerial spell ultimately ends in failure, it’s odd how Leroy perhaps doesn’t get as much praise as he ought to deserve, even from Torquay fans. Despite his success and god-like status with Torquay fans for a short while, a few criticisms of his ability have crept in over the years as the historical revisionists win out.
The most popular criticism is that he was poor at making signings. It is said that the side that would become successful over Leroy’s first two seasons was largely built by his predecessors McFarland and Colin Lee, and most of the good players that joined were basically hand-me-downs from Plymouth, who were storming towards the Championship at the time. The signings Leroy would make to replace some of these key players were often notorious failures. This particularly came to the fore after promotion to League One, when alleged drugs cheat Gottskalksson, Portuguese prima donna Bruno Meirelles, our least successful Argyle import Osvaldo Lopes, former Norwich striker Zema Abbey, and Tony Pulis’ son Anthony all appeared, usually briefly. This was followed the following year by the obscure French trio of Morike Sako, Mamadou Sow and Carl Yaya Priso – only Sako was a hit, while Sow was temperamental and Priso spent most of his time at the club “injured”. Leon Constantine is regarded as an expensive failure.
But my feeling is that to criticise him for this is harsh. Firstly, yes, the side there already was a decent one, but it was hardly getting results in McFarland’s hands. And you can’t say that he didn’t make additions – Jo Kuffour was one of the first, effectively as a replacement for the inconsistent Marcus Richardson, and he has since gone on to become an established player at this level; yes, we did benefit from Plymouth rejects, but Gritton, Taylor, Wills, McGlinchey and Phillips didn’t have to come to the club, nor did Leroy have to accept them; and some of the signings he made after promotion to League One were actually promising and could have kept us up. He also had to do the difficult job of turfing out those that weren’t capable, such as Paul Holmes after 2002-03, and David Woozley and Reuben Hazell after promotion, as well as quickly allowing those players that weren’t good enough to depart as soon as possible, rather than keeping them hanging around as disruptive influences or hogging the wage bill.
As for the bad signings, you have to understand the context of the situation – he was working on a very, very small budget, and as a result, he could only sign cheap players. Only Constantine and summer 2005 signing Alan Connell (for whom we paid £5,000) were bought – the rest of the players he signed were free transfers. It was very much a case of trial and error with this – inevitably some weren’t as good as others. Similarly, his reliance on loanees was going to carry risks – for every Paul Robinson (now Millwall captain), Craig Woodman (now at Exeter) or Danny Hollands (now at Charlton), there was a Stuart Noble, Anthony Pulis or Aaron Brown.
He was also working with no assistant manager, bare minimum staff, and an academy that was being run-down until it was binned altogether. This was the immediate post-ITV Digital era – though we were never in financial trouble, money was tight for us, so we couldn’t afford to splash the cash (not that we ever have, but it was particularly bad at this time).
Leroy also wasn’t helped by the short contracts that he was effectively forced to give out – in some sense, the best deal he did was to get David Graham to sign as long a contract as he did, so that we could at least get something for him when Steve Bruce came a-knockin’. Russell and Akinfenwa were key losses, especially for nothing – two of our three best players (Marriott being the other, though he too would later leave on a free) leaving for no profit seriously hamstrung us in 2005-06. But there was also the loss of Stuart Wardley early into our 2004-05 season – he was looking like a key player for us but was only ever signed on a short-term contract, and left in October for Leyton Orient.
Leroy’s role was thus, out of necessity, as a rough-diamond-smoother. He was bloody good at getting the best out of players that many managers had cast aside, either due to temperament or injury. Akinfenwa is a great example of this, a player that was on the scrapheap until he came to Torquay and transformed his career, hence our disappointment when he refused to sign a new contract after our relegation in order to leave us behind. David Graham is another – his difficulties at higher levels and resulting tumble down to the leagues into non-league football demonstrate this. There were some he couldn’t handle, like Meirelles, Constantine and Sow, but some things are beyond a manager’s ability to control.
He also had quite a bit of bad luck at this time. The loss of Jason Fowler midway through 2004-05 to injury-related premature retirement was a massive blow – Jason was a fantastic player, as all Cardiff fans of that time will remember, and he would have played a big role in helping keep us up that season. The following season, Ian Stonebridge suffered with an injury that would eventually lead to his early retirement in 2007.
Equally, in his final weeks, he nearly pulled off one last feat of genius, proving that another criticism, that of tactical naivety, is also unfair. Torquay hosted Premier League side Birmingham City in an FA Cup third round tie. Torquay dominated, making a mockery of their more established rivals (though that wasn’t necessarily too difficult with Emile Heskey playing for them) – they had a goal disallowed, hit the post, and forced some fine saves from Maik Taylor. Unfortunately, the winning goal didn’t come, and the replay at St Andrew’s saw the inevitable defeat. Leroy would soon be gone due to poor league form, and thus his role in this near-miss is largely forgotten. Torquay’s FA Cup record during his reign was patchy, with defeats to non-league Burton and Hinckley in the years before. But this was no mean feat.
I suppose I have focused a lot on potential criticisms. I’m sure most Torquay fans would agree that he’s well-regarded, even if not deified by the faithful. But I don’t think anyone would say that he was an exceptionally good manager, and the holes are occasionally picked in his reign. Indeed, when it was rumoured that he would return to the club after our relegation to the Conference, his potential appointment wasn’t regarded with too much optimism – the old niggles about him not being good at signing players and having no plan B returned. And ultimately I think this is harsh – he did an exceptional job in difficult circumstances, and few other lower league managers would have achieved what he did in the same situation.
In some ways, I’m surprised he has only managed one club since Torquay (a brief unsuccessful reign at Brentford, albeit one following on from Martin Allen – make of that what you will) – considering some managers have forged careers out of having such mediocre records, it’s surprising that he hasn’t been given another go. Perhaps the punditry’s paying well. At least it keeps Claridge off our screens occasionally – a noble sacrifice of his promising career to save the nation’s football fans from weekly irritation.