To the Conference and beyond…
I like the Conference Premier. Everyone should. It’s a fascinating league. It is the boundary between the professionalism and ambition of the Football League and the honour and decency non-league regional divisions. This is where clubs are born, or reborn – it has become a rite of passage for ambitions non-league outfits like Burton Albion, Stevenage and Crawley Town, or the former Football League clubs wanting to return to their glory days after being through so many problems, like Accrington Stanley, Aldershot Town and Oxford United. You know you’ve made it if you’ve lifted the pyramid-shaped trophy and progressed into the 92 Club. But it has become an achievement itself to make it into a division of 14 former Football League clubs – for the likes of Dartford, Alfreton Town and Hyde, things don’t get much better than this. It’s this fascinating blend of clubs that makes it so intriguing – there’s nothing like it in English football.
So maybe Torquay United are suited to that league. Despite being a Football League club for most of the last 86 years, I wouldn’t hold it against you if you were to suggest we don’t have the feel of a Football League club. Despite being promoted a few times, we’ve never been a club that has wanted to push on. Our ground is small and our fans are few in number – in a list of English football club average attendances, we consistently end up around the 92nd position. We’re not the sort of club that conjures up images of fiery encounters or passionate support. Torquay United – meek and mild.
Today more than ever, Football League clubs are ambitious. They have to be to stay afloat, when clubs like Crawley, Stevenage and Fleetwood are arriving, with ambitions of climbing the ladder despite little support at present. And why not? After all, Wimbledon and Wigan, over the course of 25 years or more, have shown that even when you start with average attendances of around 2,000, you can still become a Premier League club. Build it and they will come, they say. You have to be moving forward just to stand still.
And that’s been the problem for Torquay – because we’ve never been one to push on, we’re inevitably going to get caught. This may be the season we’ve run out of luck – ironically, few would have seen it coming exactly a year ago, when we were 2nd in the league.
The current board, a consortium of wealthy fans who took over after our last relegation in 2007, did show signs initially of trying to move the club in the right direction, but it seems even they have lapsed into the same pursuit of mediocrity that previous owners found themselves. Yes, they build a new stand this year, and it is a nice stand, but they’re not the first owners to build a new stand. Taking money away from the playing squad to develop a new training pitch simultaneously with building the Bench turned the whole exercise into essentially arranging deckchairs on the Titanic – even if/though it was a positive move designed to ensure the survival of the club, taking money away from the playing squad meant the squad could not possibly be moved forward.
The loss of key players over the summer could not be compensated for – Martin Ling was left in an impossible position. Now his successor Alan Knill has to pull a whole colony of white rabbits out from his sleeve to keep us in the Football League, and his experiences at Scunthorpe suggests waiting for him to do this on his own is not the wisest of moves. The board have been frozen into non-action – Ling may even have still been around had he not gone off sick; it wasn’t until long after it became obvious that his assistant Shaun Taylor was not capable of managing alone did they act and bring in an interim.
It’s a farce. And all of this stems back to the board’s inertia. They have not promoted the club any differently to any previous regimes. Perhaps they were spoilt by their first year in charge, when people turned up in their droves to watch Conference football. People did this because they were excited by a new era of change. The challenge is keeping people there.
Maybe we missed the earliest warning signs when we were busy celebrating promotion – whereas our first season in the Conference saw an average attendance of 3129, still the highest since we were relegated from League One in 2005, the second season saw that plummet to 2243. The novelty had worn off – it was left to Paul Bristow, the generous National Lottery winner whom the Bench is now dedicated to, to provide the money to bring in new players for our eventually successful promotion push. Nobody ever asked why attendances had dropped off – it was just put down to being in the Conference. People were happy with just being promoted. But as we all know, the best sportsmen always ask questions on how to improve even when they’re winning – perhaps we should have done the same.
Now attendances are plummeting as fast as our league position. The last two midweek home games have seen attendances of less than 1800, our lowest for 3 years. People are blaming the board for not investing the squad, but they can’t magic money out of thin air. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the board’s fault. Not only was the decision to develop the training pitch at the same time as the new stand a poor, short-sighted one, where they simply assumed the manager would be fine to drag the squad through the season without getting into trouble, but the board also have to take responsibility for the lack of promotion of the club.
Torquay United still has that image of easy-come easy-go, “it doesn’t matter if we go up, as long as we survive”, and that must be off-putting for the locals who would otherwise attend matches. People aren’t going to be inspired to care about a club that even its own hardcore support aren’t really that bothered about. The fact is in modern football there is an expectation that club achieves as much as possible. Survival is not an achievement. Winning things is. People will not want to pay £20-odd to watch a club that doesn’t care about winning things when they can sit at home and watch plenty of clubs that do care.
I’m always amazed that there are Torquay United fans who simply can’t understand why people from Torbay would rather sit at home and watch Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea on TV instead of going to Plainmoor – it’s a refusal to accept that some people want to watch clubs that are trying to do the best they can, clubs with ambition, clubs who want to buy talented players instead of just any old cheap clogger. It’s not how football should be, but that’s not going to change any time soon.
Some will blame the effect of TV on football. I say live with it – adapt or die. TV has changed things, the genie is out of the bottle, and that can’t be undone. There’s no use sitting around moaning about it – if you genuinely care, do something about it. OK, there’s not so much that we can do as mere peasants (apart from writing blogs that purport to promote the club), but this is addressed to the owners – if you want people to come, you can’t just expect them to turn up and do sod all if they don’t. Promote the club! If you’re going to build a new stand, don’t just build it, stand back and admire your handy work. If you don’t continue to promote the damn thing, people won’t fill it – that’s why we had a bigger average attendance with 3 stands than we have with 4!
It’s not rocket science – there are professionals out there who are good at this kind of thing. The money you can make from a good PR campaign (and by that I mean proper advertising, not a few nice words on the website saying how unlucky we were to get beaten 4-0) will more than pay for them. If we’re that desperate to get people through the gate to get money in to improve the squad to move up the leagues, you have to start by promoting the club. And that means ridding it of this 1950s image, with its 50-50 raffles, unambitious bland platitudes and treating women at football matches as if they are a novelty. People aren’t interested in a time-warp – if they wanted to go back in time, they’d go to a museum.
Talking of which, we may be little more than an exhibit in one in a few years. Because I’m afraid of what a second relegation into the Conference would bring. Three clubs have been relegated into the Conference twice – two of them, Chester and Halifax, went bust within 6 years, while Lincoln are in serious danger of dropping into the Conference North. Basically, history suggests our prospects aren’t good. That, coupled with a board who seem to have lost their drive, our only good players set to walk away from the club for nothing in the summer, and a managerial situation that is yet to be (publicly) resolved means that we couldn’t be in a worse position. At least last time we were relegated we were up for sale.
This time there is no novelty about dropping into the Conference. This new era will only be seen negatively. Inevitably there will be a drop-off of fans – for some, a second relegation into non-league will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. With lower away attendances as well, I fear sub-1800 crowds will become a regular occurrence. Lower crowds mean less money to spend. Less money to spend means weaker squads. Weaker squads means lower crowds. And so on. It’s a vicious spiral of decline from here on.
That’s why the board has to act now – or rather, should have acted sooner. It may be too late already. The lack of confidence and talent in the squad means our form is going to be difficult to change. We are an oil tanker heading for an iceberg, and we need a skilled pilot to steer us away from it. In Knill, a man who nearly led Scunthorpe to consecutive relegations, I don’t think we have someone skilled enough to save this ship. I fear that once we hit those rocks we are only going downwards, the only question being how deep the seabed is.
So I hope we don’t end up in the Conference. The Conference isn’t bad, but our long-term fate may be worse than that. The problem is I do wonder if another great escape this season would lead to yet more patting-ourselves-on-the-back rather than looking at the real issues and sorting them out. The key players will probably still walk away for nothing. The managerial situation will still be unresolved. The crowds will still be poor. We will still be making a loss. If we don’t go down this year, it may be delaying the inevitable.
The wheels may have already been set in motion for a steady decline into non-league obscurity – Conference Premier, Conference South, Southern League, who knows where we will end up. What would be significant for English football is that, compared to the other clubs that have sunk, there is no villain here to pin the blame on – there is no Stephen Vaughan or Alex Hamilton, no obvious violation of the fit and proper persons test. There are only well-intentioned fans, who rode on the good times and then didn’t have the experience to deal with a difficult situation. But it is wrong to solely blame them – this is all down to a series of errors and incidents by numerous parties that have accumulated over time to bring us down. Our course has been set, and it may be too late to change it.