The Welsh Gull

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To the Conference and beyond…

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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.

Written by James Bennett

March 10, 2013 at 21:38

Crisis at the manor…

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As the Sun rose over the manor, two tall figures strolled around the gardens – Simon, lord of the manor, and his butler William.

Lord Simon: …yes, I’m afraid the head gardener was taken ill last night. They aren’t sure what it is yet but it could be quite serious.

William: Oh that’s such a shame. The garden had been doing so well – I remember when you won all those awards last year. It was such a great project.

S: Well, actually things hadn’t been going so well recently anyway. We had a lovely layout set out, but some of the flowers just didn’t bloom for whatever reason, while others just didn’t grow in the way we wanted them to. It was quite a surprise many of them were the same flowers as last year but this year they just didn’t appear.

W: Did you try getting some new ones in?

S: I’m afraid I just don’t have enough money at the moment. I spent a lot of money refurbishing the house – you know, painting the rooms, new portraits, new feathers in the pillows, that sort of thing. Plus I’ve got to leave a certain amount in the pot for grouse season. So I decided to leave it for this year. It’s not like it makes a big difference anyway…

W: What about the villagers? Won’t they say something about it not being up to the same standard as last year? Some of them have worked hard on it.

S: Well, it’s not really their garden, is it? They should be grateful that we have a garden for them to look at to begin with.

W: Are you going to tell them about the head gardener?

S: The assistant head gardener will take over for now. I doubt they will take much notice.

W: Isn’t he the incompetent one? Won’t they notice this?

S: Well, yes, he isn’t the best but again, it will not make much difference – this year’s display is already struggling. If they notice the head gardener isn’t around, tell them that he has a minor illness or something. They won’t know any different – they don’t understand these trivial matters. That’s why we usually don’t tell them anything about what I do here – I don’t speak to them myself because they couldn’t possibly understand what I’d be talking about.

W: Quite. But what about your plans for next year? You need to be making preparations now, and if the head gardener is going to be away for a while, who sorts that out?

S: Another year written off is no great loss. There are some good gardeners out there that I could speak to but they would just cost more money, and besides, I’ve got some more rooms that need decorating anyway. I’ve won some prizes and I’m happy with that – I don’t need any more.

W: I see. Any particular preference for the rooms?

S: Yes, I think I’ll go for a cream one this time. We haven’t got a cream room – went for yellow and pale blue rooms last year.

W: So you really think the villagers will be happy?

S: Well, they are just villagers, aren’t they? What does it matter what they think? They do complain about minor things, but if I just ignore them they stop complaining eventually. Ultimately, they don’t know how to run a manor and I do. You know, sometimes I just wish they would sod off, and that I could just have the manor to myself. But then I realise that I’d have to cook the rabbits and wash all the dishes myself, which would leave me with no time for riding my horses and shooting deer.

W: Yes, they are a necessary evil. How is organising the hunt going?

S: Not bad. A few of the usual party have decided not to come. They might be planning their own hunt – I’m not sure. Relations haven’t been so good since we had that bust-up over which direction to take the hunt. You remember that, don’t you?

W: Yes, they wanted to keep chasing that fox with the black eye to the east but you…

S: Yes, it was getting late and cold, and I had some good wine in the house brought in especially for the occasion. I was happy writing off a few chickens for that.

W: Indeed. Have you ever wondered…I’m sorry to keep returning to this, but have you wondered what might happen if the villagers all got together and made an offer to buy the manor off y…?

S: BUY THE MANOR?! Don’t be so daft, William. Don’t they realise I have been born to run this manor? They wouldn’t understand how to run a manor. I have experience. I have an education. I have money. I have a god-given right to own this place, and I can do what I want with it. It’s mine. I am simply cleverer than them, which is why they are peasants.

W: But what if they all left tomorrow?

S: It would still be mine. All the buildings will still be mine. All the land will still be mine…

W: But the people wouldn’t.

S: Are you suggesting the manor is the people rather than the buildings, William? I am most disappointed in you. You see, this is why you’re a butler and I’m the lord – you just don’t understand how it works…

W: Indeed, yes, sir. So what is it you want me to tell them about the head gardener again, sir?…

Written by James Bennett

February 26, 2013 at 17:05

Fight or die

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After tonight’s result and the resulting meltdown I’ve witnessed, I feel like I have to get a few thoughts down. Not in the form of an article – just some incoherent thoughts in bullet-point form. You may have heard some of these thoughts before but I need to get them out:

– OK, firstly, I hate to be smug and I take no pleasure out of it, but I’ve seen this coming all season. It all first started to slide out of control in April. Ling refused to rotate the side so by the time they got to the promotion push, all the players were knackered and our form bombed. We then sold 3 key players – we replaced 2 well (I’ll stand by Poke because I believe him to be a good goalkeeper) but never adequately replaced O’Kane. Craig might have but he has not been allowed to because he has continually been played out of position.

After the summer, we were left with a thin squad with few options and already carrying injuries. When you sell players for a lot of money, the wise thing is not only to just replace them, but to spread the money out to create depth too – e.g. if you sell 3 players for a lot of money, bring in 4 or 5. We didn’t even bring in 3. Not only that but we started the season with 3 centre-backs, one less with which we had ended the season. I pointed this out vociferously on the TFF, especially taking into account Downes’ injury history, but it was poo-pooed; Downes promptly got suspended and we were forced to play teenagers MacKenzie against the team that will probably win League Two this season. He did well, but that’s not the point. It wasn’t until December that we actually brought in a fourth centre-back, and even then it was only on loan.

It wasn’t much better in attack. When Morris and Macklin were ruled out long-term, we did nothing. We were left having to start and over-use 18-year old Thompson, ruining his confidence. We were playing 3 defensive midfielders in the middle and wondered why there was no creativity. After the stupefyingly awful performance against Southend, a superficial change of formation was introduced that worked for 2 matches. But what actually changed was only skin deep – in fact, adding an extra attacker behind Howe when Howe comes deep anyway means Jarvis in the AMC spot just gets bypassed; we might as well be playing with 10 men.

This bad run doesn’t go back to a particular point – we have been playing like this for the majority of the season. The flashes of brilliance against the likes of Rochdale, Cheltenham and Gillingham were the anomalies – very few teams don’t have an occasional good match, so it was/is totally wrong to feel entitled to be doing well based on a couple of strong performances (as some have suggested during the season – “we’re just in a bad run of form; we’ll get better because we have been good this year”). We might have had a great run at home but this was mostly down to our defence. Going forward we have not looked strong all year. Form is temporary, class is permanent – we are nearer the bottom than the top, which suggests that it isn’t bad form.

– Picking out individuals, those who have underperformed have mostly been around for a while: Nicholson, Oastler, Mansell, Bodin, Stevens and, more recently, Lathrope. And yet Stevens is pretty much the only one of these to have been dropped – Nicholson aside, the rest have been out of the side due to other reasons, but have quickly regained their place (though maybe Leadbitter has finally wrested the right-back slot off Oastler this time). Where is the motivation to put the effort in if you’re unlikely to be dropped? I’ve said this since the summer – not enough options, not enough competition. Fatigue will set in. Players age faster when they are over-worked. Playing the same team week in week out, especially one that’s not playing particularly well, does not work any more – this is not the 1970s. Pretty much every other team is doing this.

– So we have to look at the management team and the board. I think Ling has made mistakes with signings (“Cruise can play centre-back”; “we thought Artemi was a centre-back”) and tactics, and there are some players he has steadfastly refused to drop as already emphasised – essentially there are players theoretically in the squad that are taking up a portion of the wage budget that will almost certainly not be selected. So what’s the point of having them there? Use them or lose them. But ultimately he is not responsible – he is a good manager in the right situation; he just seems unable to change things when they are sliding out of control, which is a criticism you could level at most managers at this level.

The answer lies with the board. We made £500k from transfers and haven’t spent it on players. Instead, it has gone into the infrastructure, and investing in the infrastructure ahead of the playing squad is always a bad idea. Granted, the Bench was necessary, but I thought that had already been covered. It’s the training facilities investment, and particularly why it was seen as necessary to do this concurrent with the Bench, that’s baffling. If the facilities were so bad, how come we got to the play-offs 4 times in 5 years with them or an equivalent? We sure as hell won’t if you don’t invest in the squad – again, this is not the 1960s: stability is not the answer any more, because you have to keep progressing.

– It would be wrong to speculate on the reasons why Ling has gone AWOL over the last 4 games – it may be a serious issue that hasn’t yet been revealed. We desperately need clarity, though. It’s all rather bizarre – I can’t remember this ever happening here or elsewhere in recent years. We need clarity because we need to know what’s going on

– This is part of a wider issue I’ve had with the club this year. I’ve heard the argument that the board are within their rights to be opaque and there are some things we ought not to know, which is true to a certain extent. But regardless of that, the club have handled PR very badly this year: the talk of the play-offs during bad runs; the mixed messages from the manager; a lack of communication from the board at key times. When questions have been asked, they have invariably not been answered, or if they have, it’s been by some vague generic statement that gives little away. If people think you can get away with this in the 21st century Football League, you’re stuck in the past, because it leads to situations like tonight – 1,778, our lowest home attendance for nearly 2 years. People will walk away. You have to keep people interested when you’re charging them a lot of money to go to a football match. Communication is a massive part of running a football club – you can’t just neglect it.

– …which leads to another point: ambition. The club claim to be aiming to become a stable mid-table League One club. They have on occasions talked the talk, and on occasions they have walked the walk (new stand etc). But if their ambition is genuinely to get promoted, why didn’t they build on that successful side of last year? Do they not understand how football works? Not all players are equally good – it’s not like you can just swap 3 sold players for 3 others and the team will still be great. You have to keep the squad ticking over. Even Mike Bateson understood this, for all his flaws during his tenure as owner. It’s worth remembering that but for a donation from a fan, we’d never have signed Bodin – and what then? Would we have just gone in with one less player? We didn’t have enough options as it was. Or would we have just picked someone up on the cheap? Bodin might not have been success but it was the closest we actually came to a statement of intent in the summer.

– Also, Elliot Benyon is a waste of time. Some people might be fed up of hearing this from me, but I never rated the guy, and I believe his record since leaving us vindicates that. He is a crude goal-poacher on a 17 (now 18) match run without a goal. Why bother when Ryan Jarvis has shown he can do tap-ins as well? Yes, we needed another option up front, but something different – or at least an equivalent to Howe, someone big and powerful to hold the ball up. Tonight, reading match reports, when we did bring Benyon on, we just hoofed the ball up to him – baffling considering he’s not tall or physical. He doesn’t fit the way we are playing or the way we’re meant to be playing. Unless we play Howe behind him, it’s pointless having him here – and given that this hasn’t been tried already, why expect it to be tried again?

– Playing style: you cannot say we are playing the same way as last year. Some have concluded that “we were boring last year and we’re boring this year, therefore there is a continuity and it’s the same thing.” Last year we played attractive passing football with O’Kane threading through-balls to the forwards. I still think we’re meant to be doing that, but too often we’ve just been hoofing it. It has degenerated from tiki-taka to Stoke-esque grinding efficiency. Contrary to what some are saying, we were enjoyable to watch last year, but not this year. We seem to be playing more on the counter too, which is worrying because we don’t have much pace in the side at all.

– Rene Howe’s contract is up in the summer. What must he be thinking right now?

– What’s the plan if Ling can’t carry on? I would hope they would bring an experience manager in. But judging by recent board policy, my feeling is they’d just let Taylor carry on (bad move – he is not a manager) or they would bring in a cheap/desperate option. Either way, we’d be fucked. That said, our form was spiralling out of control even before Ling disappeared. It all has an intangible feeling of inevitable decline about it, and has done for a while. It’s worrying, because this is how Macclesfield were relegated last year, and Lincoln the year before – in fact, we’ve pretty much mirrored Macclesfield’s first half of the season, and are only marginally better off in recent matches. And no one seems able to do anything about it. Heads need to be banged together – there needs to be a genuine threat of failure for these players, because some are clearly too cosy. That said, with the way the owners run the club, you can see where they get it from…

– We might have a 7 point cushion now but recent years have shown how struggling teams can pull rabbits out of hats where we need to. Barnet in particular are great at it, as if they pull out fighting spirit from under their sofas when they need it – they are League Two’s Wigan. Aldershot might sack their manager if it gets desperate but it ain’t looking good for them. I am concerned for the inexperienced managers of Wimbledon and Accrington. Like Aston Villa last year, we might be saved by the fact that there are worse teams than us, but the Villa example shows that survival is just the starting point…

– My overriding feelings: we were far too complacent with the squad, particularly regarding injuries and not taking into account that some players might not be as good as last year. The board (and some of the fans) lack drive and are happy to tread water instead of wanting to push on; when most of the clubs in this league twisted, we stuck, and we’ve been left behind. When people were pointing out the first signs of trouble, they were ignored because they weren’t prepared to be proactive.

There is now a complete lack of leadership from all areas: the board, the management team, and on the pitch. We are now trapped in this staid conservatism until someone has the balls to do something, or we get relegated and they lose all the money they saved from not putting their money into the squad. The worry I have is someone/people may go too far and panic, chucking the baby out with the bathwater – it would be spineless of the board at this point to sack Ling and blame him for the disappointing season.

There needs to be some serious soul-searching on the board. I think they need help from someone who has experience of running a successful club, something the consortium has either lacked since Colin Lee left or never had, depending on your perspective; until this year they were able to ride on the bank of good signings by the manager, but when you don’t give the manager money, he can’t bring in many good players. And now, from the outside it seems like they’re all just staring at each other waiting for someone to make a decision.

– But if the worst comes to the worst, the Conference isn’t a dreadful place to be. As I’ve said before, we’d probably be better off there as a “big club”, visiting lots of interesting places, and exploring all that is good about non-league – size-wise, we fit in there. Having said that, I do worry that the level of expectation would be too high initially, considering how most of the relegated clubs in recent years have initially struggled down there. But providing we don’t go straight through to Conference South (hey, I’m not ruling it out), it’s not too much of an issue

What hurts about this is not the prospect of relegation itself – it’s the way we’ve sleepwalked into it. Again, I hate to go on about the fact that I called it, but I called it – but the point isn’t that I’m a genius (honestly I’d rather be wrong and us be in the top 10 right now); it’s that a 21 year old student and fan with no knowledge of the inner workings of the football club and no experience of being a manager saw it coming, so why didn’t the people actually running the club?

Written by James Bennett

February 13, 2013 at 02:54

Club blogs – not all can work…

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Self-indulgence alert.

At the start of the season, I suggested I was going to try and make this a more Torquay-centric blog, with more match reports and the like, as I thought it was a nice niche to establish myself in. This obviously hasn’t worked out. There are a number of reasons for this:

– Commitment (or lack of): I like writing about loads of things, and I find it difficult to motivate myself to write about those loads of things, let alone a Torquay side that’s been lacklustre all season

– Attendance (or lack of): I just haven’t got to enough games to write those match reports, as I’ve been in Coventry for most of the term, and other games I went to over Christmas were postponed

– Stuff happening (or lack of): other than increasingly poor performances, there’s not been much to write about

The last point I feel is quite important here. I know there are blogs for each of the Premier League clubs – multiple blogs for the biggest clubs. But when you’ve only got an average attendance of only around 2,500, it’s going to be more difficult to find the committed people who could run or write for a good blog. But it’s also easier to run a Premier League club blog because there’s more to talk about – there are more news stories, more rumours and more communication from the club (especially compared to Torquay, who seem to be stuck in 1995).

I’d also suggest there are more potential readers. Consider how many, say, Spurs fans there are. Then consider the demographic – many will be young and use the internet. With Torquay, not only do we have a lot less fans, we also have a different demographic – a lot more middle-aged fans who, talking from experience, aren’t that interested in reading blogs. Forums are enough for them – there are at least three Torquay fans’ forums that I know of. When there are few people reading your work, there’s not much motivation for you to keep grinding out the articles week in week out, especially when not much has happened. It’s not my intention to go into journalism full-time any more, as I’m chasing the academia dream, so I don’t feel as if I have much to prove in that sense

There is definitely a gap in the “market” for a Torquay blog to develop. Ben, aka Greenwich Gull, did a great job but has reduced his blogging of late due to work commitments. All I know is I’m not the man to fill that gap – I don’t have the time or energy to write about Torquay every week alongside my MA work and all the other areas I like writing on, particularly with the club going in its current direction (i.e. not the right one for me). I’d be happy to write for another Torquay blog or for other websites about Torquay, but I’m not the one to assume responsibility for writing regularly – there’s not enough vibrancy or intrigue to keep me motivated to write regularly.

This blog will stay as The Welsh Gull, because it’s a good descriptive name. It has always been about more than Torquay and so it will remain. In the mean time, I want to work on improving my writing in order grab the attention of more people over the next 12 months – that’s my New Year’s Resolution, if you want to call it that. Additionally I am now writing for the African and Asian specialist football blog/website Sandals for Goalposts for the Africa Cup of Nations. I will be doing match reports alongside a Beginner’s Guide series.

Written by James Bennett

January 18, 2013 at 21:10

The League Two Relegation Dogfight

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To have a good guess at who’s going to be relegated to the Conference, you need three things: the League Two table, a form table, and knowledge of what has gone before. You don’t need knowledge of the squads – League Two squads are generally so evenly matched that form and confidence overrules overall talent and star quality.

It is fair to say that, like most divisions, most of the teams that are at the bottom by the end of the season have been there for most of it. Last year’s table is good evidence of that – on 12th January 2012, the bottom five teams (going downwards) were Barnet, Hereford, Dagenham, Northampton and Plymouth; all five would finish in the bottom six, joined only by Macclesfield.

But Macclesfield are an example of that other great factor in the race to avoid the black hole – the mid-table team that plummets. Usually there’s at least one – last year we had the interesting situation of having two, with Burton slipping into the danger zone, only to recover to 17th with a good run towards the end. Macclesfield had tumbled from 15th, 9 points ahead of the relegation zone, at this time last year to finish 9 points off safety by the end. The previous season, Lincoln were affected by an even more dramatic slide, failing to win in their last 11 matches – this took them down despite having been 14th, 11 points clear, with 11 to go.

With such dramatic stories in mind, it seems everyone in the bottom half of the table is on edge for fear of being the next Macclesfield or Lincoln, which could lead to some interesting self-fulfilling prophecies. But for now, it’s best to look at the teams down there.

The early walking pace was set by AFC Wimbledon, Bristol Rovers, Aldershot, Wycombe and perennial strugglers Barnet. Four of those five have since changed their manager – out have gone Terry Brown, Mark McGhee, Gary Waddock and Mark Robson, and in have come Neal Ardley, John Ward, Gareth Ainsworth and Edgar Davids, the latter pair being player-managers. Barnet in particular have benefited from the Dutchman’s presence and are now one of the form teams in the league, though they remain just three points clear of the drop zone in 20th. Aldershot, the only team not to have changed their manager, are a point behind. They are in turn ahead of the team that has slipped into this battle, Plymouth, who have recently sacked their inexperienced manager Carl Fletcher and replaced him with John Sheridan, who won promotion with Chesterfield in 2011.

The pair in the basement are Wimbledon and Bristol Rovers. Wimbledon began the season with some terrible defensive showings, and their home form is particularly poor – their away form, with 5 wins from 13 isn’t relegation form, so if they can sort out their showings at Kingsmeadow, they should be able to get out of it. For Bristol Rovers, on the other hand, it might be more of a slog, although since John Ward’s arrival, their form has picked up slightly. They are perhaps the most surprising of the candidates – although they had a poor first half of 2011-12, they did recover under McGhee to finish solidly mid-table, but did not continue this form into this season.

The most surprising thing to outside observers will probably be the fact that a number of these teams are relatively established names in the Football League, particularly Rovers and Argyle. But this isn’t a new thing – Northampton teetered on the edge for much of last season and Bradford weren’t much higher, while Lincoln and Stockport’s demise added to the significant number of long-time Football League clubs in the Conference.

That being said, usually the smaller clubs in League Two do gravitate to the bottom, even when one or two can be found towards the top. This season is no exception. Accrington Stanley have probably the worst form in the division, having struggled to get over with the loss of manager Paul Cook to Chesterfield. They are also one of the worst-attended clubs in the league, which cannot be helping the bank balance for trying to find new recruits. Sitting just four points above the relegation zone, the Lancashire club’s fans are now sweating nervously.

Another former Conference club Morecambe are just above them on 32 points and have also slipped down the table in recent weeks. They are a long shot at this stage but could yet be sucked in, being on a long-term run of mixed form since their excellent start to 2011-12. They are a point behind the recovering Wycombe, who seem to have escaped – for now at least.

And then there’s Torquay. Two wins in eleven has seen us drop from play-off contention to just seven points above the relegation zone. Since the start of December, we are 22nd in the form table. And yet manager Martin Ling has remained unmoved, signing no new players in the January transfer window where virtually every other club in League Two has looked to refresh their squad. It is an odd situation, with Ling saying there is no money for new players and insisting the situation is under control, even though results suggest otherwise – in the last 5 games, the Gulls have thrown away 7 points in the last 10 minutes of matches, which shows a worrying lack of ability to them see out. They haven’t been against top sides either, as those matches includes points lost at Plymouth and at home to Wimbledon. I remember the season that we were relegated to the Conference well, and that season we similarly struggled to hold onto results, although by this point in the season we had already sunk to the bottom.

But this season is different – though I have nothing to prove it, the league seems to be a weaker one. I could go on to include tumbling Rochdale, inconsistent York and stuttering Dagenham & Redbridge here, which would make every team in the bottom half of the table relegation candidates. Meanwhile, last year, Burton were as high as 8th on 12th January 2012 before they tumbled into the battle. However, the two that go down are likely to come from the teams that I’ve reviewed.

Do I think we’ll go down? It’s unlikely – at the moment, you would fancy us to at least just edge out the teams that we have a head-start over. However, with four of the bottom five winning this weekend, the gap is shrinking quickly. We are closer to the zone than Macclesfield were at this time last year, in position and points, our form is poor, and yet we are not active in the transfer market. Though we have up to three games in hand on the teams around us, you wouldn’t fancy us to win them, as they are previously-postponed matches against some of the form teams in the division – Rotherham, Aldershot and, most importantly, local rivals Exeter, now 3rd in the table, who we have to play twice in the next three matches.

At the moment, my money would be on Wimbledon and Accrington. Nothing against those sides but I’m not sure they have the muscle and managerial experience – both have gaffers who are in their first jobs, and you can’t get much tougher than this. Plymouth and Bristol Rovers, like Northampton last year, may have just about enough to squeak away – the immediate impact that Sheridan has had at Home Park is a good sign, although I am dubious about the appointment, while for the first time in a while, there are positive vibes around Rovers. Accrington’s form is quickly deteriorating so I’d make them favourites right now. Wimbledon might just be able to make it out of there. If they do, you would have to look at Aldershot (who I think will be OK), Morecambe and then, I guess, us.

With bigger clubs with more money below us, and a refusal to budge in the transfer market (and there may be bids for our better players to come), we have to acknowledge that we’re in a fight. The blissful naive statements about play-off contention have disappeared – we’re in for a dogfight now. We need to act before the losing mentality becomes commonplace. The games against Exeter, then, are vital – one or two defeats and things could quickly spiral out of control.

Written by James Bennett

January 13, 2013 at 00:32

Leroy Rosenior the manager

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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.

Written by James Bennett

October 29, 2012 at 22:55

At a crossroads…

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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.

Written by James Bennett

October 26, 2012 at 23:09