There’s an often-heard saying amongst Torquay United fans – ‘we don’t do mid-table mediocrity’. In my 14 seasons as a fan, there hasn’t been a season where we haven’t either at least flirted with relegation or promotion. We have been in the play-offs four times, relegated twice, automatically promoted once, been in too many relegation dogfights and reached a cup final. So despite our defeat at Old Trafford in the play-off final, a crucial game in the club’s future, the mood amongst Gulls fans after the game was surprisingly upbeat, even with clouds on the horizon.
No one would begrudge Stevenage victory. They were undoubtedly the better side on the day, even if they used classic Graham Westley tactics in the process – the odd nudge and pull here and convenient injury there. For the first 45 minutes, we weren’t at the races. It was eerily reminiscent of our last game of the regular season at Rotherham, where we also seemingly didn’t turn up.
Was it nerves? The crowd certainly felt something – from the first few moments of the game, the ’Boro fans, though smaller in number, were the ones making the noise, with the usually loud Torquay support very muted. From within the first five minutes, I could tell they were not comfortable on the ball and Stevenage had them on the back foot.
Perhaps that is what comes from having two young, inexperienced centre midfielders in Eunan O’Kane and Damon Lathrope, who couldn’t handle John Mousinho. Paul Buckle had been unwilling to change the team after the semi-final first leg victory, with our main holding midfielder Craig Stanley, who had been outstanding in the run-up to the end of the season, being unavailable after his loan deal ran out before the final game of the season. The dangerous Laurie Wilson also turned our left-back Kevin Nicholson inside out, and Darius Charles was difficult to handle in attack.
Mousinho’s excellent goal meant we had already given ourselves too much to do, despite being better side in the second half. Boro captain Mark Roberts was outstanding, frustrating our leading scorer Chris Zebroski, and we never really tested the experienced ‘keeper Chris Day, though Jake Robinson did hit the bar late on. It’s a real shame as we have played so much better this season – we made Shrewsbury, one of the best sides in the division, look like a pub team at times in the semi-finals.
The problem is where to go from here. Being a very small club for the division, we are inevitably stuck in the yo-yo routine – if we have a good season, the best players are sold if there’s any interest and we fail to attract decent replacements, consigning us to a relegation battle a year after a promotion battle. We have some very talented young players in the squad such as O’Kane and Zebroski who will inevitably move on to bigger and better things sooner rather than later, as Elliot Benyon and Nicky Wroe did in January.
The big worry this time, though, is finding a new manager. As widely expected, Buckle and assistant Shaun North have now gone, probably off to Bristol Rovers (which I’m not convinced is that much of a step up, to be honest), and the concern is that he may take some of our best players with him – rumoured to not only be Zebs and Eunan but also Stanley and Branston. We could probably cope with the loss of one or two key players, but to have the core of the side ripped out would leave us in a very dangerous position. We’d be looking for a centre back, striker and two centre midfielders, as well as strengthening the rest of the squad (e.g. full-backs, goalkeeper, and to get some strength in depth), and this can only happen once we hire a new manager. That would leave us in a very perilous position. And remember that our preparation for next season is already a week or two behind the rest of the teams in the division as we’ve been concentrating on the play-offs.
It also doesn’t help that we are struggling financially. While we are not on the verge of administration by any means, we have made significant losses in the last few years – you can’t make money on an average attendance of about 2,500. Added to this, we also need to replace our ageing grandstand, which not only costs money but will mean that for some of the season the overall capacity of Plainmoor will be limited, something that may prove important in a season where for the first time in a number of years we have a number of West Country sides in the same division such as Plymouth, Bristol Rovers and Swindon.
The other problem is that players are more likely to go to those teams in the region now they are in the same division as us – you’re not going to accept an offer from Torquay if there’s also one from Plymouth on the table. In the past we have been able to rely on cast-offs from Argyle when they have been on the up but now we are competing with them for players. Even at our level, money is everything, and if we end up saddled with a young manager and a playing squad with big holes, then I fear for our Football League status once again. It’s history repeating itself – the last time we lost in this play-off final in 1998, manager Kevin Hodges left for Plymouth shortly after, and in 1998-99 we finished 20th.
So, the next couple of weeks are crucial for determining how next season will pan out. But such is the life of a lower league football fan when you haven’t got the billions of an Arab sheikh or 75,000 turning up every week to watch. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t bother.