Published on February 17th, 2016 | by Bill
Torquay United : This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but a whimper.
If you haven’t heard about it, it’s been quite a season for fans of Torquay United. In this extract from Issue 16, Highway to Hele fanzine editor, Rob Dand takes us through just a selection of the madness – and we’re pretty certain a lot more has probably happened since this was written! You can pick up a copy of the latest Highway to Hele here.
Thanks in part to John Cleese, people have been laughing at the quaint old Victorian seaside getaway of Torquay since the mid-1970s. We’re used to it. Sometimes, we laugh too. We live in a largely featureless town, lacking in major historical significance and ill-equipped to cater for a modern society. But people don’t laugh at Torquay because it’s an anomaly. They laugh because when they watch ‘Fawlty Towers’, they don’t just see us. They see themselves. This could be any town in the country. In a way, Torquay is Weymouth. It’s Morecambe. It’s Scarborough. Dare I say it, Torquay is Exeter.
But at some point, our beloved Torquay United became the joke that stopped being funny. Our frightening transformation from perennial League Two also-rans, capable of the odd unscheduled upset and an anti-climactic cup run every three seasons, to whipping boys for the likes of Bromley, Braintree and Barrow (sadly it’s not just teams beginning with B), has been swift and humourless. We’re the twice-divorced uncle at your wedding, slumped in the corner serenading a mop with a medley of 1980s power ballads. The cloud with no silver lining.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all started to go wrong. I’m not sure there was ever just one convenient moment that set off the chain of events that would lead to our decline. Many would undoubtedly point to the abysmal handling of former manager Martin Ling’s extended absence and eventual departure – now known to be as a result of depression – but in truth, although that was a frankly regrettable situation, the real problems had been bubbling away in the background like an overcooked casserole for some time prior. Ling’s exit was merely the popping of a bubble that could have burst at any moment.
Let me explain, for those who don’t know, that Torquay United dropped out of the Football League for the first time in 2007. That disastrous and chaotic campaign (in which ownership of the club was transferred four times), we utilised three managers, hired and sacked a Director of Football, and ultimately propped up the division from Boxing Day onwards. We limped to 35 points, a whopping 14 from safety, and scored just 36 goals, the lowest outside the Premier League.
(“This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but a whimper.”)
In four years under Buckle, we appeared to go from strength to strength. Backed by a consortium funded by Lottery winner and Gulls fan Paul Bristow, we romped to an FA Trophy final at Wembley in 2008, posted some notable cup upsets and battled our way through three Play-Off campaigns, one of which of course ended with promotion back to the Football League in 2009. We played bold, attacking football, and Plainmoor even had something resembling a buzz about it. Everything seemed basically fine. In hindsight, the fact that we were posting losses upwards of £500k in these relatively successful years should have indicated that no, it really wasn’t fine. But we were playing well and going to Wembley every other year, so how bad could it be, right?
Although the Buckle era will go down as one of our more successful on the pitch, behind the scenes we were beginning to rely far too heavily on the generous Mr Bristow and his wife Thea, who would later become our chairperson following her husband’s sad death in 2010. We threw money at a state-of-the-art training complex that we had occupied with ‘verbal contracts’; the same complex that was just recently deemed unfit for purpose after years of hampered development. We leased out the club shop and on-site bar, and whenever we needed a debt writing off, we turned once more to Thea’s cheque book rather than tackle the root cause of the problem. Crucially, we forgot about our relationship with the community and the young people of Torbay, who one by one drifted off to the pub on Saturday afternoons to watch whatever Premier League game was on. We didn’t publicise events, we gave up on social media, and we built a fancy new Grandstand that we now can’t fill. But because we were winning, it didn’t matter. For over half a decade, we were holding a wolf by the ears, temporarily safe but only ever a fleeting moment from ruin. When Thea decided last season that she wanted to let go, we all realised what a mess we had collectively let our club become. We had been hiding behind the Bristow family and neglected to come up with a Plan B. In the end, it was cause and effect. The money dried up. The wolf was loose.
I’d like to indulge for a moment, if you’ll allow, and list a few of the more ridiculous things that have made the news over the past 18 months. Each more laughable than the last, but each sadly completely and utterly true:
Three long-term directors resigned on the eve of last season. Our mascot was discussed on Have I Got News For You after making the papers for verbally abusing a fan. One player was cautioned for verbally abusing a fan. Our average gate has shrunk by around 50% in two years. Our reserve goalkeeper left mid-way through last season to pursue a career as a car salesman in Poole. Our chairperson stepped down mid-way through the season with no successor in sight, leaving most of the operational aspects of the club in the hands of a man who had no interest in the club and was based in America. We slipped to our biggest home defeat in 20 years. Paul Sturrock was hired in an advisory capacity and promptly left after four days in the job. Our captain rendered himself out of action for the entire season after an innocuous training ground injury. We shut down our youth academy. We put our manager and all his backroom staff on gardening leave and approached Paul Cox, who we couldn’t afford to pay. Including two caretakers, we’re now on our eighth manager in four years. We briefly had a Director of Football (yes – in the Conference), who was also briefly our manager. He then resigned. We sold our training ground to rivals Plymouth Argyle after it was revealed it was unfit for purpose (after two years and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of investment). We had to loan our top goalscorer to Guiseley because he punched a stranger in a nightclub and ran from the police. He couldn’t have been happier to leave. And we now find ourselves second from bottom in the National League. Our lowest ever position. We recently held a fundraising ‘Legends’ day at the club, and at least four people had never played for us in a competitive game (one was the current CEO). And to top it all off, there are three fairly major spelling mistakes in players’ names in our official calendar. When will the madness end?
I think my closing message is this: Cherish your club. It sounds obvious, but really and truly appreciate every small success for what it is, and don’t take anything for granted. If you’re one of those people who can discuss a home game with friends and not have to talk about the ‘break even’ attendance level, I envy you. I dream of the day when I can go to a football game and just talk about football again. In Kevin Nicholson, we have a manager who lacks experience. It will take a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck for us to turn this ship around and compete at National League level again next season. I believe that Kevin certainly has the hunger to succeed and is enthusiastic about rebuilding the bridge between club and community, but I worry that the train may have left the station.
So, yes, cherish your club, because I have learnt that it takes no time at all for everything to unravel.