Goodbye, and good luck Torquay United

It all started with a win, as is often the case.

On Saturday 22nd October 1994, along with 2,500 other hardy souls, I went through the turnstiles at Plainmoor for the first time to enter the Family Stand to watch the local team take on visitors Rochdale.

Little did I know that the TUFC team that day was lining up after a dismal run of one win in 11, and fans would have to wait nearly two months for the next league victory. But, of course, on that one day they had to get me – hook, line and sinker. Don O’Riordan’s men in yellow, blue and white hoops stormed to a 4-1 victory, with star winger Gregory Goodridge blasting in a spectacular scissor kick (well, it looks pretty spectacular when played on loop in my mind’s eye).

A seed was planted that not even the following two years of misery could dislodge. By the time of the promotion push under Kevin Hodges in 1997/98, I was a fully committed Gull – and with no idea of the emotional turmoil to come.

I was reminded of these early years when following reports of the recent charity match at Plainmoor. Seeing pictures of the thinning hair and bulging bellies of my earliest TUFC heroes – the likes of Darren Moore, Adrian Foster and Tom Kelly – made me realise quite how long it has been since that first magical trip to watch a professional football match.

Because, and let me clear this up immediately, I will be a Torquay United supporter for the rest of my life. No matter how bad things get, or even if the club goes under, the experience of cheering those strangers and celebrating a result I could scarcely comprehend has been tattooed on my soul. Torquay till I die, so the song goes.

However, as I have mentioned in previous posts, the time has come to end Gilbert the Gull’s Diary. For the past decade, I hope I have reflected some of the wonderful, dismal and hilarious stories associated with supporting our funny little club. Yet there are only so many times you can scream into the wind, and producing the blog has become something I dread. The time has come to hand over to the next generation.

I sincerely hope that Kevin Nicholson can re-build the team and get us back into the Football League, where we belong. I sincerely hope that Clarke Osborne and his cronies do the right thing by the club, and – if not – that we supporters can fight them and save our precious institution. I hope that Torbay Council can be dissuaded from selling us up the proverbial river. And I hope that, one day soon, I can follow a TUFC team more likely to win than lose.

Because, looking back at that sunny day in October ’94, football is supposed to be fun. The sooner we can get back to enjoying our club, the better.

Thank you to all occasional and regular readers, I look forward to seeing you on the terraces soon.

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Just incredible – but what happens now?

Against all the odds, they did it.

Looking back to early March, as the team trudged off the field following a humiliating 1-2 defeat against 10-man Guiseley – and hot on the heels of the home reversal against goalkeeper-less Sutton – there seemed no hope. Kevin Nicholson looked shell-shocked and completely out of ideas; the team bereft of confidence and hurting from the insults flying down from Bristow’s Bench.

That last-gasp defeat at Lincoln – especially after the surge of hope when Ruairi Keating put us 1-0 ahead – seemed to confirm our fate, with rivals such as York and Woking seemingly winning every week. Not even the most optimistic supporter would have given us much hope as we languished four point adrift with three games to go.

In the end, the three wins over Braintree, Dover and North Ferriby proved ample, with our relegation rivals tumbling face-first when so close to the finishing line.

With barely enough players to fill a match-day squad, no back-up goalkeeper, no specialist right-back and our most consistent attacker Dan Sparkes out injured, somehow Nicho cajoled a brittle bunch into something tougher and more aggressive. It is an achievement beyond even last season’s ‘Great Escape’, given the scarcity of resources and dubious influences at boardroom level.

So what happens now?

The fate of the club remains in the hands of Gaming International and Clarke Osborne, who offered some mild encouragement in an interview claiming the club would aim for a top-half finish next year. Actions, however, speak louder than words, and on that front Osborne has a lot of catching up to do. The battle for Plainmoor will go on.

The Herald Express seems to believe that Nicholson will retain his job for a third season, and will be given a chance to right some of the “mistakes” he admitted he has made this season. Overall, and in spite of some serious failings this year, your correspondent would be happy to see him given another go. The chances of getting a better manager for as little money are minimal.  One can only hope TUFC will begin to benefit from his intense apprenticeship in management.

In the heat of the relegation scrap, a handful of players emerged as obvious targets for retaining next year: Dan Sparkes, Brett Williams, Luke Young, Sean McGinty, Ruairi Keating and Brendan Moore. One can only hope talks have already begun, even informally.

As for the rest of the squad, well, that depends on how large a budget Nicho has to play with. Some – such as Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Myles Anderson, Aman Verman and Giancarlo Gallifuoco – are perfectly passable National League pros, but better options may present themselves. Cheap local players including Sam Chaney, Ben Gerring and Will Hancox may get the nod to bolster numbers.

The fate of other players will be a test of quite how much Nicholson has learned over the past 12 months. The decisions to re-sign Damon Lathrope and Shaun Harrad were poor ones – neither had the fitness nor the physical attributes to make any real contributions on the pitch, despite being among our highest earners. Character matters, but quality is just as important.

Experience must be a priority, as well as leadership. Courtney Richards has been a faithful servant since signing as a rookie under Chris Hargreaves, and has enjoyed some good moments in a yellow shirt, not least that wonderful free-kick at Bromley last year. However, the decision to offer him the captaincy, despite any great discernible improvement in performances, was an error.

If he gets the chance to build next season’s squad, the focus must be on finding those experienced players still able to impact the game – think Danny Racchi 18 months ago – and not just old pals who Nicholson happens to trust in the dressing room and on the training pitch.

The last hurrah?

And, so, in classic Torquay United fashion, it comes down to the final day of the season.

We have been here before – in the past 20 years alone, we have been in the mix for a last-day play-off spot, promotion or relegation in the final fixture in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Those two truly unexpected wins over Braintree and at Dover have pushed us out of the relegation zone for the first time in several weeks. Now Kevin Nicholson’s paper-thin squad must complete the job at home to already-relegated North Ferriby, and complete a turnaround which looked even more unlikely than the 2016 ‘Great Escape’.

Yet, and despite the undoubted celebrations which would follow any such happy conclusion, the overall mood of supporters will remain one of suspicion and concern.

In this week’s Herald Express, GI boss and solitary club owner-director Clarke Osborne protested his innocence over accusations that his interest in the Torquay United is limited to the profitability of various property and land deals he can secure from Torbay Council. His answers, as ever, were unsatisfactory.

Even if GI were to build a new stadium before demolishing Plainmoor, Osborne has offered no assurances over the rent TUFC would need to pay in the new stadium, or whether the club would benefit from the supplementary revenues such a facility could offer.

When he states, “By no measure in today’s world can the stadium stand up in a position for a sustainable League football club,” few Torquay supporters would disagree. However, until he spells out how precisely the club – rather than GI – would be boosted by such a project, he will be met with cynicism.

Ultimately, Osborne must realise he lost the fans with the decision not to allow Kevin Nicholson to strengthen a seemingly doomed squad on Transfer Deadline Day. Whether it was a case of blasé assumption the squad was good enough to survive, or a more malevolent motive, supporters lost faith that he cared about the on-field fortunes of the team. And that will never be tolerated.

Speaking of protestations, the Herald Express team have been defending themselves from accusations of complicity with GI and Torbay Council over the fate of Plainmoor.

As an avid reader of the paper (more online these days, as an ex-pat) and listener to the Yellow Army podcast, I too have felt that the team have given Osborne and GI a fairly easy ride.

In this week’s podcast, Dave Thomas and co point out they have pressured GI to state their intention for TUFC to remain full-time, and protested that they would struggle legally to publish half the rumours floating around on social media. These are both fair points. Nonetheless, there have been too many missteps, considering their importance in ensuring South Devon retains its only professional sports club.

Why join the club in the petulant singling out of Alan Merson over the Observer article – when many more supporters had been involved in getting the feature published? Why have they not pressed GI on its broken promises – to appoint a new board, to hold a fans’ forum, and to ‘back’ Nichsolson in the transfer market?

Thomas is clearly closely in step with those in situ at Plainmoor, and so must he be. But, as a journalist, he should be fully examining claims such as the one by Osborne that GI have already spent over £500,000 since taking over as owners. On what? And, if Osborne is truly serious about building a new stadium, why does he need the freehold for Plainmoor?

We can only hope and pray that Nicholson’s boys can get over the line tomorrow. But, if and when that is accomplished, many questions need to be answered.

All is not yet lost

Where to start?

With The Observer’s searing analysis of the decline of Torquay United, and GI owner Clarke Osborne’s murky past?

Or with the club’s frankly ludicrous and toe-curlingly embarrassing response?

Or even the layer upon layer of rumour and gossip around the status of the Plainmoor freehold?

No – for the moment the focus must remain on the battle to stay in the National League and – as the Herald Express rightly states, despite its remarkable refusal to engage with off-field issues – in national, full-time football. Anything else represents a death-knell for TUFC.

So get down to Dover if you can, and then to the home game against North Ferriby. The battle is not yet lost.

Bravery in the face of provocation

The weekend’s battling 1-1 draw away at Aldershot was a fillip for Torquay United supporters desperate to see some fight from the men in yellow (or black and white stripes, on this occasion). Being realistic, it was also another nail in the coffin of our National League status.

There is much yet to play for, especially with so many teams bunching up around the same points totals. If Brett Williams had managed to lift that ball over the onrushing Jake Cole deep into injury time, rather than colliding with him, we would have been lifted up to 19th place in the table. As it is, we go to champions-in-waiting Lincoln City knowing that defeat may collude with results around the country to push us deep into the mire.

Aldershot benefitted from some dubious decision-making, as is often the case when struggling teams play those higher up the table.

When sides come to Plainmoor and slow play down to the point of exasperation, they are commended for ‘controlling the game’. When a Torquay team does the same, the officials respond with 11 minutes of injury time. The referee allowed Aldershot crosses to stand when the ball had gone out of play; their equalised resulted from a refusal to give the ball back when Brendan Moore had (admittedly naïvely) put it out of play near his own penalty area.

Then there was the scandalous decision to force Torquay supporters to stand in the uncovered area, baking in the sun, when the covered terrace was free and waiting for us. It hardly befits a club supposedly in-tune with real football fans, and in favour of a loud and passionate atmosphere, to prevent away supporters from being able to make any noise.

In light of all of these provocations, the result was a good one. Myles Anderson is once again available, and hopefully the pivotal Dan Sparkes can re-join the starting XI. But injuries to Luke Young and Sam Chaney only emphasise the pitiful lack of depth available to Kevin Nicholson, thanks to the interventions of Clarke Osborne and Gaming International (who lied his way through a lengthy and infuriating interview on the official club website). We will be lucky to end the season with more than 2-3 subs.

In short, it was satisfying to see a Torquay side stand up to pressure, but the point will only be something to be proud of if we manage to secure three or four positive results in our remaining games. And, with an ever-dwindling squad of players, only the most optimistic are clinging on to hope.

Keep Osborne and Harrop squirming

Some ripe characters have floated down the English Channel and landed in Torbay over the years. Events over the past fortnight appear to confirm that we can add GI’s Clarke Osborne and new general manager Geoff Harrop to that list of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’.

Tensions have been simmering ever since the previous band of incompetents, led by Dave Phillips, sold the club to property specialists with a track record for failing to deliver new stadia. The phoney war came to a sudden halt last week when, despite repeated promises of investment, the transfer deadline passed without a single player joining Torquay United – leaving us with barely enough to fill a match-day squad and fight a battle against relegation.

Any remaining good-will towards Osborne and company immediately evaporated, and was replaced by a torrent of accusation and calls-to-arms to ‘out’ GI’s true property ambitions in TQ1. The tone of media coverage is finally turning (albeit painstakingly slow), with the Herald Express beginning to question if GI has the club’s best interests at heart.

Even Kevin Nicholson has broken cover to urge the new owners to be “more transparent” with supporters. In an odd way, the backlash against GI has actually bolstered his own position, and reinforced the support for the team at precisely the moment when patience was wearing thin. Positive results against Wrexham and Solihull have pulled us out of the drop zone – for now.

Osborne and his team felt suitably pressured into releasing a ‘Club Update’, with a few tersely-worded paragraphs about its plans for a Fans’ Forum and the appointment a new board of director, as well as the obligatory waffle about its intentions to secure the freehold for Plainmoor. As others have pointed out, it read more like an update for shareholders than a true engagement with passionate supporters. The ‘Online Questionnaire’ also appears little more than a cynical PR exercise.

It may well be that Osborne just does not ‘get’ football, that he has no comprehension for the important place this silly little club has in our lives. Even if that were the case, surely others around him would offer counsel for a more fan-friendly approach.

However, the callous conduct over the issue of transfers indicates a more sinister motivation. Since GI took over, Nicho has lost player after player – Kieffer Moore, Nathan Blissett, David Fitzpatrick, Jamie Robba, Jared Hodgkiss. Yes, he was allowed to bring in Shaun Harrad and Myles Anderson and recruit freebie Ruairi Keating, but at minimal cost. We have no substitute keeper, or specialist right-back or right-sided midfielder.

This would all be more understandable if it wasn’t for the fact the club is facing a potentially ruinous relegation out of national football, and into the realms of semi-professionalism. For the sake of a few thousand pounds, Osborne and Harrop are willing to risk – or perhaps even assist – the ultimate downfall of TUFC.

What precisely Harrop has offered since returning to Plainmoor is even harder to discern. Here is a man who is supposed to possess a fondness for the club, but appears to be helping those with malevolent objectives. His conduct thus far – particularly in the information vacuum GI has created – appears little short of treacherous.

The fans, rightly, will get back the boys in yellow tomorrow afternoon at home to Chester. Another three points would prove a major step on the road to safety. But what good is another last-gasp survival when the rug is being pulled under from the club?

I would urge all supporters to keep the pressure up – don’t let Osborne settle. Even if his intentions are nobler than we currently suspect, make him prove it. We have heard enough words but seen little evidence that GI intends to re-build TUFC into the community club we know it can be. Make him squirm and be forced into action.

Fitness fail

On the surface, it has been a better week for Kevin Nicholson’s men, following the shambolic home defeats to Sutton and Guiseley – a pair of results which, one must say, has probably stained Nicho’s reputation with TUFC fans for ever.

A heart-warming late winner by Ruairi Keating at Southport kept our heads just above water, as did the creditable draw at home to a slightly weakened Tranmere side. However, chances are that the results will prove only a small respite from the general misery.

The Yellow Army is already having heart palpitations about the prospect of Jared Hodgkiss returning to Kidderminster, meaning the positionally-challenged Giancarlo Gallifuoco must fill in at right-back for the rest of the season. It also means that, following the return of David Fitzpatrick to AFC Wimbledon (who himself has only played 11 minutes since 21st February), we no longer have a single specialist right-sided player at the club. Oh, or a sub ‘keeper.

As your correspondent has pointed out, since the arrival of Gaming International in December, there is absolutely no doubt that our squad has been weakened in multiple positions. Either money is being denied to the manager – and one must question the existence of these “extra funds” made available to Nicho, given the lack of additions – or those in charge of recruitment are doing a bloody awful job.

Speaking of bad jobs, patience with Nicholson is wearing thin, even given the challenging circumstances within which he must operate. A damning article appeared in the Plymouth Herald this week, with Argyle manager Derek Adams making a very thinly-veiled attack on our fitness regime.

The article states:

Blissett admitted when he spoke to the media after the game at Adams Park that his fitness had not been up to the standard of League Two at first.

Adams said: “It was up to me as a manager to try to bed him in. I could have thrown him in earlier but he wasn’t ready.

“Fitness-wise he’s improving. The way we train and the way we play is different from a lot of clubs.”

It seems to confirm what many have long suspected – that Nicho’s insistence we will be the “fittest team in the league” is complete balderdash. In fact, if anything, we have often appeared one of the least fit – even compared to amateurs and semi-professionals.

Given that player fitness – along with tactics, another sore point for many fans – is one of the few areas over which Nicholson should have complete control, it adds further evidence to the now generally accepted viewpoint that a young manager is floundering after being made to take on too much, too soon.

10 years of Gilbert the Gull’s Diary

“Welcome, One and All!”

It is remarkable to think that 10 years ago to the day (well, yesterday actually) your correspondent typed those word and started this humble website, with the aim of ensuring Torquay United Football Club was well represented in the burgeoning blogosphere.

A heck of a lot has happened in the intervening decade and 628 posts: two relegations and a glorious promotion, four thrilling play-off campaigns, seven full-time managers (Keith Curle, Paul Buckle, Martin Ling, Alan Knill, Chris Hargreaves, Paul Cox and Kevin Nicholson) and four(ish) owners (Mike Bateson, the ‘Bristow’ consortium, the ‘Edwards’ consortium and Gaming International) – not to mention the rise of social media and a revolution in how football fans interact.

Let us peer back to 2007… Even by the standards of our highly dysfunctional club, Gilbert the Gull’s Diary was borne out of a crisis of seismic proportions.

Chris Roberts had just been hounded out of South Devon, and a power struggle was in play between former owner Mike Bateson, Grand Hotel owner Keith Richardson and the London money-men behind Roberts’ acquisition of the club. Our relegation to the Conference was all-but confirmed, and the fans were busy debating what TUFC would look like in the future.

It was the end of an era, and the start of a new chapter in the club’s history – one which started so brightly, before souring beyond all expectations in the wake of Paul Bristow’s death in 2010 and Martin Ling’s illness in 2012.

Reading back through all those old posts, one thing that really strikes me is the relatively optimistic tone. It is easy to forget, but the cataclysm of the 2006/07 season came soon after some of the most glorious days in TUFC’s recent history. Memories of David Graham, Jason Fowler and Alex Russell, and some famous victories in League One, were still fresh. Supporters felt a sense of shock and affront at recent events, rather than the bitter resignation of today.

After five years of constant struggle and disappointment, it is hard to comprehend my displeasure at the recruitment of Reuben Reid from Plymouth (although I do wonder if Nick McCoy and Jamal Easter were any better than some of the tripe we have been served of late). Put simply, we had higher standards.

These standards have been eroded over the years, and we go into the final months of the 2016/17 campaign with our place in national football – not to mention our professional status – very much in question. It has not always been easy reflecting on developments at Plainmoor, and the succession of crooks and clowns who have dragged TUFC to the edge of the cliff.

Yet I regret nothing. For an opinionated, occasionally verbose Popsider such as myself, this blog has provided a much-needed outlet and an opportunity to share some of the happier times and memories. I feel proud that this fan’s-eye view exists, and will continue to share how it felt to experience what must surely have been one of the most tumultuous 10 years ever experienced by a football club.

As the years goes by, and our fortunes continue to flounder, however, I find the urge to post diminishing. Am I just fleeing a burning building? Perhaps, but I would argue I have continued to blog through years of constant bad news. The average lifespan for a blog is around 100 days, apparently, so I haven’t done too badly.

Either way, I will continue to post until the end of the season, and hopefully report on our successful avoidance of the drop to the National League South. Then the pages of this diary will be closed for good, and this veritable pensioner of the digital age will join the hordes of oldies in Torquay retirement homes and pass on to a younger generation.

The Aman Verma enigma

You’ve got to hand it to Torquay United: the club continues to find new and original ways to upset and disappoint its fans. Yesterday’s 2-3 home defeat against Sutton United, who were forced to place an outfield player in goal for 75 minutes, was little short of disgraceful. It was also a hammer blow against Kevin Nicholson’s continued assertions of progress and improvements in the team.

Symptomatic of those failings is the enigma that is Aman Verma.

Verma was one of Nicholson’s first additions as manager – seemingly the “right” type of character to strengthen a squad filled with uncaring fly-by-night types like James Hurst and Tyrone Marsh. He is also undoubtedly a talented footballer, and probably the second-best passer of the ball at Plainmoor after Luke Young. He showed fantastic versatility in moving to right-back last season, after Durrell Berry’s horrendous injury, and was made vice-captain as a reflection of his commitment to the cause.

However – and much like many of the ‘Great Escape’ heroes – Verma failed to continue the momentum achieved between March and May last year. His performances have deteriorated and – other than the odd game, such as away at Dagenham in November – he is unable to impose himself on opposing teams. The lack of leadership shown in yesterday’s Sutton debacle is another blemish on his record. Nice guy, good pro, but to what end?

It increasingly feels that Verma exemplifies the poor judgement of the manager in spending his (admittedly meagre) budget. That Gaming International are withholding much-needed funds to improve the team is beyond doubt – key players (Blissett, Fitzpatrick) have not been properly replaced. Yet too few of Nicholson’s mid-season signings have made an impact – some of them have scarcely made it on to the pitch – and this weakens his claim to be allowed more money to get us out of this mess.

Because, without any shadow of a doubt, we are in a mess, and bound for the National League South, unless something changes soon.

A bevy of blooming alumni

Looking back with misty-eyed nostalgia to our last visit to the Conference, one of the few nagging doubts about our 2007/08 team of grizzled veterans was its longevity. Exeter fans – even by then used to selling prospects for big profits – delighted in mocking TUFC for the lack of saleable assets, and short-termism which they claimed would bite us in the backside.

As it turned out, the sneering Grecians were to some degree proved correct. Paul Buckle was forced to carry out major emergency surgery on the squad after promotion, with the spine of the squad (Tim Sills, Chris Hargreaves, Chris Todd) sold and sent back into non-league football. Only a handful of players from those days (Chris Robertson, Mark Ellis, Nicky Wroe, Muzzy Carayol) went on to prolonged and successful Football League careers.

Fast-forward a decade to today’s unhappy campers, and the reverse is almost true. While the team continues to flounder near the bottom of the National League, we have witnessed a succession of players depart for League Two (Dan Butler, Nathan Blissett), League One (Nathan Smith) and even the Championship (Dan Lavercombe, Kieffer Moore, Angus MacDonald).

Who knows, perhaps David Fitzpatrick (who enthused about the opportunity to join TUFC in a not-so-subtle PR stunt to attract other loanees to Plainmoor) will become the latest individual to claim a starting spot in a higher league, this time at AFC Wimbledon.

Yet, in many ways, this conveyor belt of transformed youngsters is becoming bittersweet for TUFC supporters, and surely for Kevin Nicholson himself.

For those with the talent, aptitude to learn and willingness to work hard, Nicho is proving himself to be a remarkable coach. He achieved in nine months with Angus MacDonald what others had failed to do so over a period of years. In comparison, and despite arriving with a big reputation following his exploits at Exeter and Bournemouth, it is hard to pinpoint a single player who improved under Chris Hargreaves’ tutelage.

And yet, what good is this bevy of blooming alumni when our team remains stuck in a desperate rut? To what extent is our dismal form the result of the regular departures? Or are there more fundamental reasons for the inability of our team to string together any consistent performances? Plenty of decent players remain at the club, but our form has not improved – the horrendous first 45 minutes at home to Macclesfield at the weekend the latest in a long line of poor displays.

The clock is ticking for Kevin Nicholson, and your correspondent is sure he knows it. He is hamstrung by a woefully inadequate budget, and Gaming International’s seeming unwillingness to take steps to ensure we avoid relegation. But fans are losing patience with a team that seems to be going nowhere, and results that remain stubbornly poor. He (and TUFC) need some wins, and fast.