27 May ~ It's been one of those weeks. Our League Two play-off final place against Stevenage was decided on the Friday evening barely a week before the match itself. Cue a flurry of texts to arrange tickets, transport and accommodation. A first trip to Old Trafford for Torquay United should be something of a thrill, especially after the ghastly feeling of deprivation after that defeat to Crawley in this season's FA Cup. It's the place we most dream of playing and, after five Wembley trips in 20 years, we'll rather arrogantly enjoy the change of scene. And, whatever the venue, there's now the opportunity of playing in a division above Plymouth Argyle for the first time ever.
Yet there's been a sense of unease in the air during the week. My ticket purchases were as smooth as clockwork but there are reports of problems. Is this online exaggeration – accompanied by the usual theatrical outrage – a significant failing or the normal consequences of systems and people being stretched? There's also the unsettling matter of our manager, Paul Buckle, being linked to Bristol Rovers, with a departure date set for around ten seconds after the final whistle on Saturday. And, from that worry, there's been a fair amount of speculation as to which coaches, players, groundstaff, turnstile operators and corner flags will follow him.
But, in the meantime, we can rejoice over being the "United" on the Stretford End having been allocated around 20,000 tickets for that half of the ground. 20,000? The Shrewsbury fan we encountered after last Friday's game informed us, in a display of last-ditch one-upmanship, that they would have taken 40,000 to Old Trafford. This, he explained, was based upon the fact that Shropshire is a hotbed of Manchester United supporters. Ah, but the same has been said about South Devon and one assumes those of a Red persuasion may be otherwise engaged on Saturday in front of big screens in the piazzas, bars and fleshpots of Brixham, Teignmouth and Ipplepen. Old Trafford – without Man Utd on the day they're playing at Wembley – won't feel the same for some now.
And, for the Football League, it's a sod's law outcome in more ways than one. Whereas Shrewsbury v Port Vale – not beyond the realms of possibility earlier this year – would have produced a highly-respectable turn-out, the League now has a fixture between two of the less well-supported teams in the division. More so, they're both southern and each sated with Big Days Out (of the Wembley variety) in recent years. I remain delighted and thrilled with the prospect of Old Trafford but can imagine that the eventual attendance may struggle to fill the County Ground, Swindon. If Wimbledon and Luton can only pull 18,000 to Eastlands, will our game be played before even 15,000?
No doubt the crowd will be neatly clustered to provide an illusion for Sky TV who, as it happens, may stumble upon an open, enthralling, well-balanced encounter. They're not the best teams in the division – finishing sixth and seventh remember – but they're nicely-matched with the added spice of an intriguing tactical battle between old adversaries Buckle (a near-native of Stevenage) and Graham Westley. For Torquay's part, expect an attacking formation and keep an eye on the creativity of midfielder Eunan O'Kane. It'll be rather gung-ho and there's not much to bring off the bench if things go wrong.
You sense Buckle and Westley each know what they're doing and, whatever the crowd, it's an occasion for both clubs to relish. After all, Stevenage v Torquay is a Conference fixture of just two seasons ago and neither club is licking their wounds after failing to win automatic promotion. I'm confident about Torquay's chances but, with one eye on history, that old business about Stevenage being denied our league place in 1996 is starting to trouble me. But, there again, it wouldn't be play-off final week without being troubled. Nick House