Bottoms up?

Nick House explains how Torquay Utd have come to find themselves light years adrift at the bottom of Division Three

They say when things are looking brightest the worst should be expected, when things look bad the best is to come. Such has been the story at Torquay United where spells at the foot of the Football League give way to play-off appearances before depths are plummeted again. The score since 1987: Fights for League Survival, 3; Play-off Heroics, 3.

Although Torquay’s 1994 play-off expedition ended in disappointment, the team was young and likely to develop, the club profitable, the ground much improved and the relationship between club and supporters strong.
Alarms soon rang as players were sold and not replaced. Hopes of team strengthening evaporated as fears grew over the disintegration of the existing squad.The club’s boast that a decent team could be created without paying transfer fees became obsessive. The Torquay Theory had it that players costing up to £60,000 and earning £500 a week may often be no better than those signed for nothing and paid half as much, who can be improved and sold at a profit.To prove the point Torquay went from March 1993 to November 1995 without paying a transfer fee to another League club.
Meanwhile nine of the 1994 squad left the club within eighteen months, seven for amounts totalling over £400,000. Only one of these had cost Torquay a fee. This policy, linked to the club’s successful pub and indoor bowls ventures, resulted in profits being made in the three years up to mid-1995 at a rate which would remove all debts by 1998. Cast in this light, club owner Mike Bateson is a remarkably successful operator.
Bateson’s failure, though, is that in creating a good club, he has also produced a lousy team. For the players, poor wages and the priorities of balance sheet over team-building meant that playing elsewhere, anywhere, became the desired option. Although every lower division club is a selling club, Torquay were grasping the nettle with alarming enthusiasm.
The chairman’s way of running the club placed enormous pressure on the manager, Don O’Riordan, whose team’s tactics and style veered between the cultured and the ugly. The policy of building cheaply largely precluded older, more worldly players, leaving an inexperienced, rudderless squad abjectly lacking heart. 1995-96 promised little: anticipated signings failed to materialise; trialists came and went. Portly has-beens returning from Hong Kong, holidaying roofers from Birmingham, visiting Spaniards, loanees from the third teams of bigger clubs and sixteen-year-olds all made first team appearances.
As the number of players used crept towards the forty mark, narrow defeats gave way to large ones. Bateson, reluctant to sacrifice O’Riordan, finally exercised the chairman’s prerogative after an uncertain performance against Scunthorpe. As a charismatic leader of men, Mike Bateson sensibly reckoned that 8-1 home defeats could threaten his standing.
The appointment of Eddie May as O’Riordan’s successor signalled a policy shift. Money has been spent: hefty signing-on fees and big wages have brought experienced players. It is now unlikely that the club will still manage to make a profit even if relegated.
Mike Bateson has declared that a Torquay United operating in the Conference would do so on a full-time basis, although winning the Conference would require a bigger budget than has recently been seen at Plainmoor. The rich irony is that Bateson’s prudence, central to the team’s demise, could lay the foundation for an early return, a spell in the Conference proving as much of a shot-in-the-arm as it did for Lincoln, Darlington and Colchester. Home attendances, although reduced, are not the lowest in the League and would hold up if the club acted positively. Getting it right is crucial, though, especially given that Bateson seems keen to sell and recover his £1.5 milion outlay.
If the job is botched, the club’s location could mit-igate against even being a middle-of-the-road Conference team. ln the South West, Bath, Weymouth and Yeovil, powerful forces in Southern League days have floundered since the top part of the non-League game went national. This is partly because what suitable non-League talent exists often balks at travelling further north than Bristol. The £120 a match paid by leading Western League teams, with the promise of being home for Blind Date, looks tempting placed alongside the £160 on offer for a day out in Gateshead.
The Baths and Yeovils have responded by looking as far as Birmingham and London for players, often with unfortunate consequences. Players who can handle the odd away trip to Morecambe wilt after the twentieth crawl down the A30 to Yeovil for the home games. The foreign mercenary departs – the Londoner to Woking, the Midlander to Bromsgrove – to be replaced by the local infantryman in preparation for the long march to the Beazer Homes League.
That the English Riviera may be a hundred miles too far west to flourish as a non-League sunspot not only emphasizes the necessity of an early return, but also illustrates Torquay’s folly in miscalculating the relationship between balance sheet and League table. In that a seaside resort of 60,000 people, many of them elderly, has been a somewhat unlikely host to professional football – a gift bestowed after a dodgy ballot at the League’s AGM in 1927 – the feeling persists that the best chance of being in the League is never leaving it.
As the crossroads is approached, the supporters’ mood is sombre, although it has been far worse. Had relegation not been averted ln 1987, the club would have sunk. That this is less likely to happen now offers hope for the future. A helping hand from Stevenage would not go amiss. Hertforshire’s finest, Conference title challengers yet lacking the facilities to gain promotion, have suddenly become rather popular in South Devon.

From WSC 110 April 1996. What was happening this month