Initiative test

Torquay's chairman challenges cheats. Nick House reports

The hint had been made in his programme notes. For the first time since primary school, Torquay’s new chairman Chris Roberts turned off Match of the Day rather than watch “the antics of these overpaid, scruple-less prima donnas”. What had begun as a “trickle of reprehensible incidents” had now turned into “a torrent driven by around a dozen Premier League players”.

Admirable statements, but possibly no more than a filler in a flimsy publication. With Torquay failing to score for a seventh consecutive league game there were more pressing, if less worthy, concerns when Roberts announced a press conference later in the week. Come the day, Roberts extended his campaign against “cheats and conmen” by announcing the Torquay Initiative. This was to be the first example – anywhere in the world – of a club taking disciplinary action against players who sought to gain an advantage by cheating. There would be a “three strikes and out” framework administered by the club’s board and officials. Roberts emphasised his concern by launching a campaign website and dressing his players in T‑shirts reading “my club doesn’t cheat… does yours?” For unspecified reasons several also sported Santa hats.

It was the 11am story that makes teletext before submerging beneath the Champions League. Yet, whatever the eventual longevity of the initiative, there was a response. The PFA rubbished Roberts’ claims that Torquay were the first club to take such action. The Daily Mirror reported players had “stormed out of training” after being labelled “cheats”. An “unnamed senior pro” suggested a better initiative would be to start winning games.

On the web, supporters were divided. Although most found it difficult to disagree with Roberts’ sentiments, many feared ­ridicule. Opinions hardened when the local paper reported Roberts would “rather get relegated than cheat”, a thought-provoking statement given Torquay’s recent history. But Roberts’ announcement brought handy publicity and raised the profile of a newly appointed chairman.

Roberts gained control in October from Mike Bateson, sole owner since 1990. Bateson’s stewardship had been cautious: financial security and staleness in equal measure. Roberts represented what Bateson did once: youth, dynamism and ambition. At his first press conference, he spoke of a new stadium and the possibility of Championship football. But Roberts was an unknown quantity. Had he made his money making windows, his credentials may not have been questioned. Instead he was a “football man”, having worked with FIFA and UEFA as an “adviser” and “consultant” specialising in work-permit applications. He was also a former professional footballer.

This claim roused the curious. Internet searches revealed nothing. Companies House inquiries uncovered a sole UK directorship of a company, formerly called A View of the Park, now renamed Torquay United Holdings and registered in Kent. Eventually a Friends Reunited entry was unearthed in which Roberts details a playing career with Viktoria Zizkov in 1980s Czechoslovakia that included UEFA Cup appearances, a call-up for England Under‑21s and a move to Bari scuppered by injury. Friends Reunited may be prone to embellishment, so perhaps it’s a minor detail that Viktoria Zizkov were nowhere near the top flight of Czech football at the time. More is known of his fellow directors, who have interests in taxation advice, foreign exchange, film finance and construction; the one with building industry links informing the quantity-surveying press of his desire to use football to win business.

A new stadium appears to be Roberts’ main priority, with talk of redeveloping the existing rugby ground on the sea front. Ordinarily this would be an outlandish proposal but, with a near-bankrupt council and a demanding-to-be-liked elected mayor, surprises may be in store. The other possible angle is building links with Czech football, as hinted by the arrival of former international Lubos Kubik as coach. Kubik’s appointment represents the start of a crucial spell. If Roberts gets this right and pulls off a new stadium, he may be the best thing to hit Torquay for years. Get it wrong and there could be a whiff of Michael Knighton – or Hearts – in the sea air.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month