Talking Torquay

Leroy Rosenior is settling in well as the far south-west's latest black manager, but Nick House is puzzled by the route that took the former striker to Plainmoor

It’s fair to say Leroy Rosenior’s appointment as Torquay United’s first-team coach – manager in old money – met with some scepticism. The concern was simple yet forceful: was he any good? Reports from travellers were decidedly mixed: acclaimed as part of a trio at Bristol City; steady at Gloucester; hardly a suc­cess at Merthyr

Indeed, given that the Feast of Managerial Change is a near-annual event at Plainmoor, it wasn’t even the first time Leroy’s name had featured in the list of likely starters for the Next Manager Handicap Hurdle (dis­tance one-and-a-half seasons; going firm-to-hard). For 2001’s change Leroy was a contender, along with the usual faces. Tried and trusted Roy McFarland eventually grasped the chalice, serving up a half-full, half-empty season destined to remain a mysterious historical foot­note. Leroy, meanwhile, took the Heads of the Valleys route to Merthyr, embellishing his CV by taking the Martyrs three-quarters of the way to relegation.

A cut-price yes-man? Or a highly respected, much admired young coach deserving a break? Torquay United cynics stride this corner of the planet yet, from the outset, the smart money was on Leroy being a mid­dling-to-good appointment. Regular listening to Radio Bristol’s Twentyman Talks Back indicated that Brian of Bedminster – and his notoriously hard-to-please mates – actually rated Leroy rather highly.

So Leroy’s in the post in July, talks well and wows the punters at a fans’ forum. Off to a flying start with a guaranteed undefeated run extending to August 10 (maybe beyond). And – in the earshot of this observer – not a word about his ethnicity. Not an issue.

Admittedly we’ve not concerned ourselves too much with why there aren’t more black managers than Leroy, Keith Alexander and, in the recent past, Noel Blake, Garry Thompson and one or two others. But we need to be grateful for small mercies. The racial mix of the far south-west can be described as homogenous. Black players are a rarity in Devon and Cornish non-League soccer, too often being subjected to depressingly familiar treatment. A “we don’t have a race problem because we don’t have blacks” mentality persists. And you’ll hear “We moved here to get away from the blacks in Birmingham/Bolton/Leicester”, while local black people speak to the media about unexpected levels of abuse and discrimination.

It’s hard to fathom a true picture from snatches of conversation and media reports. Yet, within the limited context of 90 minutes at a Football League game, there appears to be greater tolerance than 15 or 20 years ago. While not knowing what people think but don’t say, there’s certainly very little voiced racism at Torquay, Exeter or Plymouth (unless the visitors are Cardiff or Swansea). Whatever the local demography, the proportion of black players at Torquay now mirrors the rest of the Football League. Firstly there was Les Lawrence in the late 1970s followed, from the mid-1980s, by over 40 others including popular figures such as Derek Dawkins, Paul Hall, Darren Moore, Rodney Jack and Reuben Hazell. It’s now almost forgotten that Justin Fashanu was assistant manager as long ago as 1992.

Consequently – while black footballers generally suffer the glass ceiling – on a micro level it seems wholly appropriate and unremarkable that Torquay United should ultimately have a black manager. Leroy is being judged by results, which – coupled with the team’s hugely enjoyable style of play – have quickly made him one of the club’s more popular recent man­agers. He’s always “Leroy” rather than “Rosenior” (for now) and has struck up a good relationship with sup­porters through his willingness to acknowledge their backing. At this stage he looks to have that rare potential amongst Torquay managers: the ability to move on to something bigger. There appears to be plenty of ambition and the fact that he is doing it single-handed – without an assistant – will not have gone unnoticed.

Yet, in portraying Leroy’s current success, questions remain. Here’s a man with a sackload of coaching credentials and a good record at reserve and youth level at Bristol City. Why did it take him so long to be given a chance? And what the hell was he doing at Merthyr just 12 months ago?

From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month