None of Devon's three clubs can claim glorious, trophy-laden histories, yet one seems to attract more than its fair share of attention, says Nick House
Some years ago, Harry Pearson wrote a wonderful book about football in the north east of England. By calling it The Far Corner he unwittingly paid a compliment to football west of Taunton Deane services by not labelling Devon as English football’s outpost. Unfortunately, others continue to do so, portraying Devon football fans as wretched individuals who spend Saturdays travelling to Old Trafford courtesy of Taw and Torridge Coaches.
The Bideford Reds exist, as do the Hatherleigh Reds, the South Molton Reds and, sadly, the Torbay Reds. Yet an important geographical fact needs to be established – Devon is a big county. Barnstaple, for example, lies 40 miles from Exeter, 65 miles from both Torquay and Plymouth. The county’s expanse has created two footballing Devons. North of Dartmoor is the land of Cities and Uniteds beyond the county boundary. Here, there is some interest in Plymouth, less in Exeter and very little in distant Torquay. The north boasts a Screwfix quartet but only Tiverton Town, further east, offer vibrancy. Twice winners of the FA Vase, now climbing into the Dr Martens, the county is sensing some kind of fourth force. In Devon, it is possible to become excited about having a half-decent non-League team.
The worry is that the other footballing Devon, the Exeter-Plymouth-Torquay triangle, may soon provide a non-League team of its own. The casual observer of this season’s league tables is advised to read from the bottom up. Cup football has been worse: a solitary LDV victory against Bristol City reserves all season.
It’s not a rich history. Certainly there have been promotions, a Sherpa Van final and seemingly numerous Wembley visits since Devonport Dockyard Apprentices played there in a 1970s youth club competition. Yet in terms of real national success there has been nothing more than Plymouth’s 1984 FA Cup semi-final, two League Cup semi-finals and fourth places in the old second division when footballs were laced. The other two teams have never progressed beyond the present Second Division.
Lack of success should not mask the intrigue of a football micro-culture. Rivalries are neither bitter nor vindictive, but they are keen and long established. Devon’s football miracle is that Exeter have retained League status since 1920, Torquay since 1927. A shared local media, with just three clubs to cover (plus a bit of surfing and endless Cornish rugby), perpetuates the self-contained nature of the county’s football. It is impossible to follow one team without being fully aware of the others.
Herein lies the grievance that fuels rivalries. Viewed from without, the absence of a big club suggests the local media might effortlessly divide its attention three ways. It does: 40-30-30 when even-handed, 50-25-25 when something exciting is happening at Home Park. Ever since Don “Argyle” Arnold fronted Westward Sports Desk in the 1960s (alongside youthful versions of Gary Newbon and David Vine) allegations of unseemly bias have been directed at ArgyleCountry TV, the Western Morning Argyle, the Sunday Argyle and BBC Radio Argyle.
This, of course, is the staple of regional media and football supporters everywhere. The cries of anguish emanating from Exeter and Torquay will be no different than those coming from Swansea, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Bradford and Hull, but the imbalance is particularly transparent in an area with plenty of media and comparatively little sport to report. The dream team is only Plymouth Argyle after all. Not exactly a colossus to overshadow the rest.
But, if not huge, Plymouth is the most significant team in the county and, alone, enjoys support extending into Cornwall and other parts of the region. At times this is exaggerated to contrast Argyle with “parochial” Torquay and Exeter. This reached absurd proportions in 1996 when WestCountry TV reported Argyle’s Third Division play-off victory as the greatest event in football history. Alas, the green-bedecked newscasters neither provided the context of this being the club’s sixth promotion (the others being at a higher level) nor did they utter the unspoken truth that the region’s most popular club is also the most unpopular.
Plymouth’s local pre-eminence acts as a double-edged sword. When things go wrong at Home Park, as they frequently do, the regional media sinks its teeth into the club, whereas it could not be fussed to do so with Torquay or Exeter. Although this suggests the other two clubs matter less, it provides great entertainment for their supporters. Particular mirth arose when, as former manager Neil Warnock used the Western Morning News as his mouthpiece, the Sunday Independent provided a similar function for chairman Dan McCauley. As long as Desperate Dan remains at the helm there will be fun for all.
The fiercest rivalry, by far, is between Plymouth and Exeter, exacerbated by the rival city dimension. Exeter is the county town, Plymouth the largest centre. Exeter has legal and ecclesiastical pre-eminence, Plymouth commerce, industry and the media. Universities and rugby clubs compete. Torquay, by contrast, is somewhere to go for a nice time, a hard place to dislike.
Torquay and Plymouth enjoyed a fiercer rivalry in the old Third Division together in the late 1960s. Middle-aged Torquay fans, mindful of the 6-0 defeat in 1969, may still see Plymouth as the team to beat, while younger fans, raised on games against Exeter, mostly see this as the main rivalry. Inevitably, on derby days, Torquay supporters are reminded of their irrelevance by opposition chants of “We only hate Argyle” and “We only hate City”. It can be hard not being hated.
As Torquay and Exeter struggle at the bottom of the Third Division, it is apparent football in Devon will lose heavily if one is relegated. In wishing ill will upon their local rivals many may come to appreciate what will be lost by their departure. A partisan view is that, for all their failings, Exeter and Torquay remain the true heroes of Devon football and share an affinity of sorts. The cup semi-final appearances, the seasons in the old Second Division and the 33,000 fans at Wembley are all Argyle’s. The better future is probably Argyle’s. Yet Plymouth remain the great underachievers. Green-edged propaganda such as “if they were in the Premiership they’d get 35,000 down there every week” merely leads to knowing, wry smiles up the A38.
From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month