Gareth Nicholson reports on interesting developments in the south-west football scene
A footballing summer in Devon and Cornwall is generally a sleepy affair, punctuated more by tutting about the poor fare offered by pre-season friendlies than talk about player arrivals and departures. Not this summer, though, as the region's teams reflect on seasons of highs, lows and future uncertainty.
Although Exeter City's season started in tragic circumstances with the death of striker Adam Stansfield, it ended in the professionalism and optimism that many say characterised "Stanno". City finished a point outside the play-offs (the Grecians' highest league finish for over 30 years) and beat Plymouth Argyle twice in three attempts. More surprisingly, they held on to manager Paul Tisdale while playing football, as Henry Winter would opine, "the way it should be played".
A fan-run club, Exeter have made the trust model an uncredited success, although the next big challenge will be to consolidate in competition with better-resourced teams. With survival the aim of their first year in League One and sustainable growth the mantra of their sophomore season, the cravat-prone Tisdale has a task on his hands in keeping his side together (Ryan Harley and Paul Jones have already left) while adding the quality needed to compete in an arguably tougher league this season.
If City are nudging their heads on a glass ceiling, Plymouth have plunged through rotten floorboards into the basement. Peter Ridsdale's arrival "on a walking holiday" has been followed by roles as a consultant, interim chair and chief executive under old pal Brendan Guilfoyle's administration, while a stereotypically shadowy consortium seeks to take over if not the club, then their assets.
The presence of Truro City owner and not-altogether-successful property developer Kevin Heaney as part of that consortium was denied, hinted at and grudgingly admitted in short order. Heaney is the front man for a Gibraltar-based outfit. It seems this consortium aims to buy the club, negotiate to pay off their debts, take them out of administration and then sell the club to Ridsdale for £1, while leasing the stadium back and developing the land around it. That, of course, all depends on the Football League endorsing the move and giving Argyle back the golden share that will allow them start the season. On the face of it that looks like a big ask – Heaney will have to argue that his role at Argyle is not one of ownership in order to avoid a conflict with his role at Truro.
Heaney's display of more than a bit of ankle on the east side of the River Tamar provides an unwarranted distraction from Truro City's continued success. A team based around young pros released from the likes of Argyle combined with veterans for whom the adjective "gnarled" could have been invented (stand up, Barry Hayles) secured entry into the Conference South – their fifth promotion in six seasons. Whether Truro can push on into the Conference and further depends on how much time and money Heaney is prepared to lavish on the club. What is certain is that Truro's continued rise through the pyramid will often be met with their opponents' useful excuse of: "It's always tough when you have to travel such a long way."
If Argyle and Exeter are the siblings fighting over batteries on Christmas Day, Torquay United are the affable if irrelevant cousin waiting patiently for an unlikely go on the games console. The Gulls' failure to beat Stevenage in a near-empty Old Trafford saw Argyle fans breathe a sigh of relief – had they won the play-off final it would have been the first season that Argyle had been in a lower league than both their Devon rivals.
The day after that defeat saw Torquay manager Paul Buckle depart for the far north of Bristol Rovers. With Buckle gone and League Two looking a much trickier prospect this year, Torquay will have a fight on their hands to match last season's finish.
Success for the Gulls next season could well be seen off the pitch rather than on it. Construction is set to start on Bristow's Bench, a new stand funded from a range of sources that will memorialise Paul Bristow, the lottery winner who underwrote Torquay's return to the League in 2007. How Exeter and Argyle could both, in different ways, do with such a break.
From WSC 295 September 2011