Conversations with Ben Mayhew (Torquay United)

Posted by on Sep 13, 2011 in Conversations with | No Comments
Our latest discussion piece features Ben Mayhew, head honcho of one of the best club blogs around, Greenwich Gull – ‘a League 2 blog with an overwhelmingly pro-Torquay United bias’. Since commencing his scrawlings, Ben has actually hopped on the London Overground to live in Highgate, but retains a site name that evokes maritime leanings. He’s also embarked on a new venture and Experimental 3-6-1 has proved to be a fascinating delve into the statistics surrounding the game – Ben recently exposed Hereford United’s as the least efficient attack in the football league. Here are his thoughts on a Torquay United unbuckled:

Lanterne Rouge: Paul Buckle’s four years in charge at Plainmoor came to an end this Summer and, in our recent joint preview of the 2011-12 season with The Seventy Two and to which you did us proud by supplying the statistical elements, you described the man’s departure as ‘graceless’ while acknowledging the major contribution he made to Torquay United. How would you assess the Buckle years?

BM: You don’t have to like somebody in order to respect them, a truism which Paul Buckle illustrated during his four years at the Plainmoor helm. Seldom smiling and an irritable, berating presence in the dugout, it was difficult to warm to him on a personal level regardless of his remarkable accomplishments. When he joined the club, we had just been relegated after an embarrassing few years in which we’d become, in his words, ‘a laughing stock’. Despite having to build a new team virtually from scratch, he took us to the FA Trophy final in his first year, achieved promotion via the play-offs the next, consolidated our league status in the third before another play-off final in the fourth proved to be his swansong.

When the dust settles he’ll undoubtedly be remembered with gratitude for giving us back our pride and status as a solid League 2 club, but he unnecessarily frittered away a lot of goodwill with the manner of his exit. Asked after the first leg of our play-off semi-final about his interest in the vacant position at Bristol Rovers, his cryptic answer, which included such gems as “four years is a long time to be at a club” and made ample use of the past tense, felt like a confession. The ensuing speculation took much off the lustre off what was an unprecedentedly successful season and imbued a leaden significance onto our promotion campaign.

Worse however, in my view, was his apparent feathering of his new nest while still responsible for our team. By neglecting to renew the contracts of first team stars Scott Bevan and Guy Branston, and failing to open negotiations with loanees Craig Stanley and Jake Robinson, both of whom enjoyed renaissances at Plainmoor, all four were free to leave and two of them conveniently joined him at the Memorial Ground for no cost. His subsequent poaching of Chris Zebroski for an ‘undisclosed’ fee raised suspicions that he’d unsettled the player sufficiently to drive a harder bargain than his erstwhile employers deserved or were prepared to admit to publicly.

His departure shortly after the playoff final seemed to catch the board unawares, with one player I spoke to acknowledging that he was a man who “kept his cards close to his chest”. Given that his mind had evidently been made up long before, he could surely have at least hinted at his intentions, allowing the club to put a contingency plan in place to secure a swift replacement. The reality was that we lost two precious weeks of preparation before Martin Ling was recruited.

It’s entirely possible that all the examples I’ve quoted have perfectly innocent explanations and are simply the result of coincidence, poor communication or board naivety. Regardless, the club remains in his debt: one anxious pre-season is a small price to pay for the position we now find ourselves in. Paul Buckle has earned his success and will go down as one of the most successful managers in our history. Upon rejoining him at Rovers, goalkeeper Bevan paid glowing tribute to his manager’s thorough preparation and commitment. He unquestionably had the right to advance his career and test himself at a bigger club, but the way in which he exercised it has made it all the more difficult for those he’s left behind to wish him well, at least for now.

Lanterne Rouge: Interesting. I remember when Mark McGhee left the club I support, Reading. Most of the ire directed toward him came about because of his subsequent pilfering of players both at Filbert Street and later, following his move to Wolves. Still, overall, I’m sure Buckle will be well regarded in time. How do you assess the managerial appointment of Martin Ling? As a player, he was one of the most cerebral in the lower divisions in terms of playing style – his spell at Leyton Orient was respectable and included a promotion, but his time at Cambridge United was less impressive. Do you think he has the attributes to do well?

BM: I agree that Buckle will eventually be remembered fondly. While there will always be fans for whom the departure of a player or manager at their own instigation will be a seen as a betrayal, the reality is that in any industry you can’t blame a newly-appointed manager for recruiting employees he knows that he can work with. This is particularly forgivable in the case of a relative rookie for whom the new job is enough of a gamble without introducing further uncertainty. As long as everything’s fair and above board, no realist can have any just complaint.

The short answer to your question is yes. However this wouldn’t be much of a conversation if I stopped there. I have to admit that my initial reaction to Ling’s appointment was coloured by his failure at Cambridge, but we’ve all made career moves that didn’t work out as we’d hoped. When I looked back over his previous achievements, such as his having won promotion from this division before with Leyton Orient and setting up an English scouting network for Hibernian, I became increasingly reassured. Whatever remaining doubts I may have had were dispelled by his first interview: in addition to coming across as a thoroughly likeable and intelligent chap, his ambition, humility, candour and knowledge of the game radiated from the off. He’s since followed that up with some astute signings and a very promising pre-season in which his positive playing philosophy has been there for all to see.

Cerebral is an apt word to describe him and on the evidence of our pre-season matches, he’s already well on the way to solving two of the problems which beset his predecessor: namely how to get the best out of fringe wingers Danny Stevens and Lloyd Macklin. Both struggled to deliver on a consistent basis last season but have looked invigorated recently, surging forward with confidence and menace. His refusal to replicate Buckle’s heavy use of the loan market last season will have undoubtedly encouraged his squad, and is as ungentlemanly a swipe at the previous regime that I can imagine a man of his calibre uttering. At a club where passengers are as unaffordable a luxury as repeated delvings into the transfer market, the ability to extract the best from the resources available is a much coveted one and may yet prove to be his most valuable attribute of all.

Lanterne Rouge: I should confess to not knowing about Ling’s involvement at Hibs – and I’d certainly agree that for most clubs in the football league – not least, Torquay – appointing a manager who can work with scarce resources is important – my own familiarity with the Gulls largely comes from reading One Foot in the Grave – a real tale of the non-possession of two sovs and not being able to rub them together. In your excellent recent joint preview with Maxi Hobbs and Danny Brothers, you have collectively tipped a 12th placed finish this coming campaign. Which players do you think will shine the most in 2011-12?

BM: Firstly, thanks for the generous (and to reassure any suspicious readers, unincentivised) assessment of our season preview, even though it was very much the FC Royal Antwerp to your own opus’ Manchester United! I also learned much about the realities and challenges of lower league football, and managing the Gulls in particular, from Garry Nelson’s excellent memoir. For the record, my two co-previewers’ somewhat dismal assessment of Torquay’s prospects brought their average placing down somewhat: I had us pegged for 9th.

I hadn’t been previously aware of Ling’s Scottish adventures either, but they’ve already paid dividends for the club in the imposing shape of our new goalkeeper, Robert Olejnik, who has been the sit-up-and-take-notice signing of the summer. Much as we’ll miss Scott Bevan, who was as good a goalkeeper as you could wish for at this level, ‘Bobby’ seems a definite upgrade given his Aston Villa and Austrian Under 21 experience. Bevan’s reflexes were feline-sharp, but his tendency to be beaten from range and bashful presence in his area (not to mention the odd suicidally-mishit clearance) were weaknesses that his replacement appears not to possess.

I’m also really excited about Saul Halpin, a youth system product who broke into the first team squad last season. While he looked set to start the season as understudy to Ian Morris on the left wing, Ling used him as the example when outlining his preference for giving youth a chance before shopping for loans at the recent fans’ forum. Reading between the lines suggests that he likes what he’s seen, and it isn’t difficult to imagine why. Tall for a winger, unpredictable and as capable of scoring as he is of creating, Halpin has the potential to be a revelation. While acknowledging that he’s still raw, several of our more well-travelled pros have expressed their admiration of his talent.

While our wingers will undoubtedly play their part, cultured attacking midfielder Eunan O’Kane is another worthy of an individual mention. His excellent range of passing sets him apart as our key man in the centre, and after his excellent first season for the club, I’m backing him to push on and make himself our indispensible attacking lynchpin this time around. Overall I’m delighted with how long I could make this list if I wanted to; there are players in virtually every position who could shine for us this season.

Lanterne Rouge: In our preview, you tellingly commented that the Torquay United board were always unlikely to plough extra money into the club given the fact that on the past two occasions the side ascended to the higher level, gates failed to rise. Are you happy with this and how do you feel the Gulls shape up against their Devonshire rivals – does Torquay have the potential to take over as the South West’s top club?

BM: I’d say that I’m philosophically content with Torquay’s position in the football firmament. Of course I’d love the club to establish itself at a higher level and firmly believe that this is possible, but I’d want us to earn our elevation sustainably and responsibly. Far too many clubs of our size have suffered relegations and bankruptcies after overstretching themselves while ‘chasing the dream’, so I’m grateful that I still have a club to support.

Over the long term a club’s position in the league structure is normally dictated by their financial strength, and in the absence of meaningful television income that means gate receipts. Torquay’s catchment area is less populous than those of the other two Devon clubs and our relative attendances reflect this, so it’d be unreasonable to expect us to sustain regional dominance in the absence of any other forms of competitive advantage.

Having said that, thanks largely to the misfortune of others it’s quite possible that we could start next season as the South West’s top club for the first time in our history. It would only take a small improvement on last season’s performance for us to secure promotion to League 1, where Exeter have made a poor start to their campaign. The season is still young but it’s conceivable that they could be relegated, while Plymouth are in no fit state to challenge us for promotion given that they’re still fighting for their very existence.

If we were to go up and could keep the nucleus of our squad together then it’s possible that we could cling to League 1 status long enough for attendances to reach a more competitive level. Under an astute manager in Martin Ling, who previously won promotion to League 1 with Leyton Orient and kept them up, this looks perfectly possible.

However, even if this all comes to pass I suspect that economics will eventually restore the old equilibrium, with a resurgent Plymouth and Exeter’s financial muscle allowing them to regain their advantage over us. Mind you, it’d be fun while it lasted.

Ben can be followed on Twitter at @Greenwich Gull and @Experimental361

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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