Torquay in Sore Need of an O'Kane
Today, the focus of your average Football League supporter will probably be on Henning Berg and Sean O’Driscoll, sacked after 2 and 5 months in their jobs respectively.
Back in reality, however, this correspondent’s attention has turned to Devon’s perennial bridesmaids, Torquay United, whose Boxing Day visit to Plymouth offered a useful barometer for both team’s progress since the corresponding fixture in 2011-12, played out on a similarly wet and windy day in January.
This time around — with the crowd down by no less than 2,800 from the previous Home Park meeting — the atmosphere felt slightly more subdued, neither side going into the game in any great form.
That’s not to say that this fixture has ever been a truly edgy one, with both sets of supporters’ ire and spittle reserved in the main for the Grecians of Exeter.
But January’s meeting felt a bit different; special, even. Home Park was alive and kicking as Argyle welcomed their South Devon rivals for the first time in a decade, and Torquay fans were witnessing the coming-together of one of the finest crops of Gulls for a number of years.
Since then, both teams have had their ups and downs but neither can claim to be having the time of their lives right now.
Indeed, a growing section of Pilgrims supporters complains that things have never been so bad, the club — managed by rookie Carl Fletcher — teetering on yet another relegation battle and captain Darren Purse transfer-listed for ‘financial reasons’.
In turn, Torquay have lost key players to teams in the Championship and League One since their pop at the play-offs last season, and manager Martin Ling has been unable to replace like-for-like on a budget that is habitually one of the lowest in the 72, something that anyone who’s read Garry Nelson’s Left Foot in the Grave would be able to attest.
Comparing the Gulls’ line-up from January’s fixture with Boxing Day’s is revealing in this regard. In less than 12 months, United have either lost or let go of five of the 11 who started in January, and four of those — ‘keeper Bobby Olejnik, centre halves Mark Ellis and Chris Robertson and midfield playmaker Eunan O’Kane — are now playing at a higher level.
That’s not a complete overhaul. Promising right back Joe Oastler remains, as does the long serving Kevin Nicholson on the opposite flank, who manager Ling pinned down to a lengthy deal along with captain Lee Mansell — present again as the midfield fulcrum yesterday — a year ago.
Moreover, Danny Stevens again caused problems on the wing, and Billy Bodin drifted in between midfield and attack with the same intentions as in January.
But something was lacking.
Although Torquay did benefit from the presence of the terrific Rene Howe — suspended last time around — in attack, their movement wasn’t nearly as good; their play nowhere near as dazzling.
In January O’Kane pulled the strings from a deep midfield position, with Mansell doing the wholehearted ugly stuff alongside him; ahead of them, the energy and directness of runners Stevens, Bodin and Damon Lathrope provided numerous options, with big target man Taiwo Atieno using his bulk to unsettle the central defence and open up the space.
It was an onslaught and, although the game only ended 2-1, Argyle simply couldn’t cope and their no-frills 4-4-2 was made to look embarrassingly outdated on the day.
Without O’Kane, it was Torquay who were made to look flat yesterday. Playing a more conventional 4-5-1, Craig Easton and Mansell marshalled things in the middle but both looked leggy and failed to complement one another’s game. Slightly ahead of them, Bodin — on his return from injury — appeared to be similarly affected by the conditions and did little to justify his £70,000 price tag before being substituted on 70 minutes.
Wing men Stevens and Nathan Craig fared a little better; indeed, the latter — a former Everton trainee captured by Ling after spending a year in the League of Wales with hometown club Caernarfon Town — looks to be a real find, but neither had a lot to work with and spent large parts of the game in defence as Plymouth dominated possession.
In a pretty average division of 24, another play-off finish isn’t out of the question but on yesterday’s evidence it would appear unlikely. There were bright notes — United have something about them that’s quite difficult to define; a belief and a spirit which tends to accompany promotion-winning sides.
But my suspicion is that, on this occasion, Torquay’s verve — reflected by the away support in numbers and in voice — had more to do with this being a derby game. Don’t get me wrong; this is a reasonable Gulls team, but it’s a fallible one and — unless a replacement for O’Kane can be found — a further top 7 finish would come against all odds.