Making his first appearance on these pages, James Bennett considers what fan ownership has done for the club he supports, Torquay United, and wonders whether the club’s recent downturn form is perhaps indicative of a wider malaise.
When a football club is in serious trouble, fans usually look for a reason, a suitable scapegoat for why things have gone so catastrophically wrong. Often there’s a villain or an extraordinary set of circumstances that helps form a good narrative, in order to deflect blame away from the Good People – the players, the manager, the fans. But as a supporter of Torquay United, I cannot help but think the biggest killer of Football League clubs is something that will not be found in the headlines: there are far more examples of teams being relegated to the Conference as a result of complacency rather than corruption, and I fear we are about to join that list.
Rewind to 2007. Our season has its own classic narrative with its own villain – long-time owner Mike Bateson sold the club to a group of mysterious investors led by ambitious figurehead Chris Roberts, who had plans for a new stadium on the site of Torquay Athletic RFC’s Recreation Ground on the seafront (which, it was later revealed, would have led to the football club being renamed Torquay Athletic FC), and wanted to import cheap players from the lower leagues of Eastern Europe. It was a near-disaster and Bateson was forced to return to stop the club sliding into administration. As it was, the team had also descended into farce under the control of the hapless Lubos Kubik, and we ended up finishing bottom, below even Boston United who had 10 points deducted for entering administration at the end of the season.
Bateson sold the club again shortly after, this time to a consortium of wealthy fans (from here on referred to as “the board”). They immediately appointed Paul Buckle as manager and Colin Lee in a director of football-cum-chief executive role. With plenty of money to spend for once, a new squad was assembled and an air of optimism surrounded Plainmoor. Despite failing to get promoted after defeat to Exeter in the play-offs, our average attendance was over 3,000, higher than it had been in League Two.
When 2008-09 started badly, the board were under pressure to sack Buckle, but they stuck it out, and consortium member Paul Bristow, usually referred to as “the Lottery winner”, quietly pumped further money into the squad, which was enough to help us to promotion via the play-offs. The following year, a similar scenario played out – a prolonged struggle, when at one point it looked likely that we would immediately return to the Conference, was corrected by further investment from Bristow, who sadly died just after the end of that season. We finished the season strongly, and this momentum was carried into 2010-11. A late surge led to another play-off campaign, resulting in defeat at Old Trafford to Stevenage. Buckle, though, had already decided to leave for a fateful spell at Bristol Rovers, and an exodus of key players followed.
This was the situation Martin Ling found when he arrived at the club in the summer of 2011. Yet he skilfully built another new squad playing attractive passing football, and what was meant to be a transition season quickly became a promotion campaign. A dramatic late slump in April, though, cost us dearly and we lost in the play-off semi-finals, which brings us to the start of this season…
The conventional narrative states that the problems started here – after selling defender Chris Robertson to Preston in January, the club then offloaded Mark Ellis to Crewe, Bobby Olejnik to Peterborough and Eunan O’Kane to Bournemouth for a total of around £500,000. The only investment in the squad from this was the £70,000 purchase of former loan star Billy Bodin, which was mostly funded by a generous fan who had a particular desire to see the young Welshman at the club.
Why was the money not reinvested? The board, seemingly complacent after a surprisingly good season, chose to revamp the training facilities at the same time as building the new stand, which meant taking money out of the playing squad. In League Two more than any other division, it’s vital to improve the squad to stay still. But last summer, if anything we regressed – the key players weren’t replaced and we were left with a smaller squad than last year, including several youth team graduates and inexperienced youngsters, most of whom clearly weren’t ready to play at League Two level regularly. Midfielder Ian Morris was then ruled out with a long-term injury early in the season and wasn’t replaced.
We didn’t make any signings in January, either – Ling was making hints in his interviews that he wanted money to spend on players so it clearly wasn’t his decision. It’s not until around the time Ling went off sick that the board bothered to do anything – the re-signing of Elliot Benyon on loan felt more like an act of desperation, turning yet again to a former player. You wonder if it was even the decision of the management team…
Ling’s illness remains a turning point, as assistant Shaun Taylor, who stepped in to manage the team, was plainly not up to this task. But it is worth bearing in mind that our form had been going downhill for a long time – it all stems back to the end of last season, when a physically and mentally tired team collapsed after a long season. Ling had always refused to rotate so it was inevitable that something had to give. He had resorted to increasingly defensive, functional tactics over the season, and like Alex McLeish at Aston Villa, it’s difficult to undo the effect that has on a player’s mentality, which is why Alan Knill has a considerable task ahead of him to save us from relegation.
However, I think the narrative misses out some key points. While the management team certainly aren’t blameless, having made numerous errors over the past two seasons, I think the responsibility ultimately lies with the board, and it lies with the manner in which they have run the club, a method which many football fans currently advocate as a good way of running a football club.
Since taking over, the board have maintained a non-interventionist approach, refusing to sack Buckle and Ling when there were considerable calls from the more reactionary fans to do so. In Buckle’s case, it paid off. In Ling’s case last year, it paid off. But this may have only been a short term gain. While football fans hate the idea of sacking someone before their time, an approach of standing back and watching always provides the risk of not reacting quickly enough.
I think the board may have taken the approach too far, even though they set out not to do so at the start. There were two major changes in 2010 which have shaped this situation: the death of Paul Bristow, who bailed us out two years in a row, and the dismissal of Colin Lee, the mediator between the board and the manager. Both of these changes almost certainly widened the gap between the board and first team affairs – there’s little experience of running a football club on the board, which may explain the haphazard way decisions have been made.
Alongside this, everything has been conducted behind a veil of secrecy, seemingly under the principle that “it’s our club so our decisions are none of your business”, which inevitably gives rise to conspiracy theories. For one we are still none the wiser on the reasons behind Ling’s absence aside from that it is a “debilitating illness”, leading to the circulation of rumours.
Without Bristow, there has been limited impetus from the board to make things happen on the pitch. Granted, the infrastructure of the club has improved enormously: a new stand, bearing Bristow’s name, has been erected; the training facilities are being sorted out; the youth system is in a much better shape. But it’s no good having a shiny new stand if you’re in the Conference and there’s no one turning up to sit in it.
To me, it seems the board simply assumed Ling would be fine to pull more rabbits out of the hat as he had done the previous season, and that physio Damien Davey would continue to perform miracles in the treatment room after going through 2011-12 season of no long-term injuries. Football logic suggests going into a season with a weaker, smaller squad than the previous season means you’re not going to be doing as well, but it seems to have passed everyone at the club by. I’m sure Ling must have realised this and it is the mark of the man that he didn’t go off in a huff like many other managers would have done.
But there is another element to the lack of investment which hasn’t been talked about as much, and that is the issue of attendance. I can totally understand why we don’t have the money to build a big squad because of an average attendance of around 2,600, which is the excuse those who defend the board use. But the question that is not being asked is why the average attendance is that low.
Torquay has never been a well supported club – our average attendances rarely creep up above 3,000, which usually only occurs during a stellar season. We’re not the sort of club that conjures up images of fiery encounters or passionate support; we’re more likely to be the sort of club whose long record of playing in the Football League people are surprised by. Torquay isn’t a footballing town in the traditional sense.
But this is no excuse. Wigan prove the idea that a small club will always be small is a fallacy: in 1994-95, they had an average attendance of 1,748, putting them 92nd out of the 92, and now they are an established Premier League club. I’m not suggesting Torquay United can ever be an established Premier League club without a Dave Whelan figure, but to dismiss the idea of growing the club on the basis that we have always suffered from low attendances is defeatist and short-sighted.
For one, the club is simply not promoted well enough in the local area. As in the Bateson era, the few methods used are archaic: the next home game against Chesterfield will see a “bring a woman along for free” offer. The club still has the feel of being stuck in the 1950s. Those running it seem to be content to tread water, as if survival is an achievement; it’s therefore no surprise that people are happy to sit at home and watch ambitious teams on the television, because who wants to watch a team that isn’t bothered about winning?
My own theory is that this has all sprung from that successful first season: the board didn’t have to do anything to get fans through the turnstiles, because people were excited by the new direction the club was taking. They never learned how to get people to turn up. In our second Conference season, the average attendance dropped by 800. The only answer was for Bristow to pump more money into the squad, which worked in the short-term but was never going to be sustainable, especially after his death.
That to me sums this up: the board had and still have the right intentions, but they are running the club like fans. Fan ownership has been promoted as the ideal type for the last few years. But can this work when you have clubs in the same division run by businessmen like Andy Pilley and Tony Stewart who are pumping serious money into their clubs?
Our attendances recovered back in the Football League, probably more a result of higher away followings; but even during our last two seasons in League Two, when we were challenging for promotion, our attendances were nowhere near the heights of the last time we were towards the top of what was then Division Three a decade ago. The warning signs have been there for a long time – have we been too busy enjoying our success to realise that the club was shrinking?
Plymouth’s issues with owner James Brent have overshadowed our plight somewhat; the Argyle Fans’ Trust is doing the right thing by publicly tackling him head on. I think the only aspect preventing our board getting similar flak from the supporters is because the consortium are fans of the club and have been associated with success; our fans are angry but don’t know who to take it out on, because as far as they are concerned, the board are amongst the Good People and should not be cast as the villains.
But for me, it is the board that are responsible for this situation. During the tough times, particularly this season, the board have seemed increasingly out of touch and out of their depth, such as with managing director Bill Phillips’ comments about “our play-off push” while we were clearly plummeting down the table, or chairman Simon Baker finding time to appear on BBC News to talk about his desire for installing a 3G pitch at Plainmoor. The situation feels like it’s out of control and that they have no idea how to rectify it.
Despite all this, my gut feeling is we will survive this season. Relegation battles have a funny way of panning out, and it’s still very close at the bottom of League Two. But it would not be deserved. The seeds for this were sewn a long time ago: a disastrous season like this was inevitable considering the way the club has been run of late.
Even if we do stay up, I am pessimistic about our chances of staying in the Football League long-term, perhaps even beyond next season – key players Rene Howe, Aaron Downes and Brian Saah are out of contract in the summer and will probably walk away for nothing, and it’s difficult to be optimistic about after the botched way replacing similarly important players was handled last season, especially if the managerial situation is unresolved.
But if, as logic would state, we are relegated, we are in serious trouble. This time the Conference would not be the novelty it was for us six years ago. Going down without a fight after a run of dire form, and presumably with the same regime still in charge of running the club, will leave many disenchanted. I have no doubt that if we do go down, crowds will drop further which will make it virtually impossible for us to come back quickly. The Conference is a very tough league – we timed it right leaving when we did. Lincoln and Stockport have been close to ending up in the sixth tier after their relegation, and they are traditionally bigger clubs than Torquay.
As we stand on the brink on what could be a defining moment for the club, the great tragedy of the consortium era thus far is that while at first it looked like this was a clean break from the past, and a period of progression into the 21st century, the result is we have simply slipped back into a state similar to that which the club had been mired in for the past couple of decades, where thrift was prioritised over success. Like the anarchic teenager who became a stereotypical conformist middle-aged man, they have become the exact thing they didn’t want to turn into. It’s doubtful this will change any time soon. It’s difficult to see where our long-term future lies, but at this moment, it seems highly unlikely to be in the Football League.