The decline of Torquay United – a cautionary tale

This is weird. I’m a Grimsby Town fan but I’m writing about Torquay United in a way that I think a Torquay fan would write. Bear with me though because this is important. Okay. Here goes….

A few of weeks ago in my regular diary for Codalmighty I wrote a little about The Gulls’ summer; about the takeover by a local consortium, the change of manager and about the financial problems at Plainmoor. That was just before Torquay’s visit to Blundell Park, a game I attended, and although I would have liked to see Grimsby win I felt that Torquay had put together a decent squad on limited resources and manager Paul Cox had got them well organised and playing to their strengths. It wasn’t at all pretty to watch but it was effective all the same and the handful of fans who had made the long journey North would have been happy with the result as well as a day out in the Cleethorpes sunshine.

Less than a month later and after a gate of 1558 for the visit of Guiseley, the club’s chairman and chief exec issued a warning in the local paper that unless gates averaged 1800 over the season then the club would not survive. This reiterated an announcement to that effect in the summer following the takeover.

One of the things about the conference/national league which I notice as a Grimsby fan is that travelling support tends to be quite low. A few teams manage to take decent crowds with them wherever they go but on the whole clubs don’t expect to shift too many tickets in the away end for the majority of games. Because of this, clubs in this league have to cut their cloth based on home support and treat away fans numbers as a bonus. The club’s home supporters have to get behind the team and maintain that throughout the season or a small-ish club will be in trouble. There just isn’t a huge amount of money from TV rights or sponsorship in the lower leagues and a drop of a hundred or so fans can often be the difference between breaking even and losing money.

This is very much the case at Torquay and local reporter and Gulls fan Guy Henderson wrote a great piece in the Herald Express warning fans to take notice and ‘use it or lose it’ as the club’s hand-to-mouth existence really is quite perilous.

How have Torquay got in such a mess? Well, diminishing gates can’t help but neither can putting your contracted management team on gardening leave. After sitting down with manager Chris Hargreaves, assistant Lee Hodges and coach Kenny Veysey in order to try and persuade them to take significant paycuts, why would the new board effectively keep costs the same for the duration of their contracts by halting talks and saddling themselves with full pay costs but needing to recruit a new manager and staff? It’s not really displaying much business nouse is it? Did the new board really think that last year’s results were down to the manager and coaching? Yes, fans always call for the head of the manager, that’s the nature of football, but surely the board could see the manager was up against it because of struggles off the pitch? I believe they recognised this and that’s why they were trying to renegotiate terms to start with but that obviously was forgotten when negotiations didn’t turn out how they’d expected.

New manager Cox appealed for calm and tried to rally the troops following the post-Guiseley SOS (GuiseleyGateGate if you will) but it didn’t stop there, the club seems to be on a spiraling downward with no obvious way out.

The Supporters’ Trust tried to engage with the board about stronger, closer ties and ambition plans around the purchase of the ground but the board chose to distance themselves; another ridiculous decision given that their only real income is from ticket sales.

There are obviously splits in the boardroom too as the departure of the vice chairman Ron Peterson and his wife showed. Peterson is also effectively the sponsor of the ground which currently bears his company’s name. A board which numbered 10 in the summer is now halved.

Manager Cox gave an interview on Thursday 17th September, again trying to calm things down but to inject some realism and manage expectations; to recognise that Torquay were no longer able to push for promotion given the financial situation and to concentrate on securing the club’s National League status.

As I tidied up this piece ready for publishing though, another bombshell dropped: news broke on the Friday morning following that interview that following a meeting with the board Cox was leaving the club for ‘personal reasons.’ The pressure of managing Torquay can’t have been easy, and Cox had been working on an expenses only basis – essentially this meant that his accommodation, travel and food were covered by Torquay but with no actual wages being paid. This was was justified by the club because Cox had been out of work since leaving Mansfield and maybe he accepted this as a means to getting his foot back in the door of football management but for how long could he be expected to continue like that? The club’s board met and announced that Director of Football Dean Edwards and assistant coach John Ramshaw would be taking charge of first team matters. Before the game on Saturday 19th, the club managed to make things worse with a statement by chairman Phillips on Cox giving them an ultimatum over sorting out his contract. Maybe letting the dust settle would have been better chaps?

And yes, you read that correctly, Torquay had a Director of Football. In what universe does a non-league side like Torquay need a Director of Football? There is the first team only; no reserves and no youth structure to speak of as the academy was closed down by the board to save money almost immediately after taking over in June! Don’t worry yourselves puzzling it over though as following a 7-3 thrashing at home to Bromley, it was rumoured that Edwards had quit his role as DoF. So much for stability and firm hand on the tiller in the board room! That match was watched by 1,653 fans, including 139 from Bromley; another gate below the average needed to stay afloat. This was confirmed early on the Monday morning following the game, a day before Boreham Wood visit for the next fixture.

Why am I bothered about this? Think about what might happenif Torquay United were to cease trading and cannot fulfill their fixtures in the Conference. Null and voiding those games might seem reasonable, especially for those teams who have dropped points against The Gulls already this season and in fact this would be good for Grimsby. But, in such a precarious football world, where clubs are surviving on a shoestring, I don’t believe we can be so shortsighted. There are 17 more teams who would lose that fixture with Torquay if they ceased trading tomorrow and that mean that 17 teams would have one less home gate’s revenue over the season. If Torquay’s finances are that tight then it is quite possible that other teams too could be squeezed through no fault of their own.

This is the real issue for Football fans of the Conference and also leagues 1 and 2. If this can happen at Torquay then it could happen anywhere and it can happen quickly. It is less than 100 days since the new board took over and appointed Cox and only 11 games have been played but ask yourself, can your club afford to take a hit of approximately 10-20% of revenues over a season? Of course they can’t. If your club was that flush you’d be wondering why the playing squad wasn’t stronger!

So, the big question is of course, could Torquay go under? Could they be declared insolvent? If you believe Chairman Phillips, the clubs books are in order and that the club will be in a ‘lot healthier financial position’ than when the new board took over in the summer but that does seem at odds with his earlier waring sthat unless the gates averaged 1800 or more then the club wouldn’t survive. A word of warning Mr Phillips – if you want to get teh fans onside before it is too late then get your message straight and be consistent because not much stays secret in the modern world of social media! Note also that just ten days before taking over first team matters Edwards himself warned that ‘Torquay United could still go out of business’ if legal cases against the club succeeded. These cases might include those by Hargreaves and Hodges but it seems as though the club is still to settle with a number of former staff dismissed previously.

By my reckoning, a shortfall of 200 paying fans means a loss of £3000 each game and while this doesn’t seem much in the world of football where top players are transferred for many millions and paid hundreds of thousands per week, how can that deficit be made up by a club with no money and no alternative incomes? What doesn’t get paid? Wages, insurance, the ‘leccy bill, travel to away games, the tax man… It all needs paying and if money set aside for the Inland Revenue is used to cover day-today costs then that is just shifting the problem. Looking at it like that it seems quite possible that the club might not be able to fulfill their fixtures if the donward trend continues and savings can’t be found.

How has Torquay got into this situation though? Looking at their attendances and how they have declined over the last couple of years is a good start. The 2015/16 season has of course only just started but let’s take the average of 1800 which the board stated would be required to support their reduced operating budget. That would be roughly an -8% decrease on the 2014/15 season when an average of 1949 attended which itself a downturn in the order of 26% on 2013/14 when they were relegated to the conference from League 2. How many teams could take a hit like that? There’s no surplus and no assets to speak of.

Will it really be that bad this year? Seeing as attendances usually start high in August and September as early season optimism coupled with hot summer afternoons and balmy evenings would draw fans and families to Plainmoor, the club would of course been worried to see a low gate barely topping 2000 on the opening day of the season and then  for gates to decline so quickly. The 1800 average needs some big gates to compensate for lower attendances on cold Tuesday evenings and grey, wet winter Saturdays when families choose an afternoon in rather brave the elements for the visit of Gateshead. Sorry Gateshead but you just aren’t going to be that big a draw in January.

My team Grimsby are lucky in that gates stabilised and actually improved over the last few years following an initial drop of 28% when the club was relegated from League 2 in 2010. In fact, Grimsby’s gates are close to teh level they were at in that last season of League football, something that is down the club and the Mariners Trust now working quite closely together with the supporters’ organisation represented on the board and influencing pricing policy at the club.

Independent Grimsby fan’s site Codalmighty’s Monday diarist quoted Nigel Blackwell of cult 1980s indie band Half Man Half Biscuit in a recent diary. He said, “Whatever division this club happens to be in doesn’t decide if I’m going to support them or not – that is the behaviour of a spoilt child.” Blackwell was referring to Tranmere Rovers when he said that but it’s a good point. There will always be a core support at any club but right now, many fans have drifted away from Torquay and unless they start returning, sooner rather than later, there may not be a club left to return to, at least not in a recognisable state from their last visit.

Me? As much as I love the stories of clubs of those clubs which have fallen by the wayside being resurrected by fans’ groups and rising again – Bradford Park Avenue, Hereford United, etc – I don’t want to see that fate befall The Gulls and I hope to see them turn this round before it’s too late. I’m writing this on Monday 21st September and tomorrow I’m heading to Plainmoor to support the team as Borehamwood visit. A few friends are offering to pay entry for lapsed fans to remind them what they’re missing and I hope they remember why they used to go regularly and what will be missing from the town – from the community – if Torquay United were to disappear.

Like Guy Henderson said – “Use it or lose it,” and this applies to all fans of all small, lower league clubs. Don’t put it off for a better weekend or for better weather; it might be too late.

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12 thoughts on “The decline of Torquay United – a cautionary tale

  1. thankyou so much for your realism, as im in Australia im in a bit of a mess visiting home games, Torquay like you say could be the thin edge of a wave, It seems quite ridiculous they’ve fallen so far. However I do think local football plays its part by attracting so much sponsorship, to pay players that in my day payed for the fun of it, the camaraderie and enjoyment. I seem to remember a club paying an ex Torquay player 10pound to play alongside players paying a pound a week to play.

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  2. Great article and gud reading..I remember the gud old days and I’m not alone 7.30 kick offs on a Saturday evening and my dad took me to every home game middle 70s…I’m am how sadden of the decline of my be lovable Torquay team..it’s hard when a team gets relegated…fans don’t go…no money in the pot..and sponsorship is very little…I live just around the corner from guiseley who hopefully we will still play at the end of the season…so yes I hope some one steps in with a it of brass and keeps them afloat….Richie baker…

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    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, much appreciated

      I wish I could see the money coming in but will an investor chuck cash at something that’s not viable. Hate to say it but I reckon it needs fans to decide whether they want their club enough and to turn out regularly or they’ll lose it.

      Do you go and see Guiseley?

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  3. Thanks for that blog. I agree with what you say and am saddened at Torquay’s difficulties.
    I would add that many Conference Premier clubs survive on much smaller gates than 1800. Some have regular top-ups from wealthy owners; others have excellent commercial operations. There are other ways. More adventurous solutions to increasing revenues include putting in 3G. While some don’t like these pitches (and that includes the blinkered Conference Board) they certainly can revolutionise football businesses and regenerate interest from the community in a football club.
    All the best

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    1. Hi Oliver, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

      You’re right there are clubs surviving on less but they are not fully professional and also have smaller stadiums to pay for. Plainmoor looks a little on the large side these days!

      I’m not sure if the current board have the commercial savvy required to think their way out of it. While some are businessmen they’re not experienced in running a football club or turning around a failing business

      I hate to call it a business

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