Late on Monday (September 21st) I blogged on the plight of my local club Torquay United: about the upheaval in the boardroom, the loss of their manager, financial troubles due to falling gates and impending compensation cases which might spell the end for the club. To make it clear, Torquay are my local team but being an exiled Grimsby Town fan I don’t actually support them. I do however recognise how important a club can be, how it can be the focal point for a community and how the loss of a club might affect a town as well as neighbouring teams. All of this as well as the knock-on effect on other clubs in the league if Torquay were to cease trading means that I am concerned as both a football fan and as a resident of Devon.
I had been writing Monday’s piece for maybe a week but as I tidied it up ready for publishing I found myself struggling to keep up with developments; it was moving so that significant events were occurring every few hours but I just had to get it out there as I believed I could shed some light on what was happening in a way that would make sense to both fans of Torquay fans and other teams in the conference.
Throughout Tuesday many fans, including the local MP read my blog and commented on Twitter and Facebook and shared it wider. The Consensus was that I had hit the nail on the head with a lot of the points I’d raised – the club are in real trouble; gates need to improve but traditionally they drop through the winter and how ridiculous it is that so many lower league clubs could remain solvent with a tiny fraction of the revenues pouring into the Premier League being allowed to trickle down to the lower leagues. By my reckoning – and please prove me wrong – the difference between Torquay surviving and going under, based on current gates is probably less than £100k – a drop in the ocean for many premiership players,let alone their clubs.
I finished that blog by pledging that I, along with fans of other clubs would be showing solidarity with Torquay’s fans and going along to Plainmoor on Tuesday to watch The Gulls play Borehamwood. A game seen as crucial, not only to turn things around following a 7-3 home drubbing by Bromley but as a rallying cry to bring back lapsed fans and attract new to the club; a ‘Use it or lose it’ turning point in the season and also arguably the club’s continued existence.
Before I talk about the game itself and where I think Torquay now find themselves there are a couple of pieces of news which surfaced since my blog which I think deserve a mention. Firstly, it seems as though the board have seen the error of their ways and are rebuilding the bridges with the Supporters’ Trust which they burnt less than a fortnight ago. This doesn’t guarantee more fans will turn up week in, week out but it’s a start and the hint of an inkling of a suggestion of a sign that the board know that if the club is to remain a going concern then they will need the fans onside and engaged.
Also in the news was former manager Paul Cox. Remember him? No? Five days is a long time in football… Anyway, Cox was invited back for a meeting with the club as they hinted at an improved contract. Obviously this wasn’t quite what he had expected as he declined, issuing a statement to the effect that he couldn’t work for zero wages and that the club wasn’t in a position to pay any this season. I think it’s safe to say we can believe his account of all this because as was pointed out on the wonderful BBC non-league show podcast, it makes absolutely no sense at all for a manager looking for work to slag off his former employers as that would set alarm bells ringing at any prospective future club. This lack of funds for a salary does make one wonder who on earth is applying for the Torquay hotseat as it is reported today that there have been 129 applicants for the job. Think about that – 129 applicants for a job offering no wages and no security and for an employer who might go out of business in the not too distant future. Caretaker boss John Ramshaw, assistant to Cox ruled himself out of contention but chief executive Steve Breed thinks of the 129 there were 60 applications to be looked at seriously and that 8 were being interviewed.
Breed has also indicated that some of the potential claims against the club are being dealt with without the need to go to court. There are no details of the settlement with Chris Hargreaves, why he doesn’t believe there’s a problem with Lee Hodges being on gardening leave or exactly who the other two employees whose cases are being put to bed but considering that Breeds’ fellow board member Dean Richards stated only a fortnight ago that these cases could put the club out of business this has to be seen as a positive for the club and fans, if it pans out as Breed expects.
The football? I went along with a couple of mates and bunch of fellow football fans all with a common link of the rather splendid Molloy’s pub in St Marychurch, just down the road from Plainmoor and I think I can speak for everyone in saying we had a pretty good night out. We stood in the Popside stand and that side of the ground was busy, if not exactly packed but the other stands were pretty sparsely populated. Okay, it was a Tuesday evening but the weather was decent and after a couple of games dropping well below the Chairman’s 1800 break even figure and a rallying call being issued by fans groups, the club and also Torbay Community Development Trust, a bumper gate was expected by many but within minutes of the kickoff it was obvious that wasn’t to be.
The final tally when announced in the second half was 1725 with 24 in the away end. This is no reflection on Borehamwood though. They’re a much smaller club than Torquay and indeed than many teams in the conference and travelling any distance in numbers on a Tuesday evening isn’t easy. The alarming thing for Torquay and their fans is that this gate was swelled substantially by fans from neighbours Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City. The club and various social media sources also acknowledged support from Bristol City, Brighton and Grimsby Town (hello!) and I saw shirts from many more clubs. The Molloy’s gang alone were wearing Swansea, Coventry and Palace shirts and also included a livery-less Villa fan who like myself spent the evening nervously checking for updates from his own team’s game. This display of solidarity amongst fans was a lovely thing to see but while it might have put a bit more cash in the coffers on the night it is not going to happen at every game and by my reckoning the gate there might have been non-Torquay 300 fans there. Take them away and you have a total way below what is required and a club a fair way from breaking even. What will this look like a month from now as the nights draw in and the weather worsens? Gates of less than 1000 for evening fixtures and 1200 on a Saturday? Quite possibly.
So what’s keeping fans away? On Tuesday night we were charged £16 for an adult ticket and the club charge £20 for a seat. As many fans have pointed out when commenting on articles in the Herald Express that’s a lot for Conference football. There have been calls for more concessions, for special offers and a substantial reduction in ticket prices but would this actually lead to more fans coming through the turnstiles and increasing revenues? Concessions and price drops need to pay for themselves and there is a risk for the club that such initiatives would be no more than loss leaders which wouldn’t lead to an upturn.
The football itself? I’ve touched on it but let’s be frank – it’s pretty bad right now, Torquay are leaderless on the pitch. On Tuesday I was told that the team were far better than on Saturday against Bromley and I guess that in terms of goals conceded there was a big improvement on the previous game but as a neutral (as were many amongst the crowd) it wasn’t great to watch. There’s only so much encouragement you can shout to a team with a game plan that consists of hoofing the ball into the glare of the floodlights. Borehamwood looked pretty decent at times but they are not a team which travels well, they need a helping hand from the hosts to look as safe in the middle of the park as they did at Plainmoor and Torquay’s lightweight midfield did nothing to disrupt them.
The fans on Tuesday night looked resigned to it. There’s no real atmosphere at Plainmoor (lovely ground by the way, I love a stadium with 4 proper stands), nothing to lift the players but maybe because what is offered to them is a little lacklustre, a little below par, they are uninspired. It needs a spark to ignite that roar from the crowd which gets a player moving and playing in a way that in turn feeds the crowd. Team spirit? There’s not much of that being displayed I’m afraid but when the squad is full of young players on short-term contracts or even non-contract terms how can there be?
The visiting Plymouth fans cheered everyone up with their traditional chant of “Green Army,” and the locals’ chorus of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds was well sung but there has to be a hint of irony when they sing, “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be alright.” If you’re singing that as a Torquay fan right now and you think it will turn out alright then you probably need to wake up quick – as does the whole club – and do everything you can to get every friend and family member, every work colleague and neighbour; fan or not to turn up and get behind the team because if the statements by Phillips and Edwards about the club’s financial position are correct then there’s every chance you won’t have a club next season. It’s quite possible that administration might arrive before the end of the season. Yes, the football’s poor and the most you can realistically hope for this season is survival but you don’t support your team because they’re successful do you? You support them with the hope that they improve, progress and reward your support.
One last thing, a suggestion to the to the small handful of home fans who chanted that, “Exeter is full of shit” – if a neighbouring club’s fans have made the effort to turn out, to pay and to support your team when many of your own supporters can’t be bothered then the least you can do is show them some respect, put aside petty local rivalries and thank them for caring about your team.