One of the positive features Torquay fans like to claim about the club’s owning consortium is that the chairman stands on the terraces, just like any other fan. And yet the way the club has acted in recent weeks suggests they are about as in touch with the fans as David Icke is in touch with reality. As we slide ever closer to the drop zone and the weeks tick by without a win, we now head to the home of our bitterest rivals needing a result in front of the TV cameras and Peter Beagrie in order to spark our season back into life.
Despite my frustration at our poor performances, which have seen us go 6 matches without a win, it’s not like I didn’t see this coming. My last two blog posts here have suggested that struggles were on the horizon, due in part to a lack of squad depth. Now if I can see that coming, surely you’d think that the club could see that. Remember that £500,000+ we made in the summer on transfer fees? Still hasn’t been spent. We still have pretty much the same squad as we did in the summer, bar the addition of Reading’s Angus MacDonald on loan as centre-back cover.
It’s difficult to put one’s finger on why our form has dipped so drastically compared to last year when our first XI isn’t that much worse than last year – you could claim that Eunan O’Kane’s absence has been felt, but certainly Mark Ellis and Bobby Olejnik have been replaced well by Aaron Downes and Michael Poke. The problem may be tactical – after the 4-1 battering by Southend (a result that had been coming from some time), it was clear that the combination of 3 defensive players in the middle (Mansell, Lathrope and Easton) wasn’t working. A switch from 4-5-1 to 4-2-3-1, playing Ryan Jarvis as a deep-lying forward supporting Rene Howe, worked initially, bringing consecutive wins against York and Dagenham, it now looks more like a papering over of the cracks, as we haven’t won since.
Moreover, those 6 matches without a win have all been decided by goals coming in the last 10 minutes – defeat at Bradford, before throwing away wins against Northampton and Plymouth, throwing away draws against Wimbledon and Burton, and losing a win against Exeter. Two of those, you will notice, have cost us wins against our local rivals – not popular. Such a lack of killer instinct in being able to see matches out is what cost us dearly in 2006-07, the year we were relegated to the Conference. To me, it shows a lack of character in the side. And all the while, the centre-backs involved – Downes and either Saah or MacDonald – have been largely blameless.
The full-back positions have been a concern of mine. Joe Oastler has largely held his place in the side despite several mistakes, a couple of dreadful performances, and good performances from back-up Daniel Leadbitter. Meanwhile, Kevin Nicholson, who again has made numerous mistakes and has looked a shadow of the player he was last year, is seemingly undroppable – his back-up, Thomas Cruise, has barely had a sniff of an appearance of late. Where’s the competition? Where’s the motivation to play well if you’ve got no competition?
Midfield is also clearly an issue, with a almost total lack of creativity, pace and penetration. Lee Mansell’s tireless energy has almost vanished, leaving him as just another average League Two ball-winner instead of charging from box to box Steven Gerrard-style as he did last year. Nathan Craig would fit the bill perfectly if played in the middle, but instead he has been marginalised to the flanks, a role he is not suited to at all – it has echoes of the role that Ian Morris played last year, for which he was similarly criticised. Morris’ absence with a knee injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season has been felt, as he too could be providing that creativity. But the Irishman has not been replaced in the squad despite the long-term nature of his injury. Similarly, instead of replacing Lloyd Macklin, out with a broken metatarsal for the last few months, Niall Thompson has been thrust into the spotlight, and despite some early positive showings off the bench, the teenager’s fearlessness has been lost, replaced by hesitation and nervousness – such is the risk of playing youngsters who aren’t ready to make the step up.
Billy Bodin has also been a major disappointment. Though I was not his biggest fan last season, I was excited when we signed him in the summer. But he has consistently under-performed this season, and any enforced absence from the side is greeted as almost a relief. He is still young and developing too, so you expect inconsistency, but perhaps he is feeling the pressure caused by his fee and the resulting hype.
The problem seems to be a cumulative one – a number of under-performing players, some of whom perhaps over-achieved relative to their ability last season, and a lack of options and competition, with confidence now severely damaged by poor results. And yet as the spiral begins to quicken, what are the club doing? Well, we’ve got Richard Logan on trial, who had recently struggled to set Conference South alight for Dorchester after being released by Wycombe. But that’s about it. There has hardly even been any communication from the board.
Some may argue that it’s not the board’s job to say something. But it can’t just be left to the manager (you’ll notice that I’ve barely mentioned Martin Ling, and with good reason, because I don’t blame him for this). When a club is going through a rough patch, fans will naturally look to the figures of authority for reassurance – transparency is vital. All Torquay fans have had recently is the odd statement about us not being in relegation trouble, despite all the facts pointing to exactly that. It’s incredibly worrying when you know your team is in serious trouble and yet no one is officially acknowledging it, though at least in the last couple of games Ling has done so. I’m sure he would like more players too. I know it’s a bit of a lower league cliché, but every other club is strengthening, or attempting to strengthen, except us – and we expect to improve?
Obviously I don’t want the club to be put in jeopardy with ridiculous spending beyond our means. But at the same time, we’ll lose a lot of money if we are relegated too – even now, attendances are dropping as more and more fans have become disenchanted with the performances on the pitch. The owning consortium have done a great job until now – we have our Football League status, trips to Wembley and Old Trafford, and a shining new stand to prove it. But it’s worth remembering that Paul Bristow sunk his hand in his pocket to get us promoted from the Conference, and then again the following year to keep us in the league. The problem is he’s no longer with us, and no one else is seemingly willing to do what he did – even Bodin would never have arrived but for a generous £50,000 donation from a fan. Even if we survive this year (and it’s still far from certain), I worry for next year. In this league, in the 21st century, you can’t not spend money and expect to do well.
As I said in my last entry, this season and this situation is a test of the club’s ambition. The board claims to be aiming for League One. You can’t say that their actions so far this season suggest that.
Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger
James tweets at @jbennetttufc