It’s the night of the FA Cup First Round Replays tonight, and at the precise time of writing, all is going to plan. Brighton have scored against Cheltenham Town, and Hereford are winning at Leeds. That chicken I slaughtered didn’t die in vain. As some of you may recall, the BBC’s live televised match was between Torquay United and Yeovil Town – a strange reversal of roles for two clubs from the Westcountry. Torquay United, who had defied the odds for eighty years, fell through the trapdoor and into the Conference, whilst Yeovil Town, redoubtable giant-killers since they famously beat Sunderland in 1949, were the “big” Football League club. Almost predictably, Torquay United, in their first season as a non-league club since 1926, dumped their League One rivals on their backsides, and deservedly so.
One of the occasional subjects that turns up on here is the decline of football in Cumbria in the 1970s – the area lost Barrow and Workington during this period. It has gone, so far as I can remember, that a similar decline has taken place in Devon over the last five years or so. Fortunately, though, at least one of the League sides that Devon has lost in recent times looks capable of making a quick return, whilst the other would surely be expecting a serious challenge for the title in the next couple of seasons or so. Meanwhile, the county’s only League side, Plymouth Argyle, are having unprecedented success at the moment, and are sitting just outside of the play-off places in the Championship. The possibility of Premier League football coming to Devon isn’t quite as far-fetched as you might automatically think.
Traditionally, although the three Devon clubs (Torquay United, Plymouth Argyle & Exeter City) have often inhabited the same divisions, Plymouth are the area’s biggest club. It was Argyle that made an FA Cup semi-final in 1984 (and pushed Watford all the way once they got there), and Argyle that has drawn the biggest crowds,and it is Plymouth that is the biggest city and home of the area’s sizeable media. As is often the case in English counties, though, the biggest city is not the administrative centre. That honour goes to Exeter, and the two clubs have the biggest rivalry of the three, though that has changed this season, with Exeter having been joined in the Conference by Torquay United.
As is often the case with these things, the decline of Exeter City and Torquay United has got less to do with anything in particular happening in the region itself than it has to do with disastrous periods of stewardship by former regimes. Exeter City were already in administration when they were relegated on the last day of the season in 2003. Their club’s Supporters Trust took over control of the club at this point, and fought tooth and nail to get the club into a CVA and keep them in it. The following year, they drew Manchester United in the FA Cup, and made getting on for £1m in TV money and gate receipts. It bought their long-term security, and they were unfortunate to lose in the Conference play-off final against Morecambe last May. Torquay, who had survived on the last day of the season in a couple of previous occasions (most notably in 1987, when the famous police dog that bit a player kept them up – see Google for more details on that, though I didn’t know that they had him stuffed when he died or that he now keeps guard over their boardroom), suffered appalling administration. This is how the events that transpired are described on Wiki:
In October 2006, Bateson stepped down as chairman to be replaced by Chris Roberts, who soon afterwards sacked Atkins, replacing him with former Czech international Luboš Kubík. Despite his credentials as a player, there was some concern raised that Kubik had no real history as a coach, and he did little to endear himself to fans by bringing in Richard Hancox as coach. Torquay’s dire form continued, and the club crashed to the bottom of the table. Kubik eventually quit on February 5, and Colin Lee was soon after appointed as the new director of football. Keith Curle was appointed as Head Coach on February 7, 2007. Roberts resigned amid growing pressure from supporters and the board of directors, all of whom were unhappy with his conduct as chairman, on February 21, 2007. Local hotel owner Keith Richardson was announced as the new chairman the following day. However, on March 7, 2007 former chairman Mike Bateson was reappointed as chairman, the move following Chris Roberts’ company, Torquay United Holdings, inability to meet the next payment to purchase the club from Bateson.
In spite of Bateson’s continuing unpopularity at Plainmoor, Torquay have made a good start to life back in non-league football, and currently sit in second place in the Conference table, a point behind Aldershot Town. Plymouth Argyle, for the time being at least, inhabit a different world to Exeter and Torquay, with players in their squad on loan from Manchester United and Paris St Germain. Their fortunes may take a downturn if, as has been reported in the press today, their manager Ian Holloway follows up his interest in the vacant manager’s position at Leicester City. Plymouth supporters may be the top dogs in Devon right now, but that doesn’t mean that they will be in perpetuity.