Last night at Plainmoor, Devon rivals Torquay United played Exeter City in a pre-season friendly that had garnered more than a little attention from the press following the announcement that the visitors would donate their share of the gate receipts to their hosts. At an era during which the “every man for themselves” ethos seems as strong as ever within the game, Exeter’s gesture has received a positive reception, especially in view of it being considered the return of a favour paid by Torquay twelve years, when it was they that forfeited their ticket money for a match between the two sides while Exeter were in a club-threateningly difficult financial position.
This match, which ended in a two-one win for Torquay and was watched by a crowd of 1,497 people – marked the end of a long and difficult summer for Torquay United, during which the club has been forced to close its youth academy and part ways with manager Chris Hargreaves as part of significant cost-cutting measures following a change of ownership. The source of the club’s difficult summer came at the latter end of an otherwise nondescript last season for the Gulls. At the end of March, the club’s owner Thea Bristow confirmed that her resignation, which had been scheduled for the end of the season, was to be brought forward and would proceed with immediate effect.
The club was fortunate in that Bristow is at least a genuine supporter of the club. She has put almost £3m into it in recent years in the form of loans but was prepared to write those off and hand over ownership of the club to the right people. However, with Torquay United having few assets of value, running at a loss of around half a million pounds a year, and with little indication that the club would be returning to the Football League any time soon – last season saw it finish in a less than dazzling thirteenth place in the Conference National in its first season back in the non-league game following relegation at the end of the 2013/14 season – would there be anybody who could steady the club’s listing financial position? As the supporters of Hereford United can readily attest, the finances of a lower division football club can spiral out of control with alarming speed and the club’s financial future could be considerably trickier without Thea Bristow’s munificence.
Over the few weeks that immediately followed the end of last season, however, rumours started to circulate that all was not well with negotiations for new owners to take over the running of the club. Whilst substantial debts were to be written off and the club would be available for a relative pittance, its ongoing financial commitments were a millstone around the club’s neck that might prove difficult to dislodge, and in addition to this the secrecy surrounding the negotiations, which were led on the club’s behalf by advisor Kelvin Thomas, a former chairman of Oxford United who had been appointed by Thea Bristow to oversee the sale of the club, led to misgivings on the part of some supporters over whether the deal was actually even going to actually proceed or not.
In the second week of May, supporters with reservations over the deal got their answer when the deal collapsed. And with the Football Conference having tough rules over financial liquidity, a new set of fears opened themselves over what might happen to the club at the league’s AGM, an event which has, largely due to circumstances beyond the control of the league itself, taken on a sense of importance far beyond that which an administrative league meeting normally might. After all, it was only a year since the league had demanded a £250,000 bond from Salisbury City as a guarantee for the club to be able to complete its fixtures over the coming season. Their failure to do so – and to repay other debts due – led to expulsion from the Football Conference and the closure of the club.
At the end of May, it was confirmed that Bristow had sold her 80% shareholding in the club to its other directors for a nominal sum of £1, and that the race was now on to secure new ownership for the club. The Torquay United Supporters Trust expressed an interest, but fundraising from the baseline at which they started was always going to be a tall order, and at the end of May a consortium of ten local businessmen given seven-day exclusivity period to negotiate a deal to buy the club. They lodged a five figure bond with the Football Conference in order to underwrite the club’s participation at that level for the following season, and were confirmed as its new owners on the twelfth of June.
The new owners of the club seem to have been under no illusions about the scale of the cost-cutting required to keep the club financially solvent over the course of the coming season. The first casualty of the new, cost-cutting agenda at the club was its youth academy. This had previously been closed in 2004 before reopening in 2009, and there was more than a hint of regret in the club’s statement that, “We are extremely sorry for all the young boys who have been in the system and the dedication shown by these talented youngsters, and their families, has been outstanding at all times.” This decision didn’t come without criticism – Craig Easton, who’d worked for the academy, said that, “The financial situation isn’t great, but those kids coming through would have helped Torquay United in the future” – but the club might readily have responded by saying that it had more immediate pressing financial concerns to deal with than may be offset by the advantages of having its own youth academy.
The next casualties of the cost-cutting were manager Chris Hargreaves and coach Kenny Veysey, who were placed on gardening leave after failing to agree what would have needed to be a large pay cut in order to stay with at the club. A further club statement noted that, “In the end, the two sides were unable to agree on the right way forward, both in terms of their individual contracts and the financial constraints that will be placed on the playing side of the club next season,” and a new man was appointed in the form of Paul Cox, who had previously taken Mansfield Town back into the Football League two years ago. It’s an appointment that felt like an astute one, though budget cuts for the coming season are likely stifle any ambitions that Cox may have towards a promotion challenge for his team this season.
Still, though, further savings have to be made if the owners of Torquay United are to make this season if the club is to remain financially viable without the additional financial resources of the benefactor that Thea Bristow seemed to have become. It was with this in mind that Exeter City came up with their generous plan to offer assistance to their local rivals through waiving their rights to a split of gate receipts for their pre-season friendly at Plainmoor, last night. Exeter, who are owned by their supporters trust, considered themselves to be repaying a debt from more than a decade ago. In the summer of 2003, the trust had only just taken control of a club with debts of £4.5m when Torquay waived their rights to a share of gate receipts for a pre-season friendly. With Exeter now in a financially stable position, they were able to repay this gesture last night, with a statement from the club’s chairman saying that, “It is important for the people of Devon to support all our local sides because we are very much a football outpost here in the West Country and it is important to build bridges with local teams within our community.” The focus now turns to the Gulls themselves, to see whether that difficult balancing act of keeping up standards on the pitch while cutting costs can successfully be maintained.
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