Torquay United: Death On The Riviera
So far this year, the majority of the headlines made towards the foot of the National League have been made by the crisis-torn Hartlepool United, but there is another former Football League club that has also been having an extremely difficult time of things of late, and which now seems to be sliding almost imperceptibly towards the wilds of regionalised non-league football. The last five years have not been an especially happy time to be a Torquay United supporter. The team has failed to finish in the top half of the table in either of the two divisions in which it has competed since a fifth-placed finish in League Two at the end of the 2011/12 season, a season which also marked the club’s last win at any stage of the FA Cup. Relegation from the Football League for a second time – the club was promoted back after two seasons away via the play-offs in 2009 – was achieved at the end of the 2013/14 season, and unlike the last time there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable prospect of a return, this time around.
On Saturday afternoon, just over 1,500 people saw the Gulls get thrashed by four goals to nil at home by Bromley in the National League. It was an eighth successive league match without a win for a team that hasn’t picked up three points since defeating Leyton Orient at Plainmoor on the last Saturday of November, and a result that left the club hopelessly adrift at the bottom of the table with just twenty points from thirty matches, eleven points from fifth from bottom Barrow with just sixteen league matches of the season left to play.
To put a little perspective on how bad the situation on the pitch at Torquay is, the team would need four straight wins to put itself back in touch with those just above the relegation places. Torquay United have, at the time of writing, managed just four league wins from the thirty matches they’ve played in the league so far this season. Supporters might not yet be giving up the ghost – this is a club with a lengthy history of “great escapes”, including three straight wins at the tail end of last season to ensure another season of National League football at Plainmoor this time around – but there’s little happening on the pitch at Torquay at present which suggests that this season will see the change of form or fortune required to avoid the drop this time around.
This period of flux on the pitch has been matched by turbulence in the boardroom. Early in 2015, chairwoman Thea Bristow announced that the club was up for sale. After Bristow resigned in March of that year, she agreed transfer of her 80% stake in the club for £1 subject to sale of to new locally based owners. Ownership of the club eventually moved to a new consortium made up of ten local business people in June 2015, but this group, led by Dave Phillips, in turn sold up to the Swindon-based gaming and leisure company Gaming international at the end of 2016, with the deal finally becoming ratified by the National League in March of last year. Since then, the board of directors of the club has now been whittled down to one person, Clarke Osborne, a man with no previous experience of running a football club, let alone one in the condition in which Torquay United finds itself at present, and supporters are now seriously questioning his motives for being involved in the club in the first place. Meanwhile, the mini-run of wins that kept the club up at the end of last season has turned out to be a blip rather than anything more substantial.
As ever at this level of the game, it’s impossible to completely separate the chaos occurring weekly on the pitch from that which may be found in the company’s accounts. The last set of published accounts for The Torquay United Association Football Club Ltd (for the year to the end of June 2016) showed the club to be just over £2.1m in debt, and it’s unlikely that this amount will have reduced in the intervening period. So, what brings Clarke Osborne to Plainmoor in the first place? Why would the owner of a company with no previous involvement in the game have decided to pitch up at Torquay United, a club in dire need of significantly careful handling at present?
The answer to this, as with so many matters relating to the management of smaller football clubs these days, may have little do to with football. Gaming International may be a relatively unfamiliar name to most football supporters, but it may start to sound a little more familiar to us under one of its former names, Bristol Stadium PLC. As the owners of Eastville Stadium, the former of Bristol Rovers, Bristol Stadium PLC pushed up the rent for Rovers to use their home to a point at which, in 1986, the club was no left with no option but to leave the ground which had been its home since 1899. The club would end up spending a decade in exile at Bath City’s Twerton Park before returning to the city at The Memorial Ground in 1996. Eastville hung on as a greyhound stadium until being demolished in 1998, with the land later being used to build a branch of Ikea. The Chief Executive of Bristol Stadiums PLC when the Eastville site was sold to Ikea was… one Clarke Osborne.
And all of this is only scratching the surface of the company’s frequent habit of dipping its fingers into pies related to the development or redevelopment of sports stadia. Many in the greyhound racing community have forthright opinions on the involvement of Bristol Stadiums/Gaming International in their sport, and supporters of the late Hereford United might also remember loans made by the company during the late 1990s as part of an aborted attempt to get that club moved to a new ground. With discontent growing on the terraces and in the stands, the club did release a public statement at the end of last week. This, however, has done little to alleviate the worst fears of the club’s supporters, who may well have noted the emphasis placed on the apparent importance of building a new ground:
I am convinced that a new purpose built multi event stadium and academy, with supporting leisure activities, good road and rail communication and acres of car parking will provide the facilities and finance for sustained success and bring considerable inward investment and spend to Torbay. The Mayor and the Council are aligned in this vision and are both supportive and encouraging. So the ingredients are there, we just need to accelerate the pace and build momentum and support towards these major leisure developments.
What Osborne doesn’t explain in this statement is how, exactly, Torquay United as a football club and how the club’s supporters will benefit themselves from “a new purpose built multi event stadium and academy, with supporting leisure activities, good road and rail communication and acres of car parking.” We all know already how Clarke Osborne and Gaming International Ltd would benefit from it. It’s possible to even extrapolate this to how Torbay Council might benefit from association with a shiny new sports facility. What’s more difficult to imagine, however, is Torquay United directly benefiting from all of this as anything other than a by-product of the enrichment of others, and how the supporters might significantly benefit to the extent that the owners might from such a move.
To actually revive the fortunes of Torquay United as a football club may well require considerably more patience and care than any single person can manage alone. As supporters of York City and – particularly – Stockport County will be able to attest, with only two promotion places on offer in twenty-four team divisions relegation into the National League’s two regional divisions can make for no “easier” a time than relegation from the Football League. The first priority for the club, if it not to significantly increase the likelihood of sliding into the morass of non-league football clubs, has to be to throw the kitchen sink at avoiding relegation this time around. It’s true to say that Torquay United have had their fair share of “great escapes” before, but hoping that fate will somehow positively intervene again doesn’t seem like a terribly wise bet for the medium term health of your club.
Whether this can or cannot be managed, the other significant priority for Torquay United has to be to breathe some life back into a club that has felt increasingly moribund over the last few seasons. Injecting this spark of life into a football club isn’t easy, and it seldom comes from anything mundane as freshly-designed posters of any of the other ephemera that clubs frequently try in order to push a handful more people through the turnstiles of a Saturday afternoon. Stop talking about “investment”, “leisure activities” and “new purpose built multi event stadia”, and start communicating in a language that supporters completely understand and will feel enthused by. Make Plainmoor somewhere that more people want to visit. This may sound like absurd advice to give, considering the state of the team’s performances on the pitch in recent weeks, but Torquay United is at the cusp of what is starting to feel like a fight for its very existence. Acting like a football club rather than a vehicle for property development would be something approaching a start, at least.