The Jaws of Victory: Netflix special tells the tale of Torquay's greatest escape
Background image: Paul Lord, CC by 2.0
Netflix is a veritable treasure trove of entertainment. There is something for everyone.
If a group of lovable gay men transforming the life of a hapless fashion victim floats your boat, Netflix has you covered. If crime dramas are your bag, you can easily watch a series a week for the rest of your life without becoming bored.
But what about people whose interests are more niche? For instance, those whose only real passion in life is the fortune of plucky non-league outfits in the South West of England? As usual, Netflix has you covered
The Jaws of Victory is the second episode in the Losers docuseries which tells the stories of failure endured by the sporting world's downtrodden.
Episode one featured Michael Bentt, a reluctant boxer forced into the ring through fear of his father, leading to a short pro career bookended by embarrassing defeats. The final episode of the series recalls Jean van de Velde the Frenchman who went to the 18th hole at the 1990 Open Championship knowing a double bogey six would secure him the title. He eventually lost in a playoff. But the most fascinating and heart-warming episode recalls Torquay United’s 1986/87 season.
The Gulls inhabited English football's fourth tier with a squad of hardworking players filled with boundless personality but running a bit empty on talent. Goalkeeper Kenny Allen, striker Paul Dobson and full-back Jim McNichol join their gaffer, Stuart Morgan, to tell the story. Bizarre events unfolded at Plainmoor in the campaign's final game against Crewe Alexandra.
Tension is always high before relegation deciders but especially so when going down means dropping out of the Football League. Relegation from the old Fourth Division usually signalled the loss of a club’s full-time status. Worst case scenarios can mean the club's eventual dissolution as occurred with Newport County in 1988 and Scarborough in 2007.
For a club as small as Torquay, a defeat in their final game that season would have been the beginning of the end.
The game began badly for the Gulls. Crewe took a 2-0 lead into half-time. Torquay appeared doomed but the second half turned into the most unlikely, bizarre great-escape in the history of the game although Jimmy Glass might have something to say about that.
The players came out for the second half. Following one or two crowd disturbances, the intervention of a police dog named Bryn and a last minute equaliser, Torquay managed to cling to their football league status on goal difference at Lincoln City's expense.
Sports reporter David Thomas characterised Jaws of Victory as told with "gusto, humour and a fair bit of sympathy." It's hard to disagree. The story-telling is enhanced by cartoon animations depicting the events. They add a degree of originality and light-heartedness to a story which, at the time, probably didn’t seem very funny to Torquay players, coaches and supporters.
Perhaps the only downside to the 24-minute episode is the simplicity in some of the narrative. Not everyone who pays Netflix's £7.99/month subscription fee is familiar with the term 'goal difference', nor the promotion/relegation rollercoaster that is English football. Consequently, certain aspects suffer significant dumbing-down. At times, the tone is similar to the one you would adopt when explaining cricket to Jennifer Lopez. There are more than a few diagrams to help the predominantly American audience get their heads around -ahem- soccer's nuances.
That aside, Torquay’s 1986/87 season is one that should resonate not only with football fans but anyone who enjoys the inherent drama of sport.
This season there will be no such relegation dog-fight. Torquay are more concerned with matters at the table's top end. After relegation last season, they are fighting for an immediate return to the National League, currently topping the National League South on goal difference.
Before the season began, fear existed that Torquay wouldn’t adapt well to playing regional football but following a run of seven managers in five years, the club finally found one a capable gaffer. Gary Johnson was appointed in September. Predecessor, Gary Owens found only three wins in nine starts.
In his 23 league games at the helm, Johnson’s side have won 17 and boast the best attack in the division.
Twenty goals from local lad Jamie Reid and a further 16 from 19-year-old Bristol City loanee Saikou Janneh contributed to Torquay’s change of fortunes. The risky decision to remain a full-time club after relegation appears vindicated.
That said, a surprising home defeat to bottom-table Weston-Super-Mare last time out allowed Woking to close the gap at the top with a draw. Nerves may well have set in at Plainmoor. Another lacklustre afternoon at Billericay on Saturday could see them knocked out of the single automatic promotion spot.
With ten games to go Johnson's men are well placed to return to the Football League's brink. Hopefully, none of Bryn's progeny will be required to bring it about.