Big changes are needed for relegated Torquay United
Relegation from the National League has been three years in the making for Torquay United and their fate was finally sealed at the end of April.
Their failure to beat Hartlepool at Victoria Park, coupled with Barrow’s point at Aldershot, rubber stamped a destiny that had seemed inevitable for a long time.
Previous to this season Torquay had successfully fought off the spectre of relegation in two consecutive campaigns, surviving with a slender three-point cushion on both occasions.
This season, however, during which Plainmoor has borne witness to only five home wins, United failed to crawl clear of the trap door.
They will be playing regional football next year for the first time since 1958.
Not too long ago it was a different story for the club, one of hope and expectation. During both 2011 and 2012, in League Two, they had reached the coveted play-offs.
In 2011 they were beaten in the final by Stevenage and the following year they lost out to Cheltenham in the semi-final.
Despite having been so close to making it back to League One after their relegation in 2005, Torquay found themselves in the National League (then the Conference) in 2015.
The autopsy into United’s failings over recent years is ongoing. Seven managers since 2013 indicate unrest within the club. A lack of continuity in the dugout saw performances on the pitch suffer.
Torquay's match at Plainmoor last Tuesday was indicative of their season. Guiseley are bottom of the league and were 11 points adrift of the Gulls before the game. But the away side ran out the 4-3 winners, despite being reduced to ten men after only three minutes.
Robin Causley, Torquay United Supporter’s Trust (TUST) Vice Chairman, was one of many fans that had prepared themselves for the drop some time ago.
"It has been inevitable for a number of weeks, it is hard when it finally happens, undoubtedly. I think the reality of it starts to sink in and you look at some of the names of clubs we’re going to be playing next season and the fact that we’re no longer going to be in a national league but in a regional one and it’s pretty hard to take," he said.
Recently questions have been raised over the club’s Chairman, Clarke Osborne. Many fans are angry about the way Torquay is being run and are pointing accusatory fingers in Osborne’s direction.
Causley said: "People are looking around for scapegoats and will look at the owners of the club and say mainly that the priorities are wrong."
"We continue to talk about new stadia when it’s actually on the field where things have gone drastically wrong. You do question the priorities."
When Osborne took over he effectively saved the club from administration. His main aim from the beginning of his tenure has been to move Torquay to a new stadium in order to make the club more sustainable.
As yet, nothing has materialised and things on the pitch have gone from bad to worse.
"It has seemed since we were taken over that that was the main priority and you get fed up of hearing it. You want to hear about the plans for the club, improving on the field, improving the infrastructure of the club" Causley said.
Torquay is a beautiful part of the world, a place that, for many years, fans from all over the country have enjoyed going to watch football. But geography poses its own difficulties, especially in terms of attracting players.
Causley thinks that, instead of talking about a new stadium, more should be done in terms of investing in youth.
"One way of becoming sustainable, as Exeter City have shown, is investing heavily in the youth team so that youth players can be sold on. Exeter are a community run club and that’s been their saviour."
"If you’ve got an established, experienced player living up north in the Midlands he’s not going to uproot his family for a one-year contract. It is difficult, it always has been but it’s getting even more difficult. I think players would think twice about moving all the way down here."
The last few years have been incredibly difficult for Torquay United and its loyal following. The future is as uncertain as the past has been miserable.
Causley added: ‘"It has been pretty diabolical most of the time. Our performances at home have been very poor each year and we have struggled to impose ourselves on teams. The fact we have managed to hold on to 1800 (fans) is remarkable really."
"We have been beaten by so-called smaller teams with lesser budgets than ours. When you go through three or four seasons as we have you begin to wonder whether we’ll get back to winning matches."
His despair is shared by Louis Higgins who runs the fan’s forum ‘TorquayFans.com’.
"I've been a fan since I was five, been to see Torquay play at Wembley and Old Trafford three times. To now see us dropping down to regional football is depressing".
Higgins also agrees that things off the pitch have affected performances and has called on Osborne to readdress his priorities.
Like many Torquay United fans, he is critical of the Chairman who has a dubious track record.
"I think we need to stop thinking about stadia and go back to basics, sort out the squad and prove to the fans that as an owner he cares; maybe show up to game or two".
"I fall into the sceptical fans group, I'm happy we avoided administration, but I think we have fallen into the wrong hands. Our ownership and off the field antics have been the biggest factor, sadly. We have an owner that won’t communicate any details other than plans to build a new stadium and increase revenue streams."
The lack of movement on the plan for Osborne’s new stadium should not surprise anyone. In 2000 he was behind the plan to build a 30,000 seater stadium for both Bristol clubs but this failed to materialise. Rovers were subsequently forced out of their Eastville home, which, after a brief stint as a greyhound track, became an IKEA.
The curious case of the South West’s missing stadia has another chapter in Swindon where the Abbey Stadium, home to the town’s Speedway team, has been awaiting redevelopment by Osborne’s company, Gaming International since planning permission was first applied for back in 2007.
Sadly, for the fans that would rather see him leave, Osborne will be around for a while longer yet.
During an interview with Radio Devon two days before Torquay’s relegation, Osborne attempted to put fans at ease by reiterating his desire to make the club sustainable and said that he would remain for another five years.
He went on to say: "When it gets to that position (sustainability) I think what will happen is that a number of sugar daddies will probably emerge and will want to take the club further and further, that's my hope."
It is clear that for the club to become attractive to any so-called football sugar daddies out there that things need to change and change quickly.
Osborne has said that Torquay will remain a full-time club next season – something that in itself may not be sustainable - in the hopes of making an immediate return to the National League but, as Robin Causley has stated, it will be far from straightforward.
"I think it’s going to be a bit of a reality check for the club when we go to some of these places. Playing in front of pretty small crowds without the pitches and the facilities is going to be a bit of an eye-opener. It will be interesting that’s for sure."
"I can’t say I’m looking forward to the sort of places we’re going to have to go to but that’s the reality of it and we’re going to have to make sure that we turn the situation around and hopefully we can, it’s not going to be easy by any means".
It’s a sad time for a club which is widely liked and, whilst many fans are rightly unhappy at the moment, the club will need the fans behind it if it is to regain its place in the National League and take a long-overdue step in the right direction.