Our own National League fight is over. We’ve been to our lowest point and somehow we’ve battled back from the brink and now have a solid foundation on which to build a successful future. 270 miles away on the English Riviera, things are very different indeed. Torquay United, a club not dissimilar from our own, are fighting a battle for their very existence.
On the pitch defeat against us left them looking dead and buried. I thought they were resilient and dogged, and were beaten as much by our momentum as anything. They didn’t look like relegation fodder, but with three games to go it was hard to see how anything other than three wins could save them. Braintree and North Ferriby might have presented good opportunities to bag some points, but Dover away?
On Saturday they did the unthinkable and beat Dover at Crabble. It was only the second time they’d won back-to-back games this season (ironically the first time was against Braintree and Dover). It left them with their destiny in their own hands, a scenario that looked incredibly unlikely just ten days earlier. A victory against relegated North Ferriby will seal their place in the National League next season. Whilst that may look like an almighty battle won, it is but a small victory in the ongoing war for the future of their football club.
Torquay had a brief spell in exile before we did, but with the financial backing of two lottery winning fans the club regained their Football League status. They invested in the ground too, and it seemed a bright future awaited. Unfortunately one of the fans, Paul Bristow, passed away in 2010. His wife Thea eventually sold the club to a group of well-meaning local businessmen for £1. The cracks began to appear quickly, and the consortium soon began to break up. The club had become too reliant on the steady flow of money from their rich patrons, and when that well ran dry the fragile business model was exposed. Relegation back to the fifth tier followed.
Current Barrow manager Paul Cox allegedly agreed to take over in 2015 for ‘expenses only’, but he left after just three months citing that he’d had no money at all. Current boss Kevin Nicholson took over, a rookie former left back with little to no managerial experience. They fought against the drop last season, escaping at the death. Since then the battle against the dreaded drop has been the number two priority. Number one priority? The same as ours was a couple of seasons ago; financial survival. Whereas we had the drive and determination of Bob Dorrian to keep us going, Torquay’s owners had to borrow heavily. Just before Christmas in 2016 they put their shares in the club up as collateral to borrow almost £150,000, and then finally they relinquished control to a businessman to avoid going into administration. That businessman is Clarke Osborne.
If you haven’t heard of Mr Osborne, he is the owner of a company called Gaming International. You may have heard their name linked with several controversial stadium deals in the past, from helping to ease Bristol Rovers to Twerton Park in Bath for a decade, to the closure of greyhound and speedway tracks across the south of the country. Far from being the benevolent and positive influence a football club needs in their hour of need, they hang over Plainmoor with a cape and scythe cackling manically as the club slips through its fans fingers. Osborne may have arrived at Torquay promising financial input in a bid to stave off relegation, but the transfer window came and went without a penny being handed to the beleaguered Nicholson.
Now fans are more than concerned for GI’s plans for their Plainmoor home. They have leased it from Torbay council for almost 100 years, and they deny he has made an official approach about buying it from them, but it’s widely reported there have been informal talks. Fans are understandably twitchy. It was reported in the Guardian that Osborne said the council want “to see a successful club and facilities, whether they are here [at Plainmoor] or elsewhere”. Given his track record of knocking things down and not replacing them, that sounds like the first bars of a funeral march for Plainmoor.
Torquay fans are now fighting as hard off the pitch as their players are on it. There is an online petition being raised, urging Torbay mayor Gordon Oliver not to sell the freehold on the ground. Their anger has been exasperated by the silence emanating from their so-called benefactor. Only today has he decided to reach out to the fans with his concerns, an ill-timed gesture given they are approaching the most important game in the clubs history. Speaking to the local paper he said:
“I am not ‘Genghis Khan’. I can absolutely understand that supporters may be concerned and even sceptical. After all, who am I in their eyes? I do understand the emotional attachment, the history and people’s connection with Plainmoor, but by no measure in today’s world can the stadium stand up in a position for a sustainable League football club. It can’t. It is going to take a while, but a new stadium is a cornerstone of the club’s future, not because it might look good, but for all the people who will come to it and create new revenues there. All I can do is reassure everyone again that the club will only move from Plainmoor after a new stadium is built.”
His words will fall on deaf ears though, with fans only having the company’s appalling track record to go on and nothing more. His may speak about not moving until a new ground is found, but try telling that to the greyhound enthusiasts of Bristol who didn’t get their new facilities, or the speedway fans of Reading suffering a similar fate. When words can’t be believed then past actions have to be used to gauge an idea of what the future holds, and should Torbay council sell the freehold to Plainmoor then the future of the club looks bleak, whether they beat North Ferriby on Saturday or not.
It isn’t the idea of leaving Plainmoor that is so disturbing for Torquay fans. The ground must have the smallest footprint of anywhere in the top five divisions of English football. There has been talk of a move out to Nightingale Park off the A380 for many years. It isn’t ideal, the ground is boggy and part marshland but it has been discussed. The fear is that those looking to orchestrate the move seem to have little or no interest or passion for the Gulls. This isn’t a lifelong fan taking the helm, steadying the relegation threatened ship and looking for calmer waters, it is a silent assassin sneaking in quietly and waiting for a club to die. Now they’ve shown signs of life he’s popped up in the local paper with his threadbare promises. I understand the fans fears.
I’m not a Torquay fan, but I am a football fan and I identify with those who are battling to save the club. Bob Dorrian took an awful lot of stick in his early years as chairman but one thing was never in doubt; his passion for Lincoln City Football Club. Now, as we achieve the success we’ve battled for, it is time to show solidarity to other clubs who have not been as fortunate to have owners who care. Gaming International must not be allowed to buy the freehold for Plainmoor when they’ve shown such little regard for the fate of the club. They must not be allowed to undermine the fans of the club who have stuck by them through thick and thin, and they must not be allowed to devalue the solid work a rookie manager has put in on limited funds whilst the owners give him the cold shoulder.
I implore all readers of the Stacey West to sign the petition and show solidarity to a football club just like our own. There, for the grace of god, go I. We’re all Imps, but on a wider stage we’re all lower league football fans and we need to make a stand against the greed and indifference throttling our grass roots game.