Torquay United defender Mark Ellis has today joined League One new-boys Crewe Alexandra for a rumoured £80,000, following several weeks of supposed interest from The Railwaymen.
Ellis, who first joined United in 2007 on loan from then-Premier League side Bolton Wanderers, had racked up almost 100 league appearances for the Gulls in a stay that saw him alternately in and out of the club’s starting XI. Still only 23, Ellis had made his debut for Torquay in September 2007 in the rough-and-tumble of a Conference fixture at the tender age of 17.
After signing for the Gulls permanently in 2008, Ellis initially often found himself left on the bench at the expense of older, more experienced defenders, and was sent on loan to Forest Green Rovers in 2009. However, his superb aerial ability – a valuable asset in League Two – and solid, no-nonsense tackling meant that Mark was able to reach a half-century of league appearances for Torquay by the 2009-10 season, at an age when young players at other clubs were still waiting for their first run in the team.
Despite playing regularly in Torquay’s 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns, the acquisition of centre-back Brian Saah, who had previously played under new United manager Martin Ling at both Cambridge and Leyton Orient, meant that Ellis was once again demoted to the bench at the start of last season. Indeed, it was only the sale of first-choice centre-back Chris Robertson to Preston North End in January that allowed Ellis to become a regular under Ling and form a formidable partnership with Saah that helped Torquay to their highest-ever clean sheet tally.
However, ambitions to test himself elsewhere remained, and the fact that Ellis stalled for so long over a new deal first discussed in February showed that his loyalty to Torquay was not all-encompassing. The identity of the clubs interested in Ellis remained unknown, but the fact that United had had to turn down a bid for the Kingsbridge-born defender in January 2011 proved that his impact had been noticed.
Newly-promoted Crewe Alexandra have plenty of money to spend following the sale of young forward Nick Powell – who scored against Ellis’ Torquay in April – to Manchester United for a £1 million-plus fee, and manager Steve Davis made Ellis the first major signing of the club’s summer recruitment process.
Reportedly interested in moving back up north after getting married, Ellis had been more interested in joining Crewe than staying at United: a Torquay club statement claimed that the defender had turned down “a terrific new deal” in favour of “League One football and a fresh challenge”. According to Ling: “I don’t think there was a big difference in the wages offered by the two clubs but Mark sees Crewe as a progressive club in the league above us…it became clear in the end that Mark preferred the Crewe option to staying [with Torquay]“.
The Gresty Road side are also planning a bid for Swindon forward Billy Bodin – who enjoyed loan spells with both Crewe and Torquay last season – representing a further blow for Ling’s transfer dealings: the ex-Cambridge boss was known to have been keen to get the Welsh under-21 international back to Plainmoor on a permanent basis.
That said, Ling will be able to use the £300,000 gained from the sale of goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik to Peterborough last week, as well as the rumoured £80,000 Crewe shelled out for Ellis’ services, to boost his small United squad. Ling has already drafted in midfielders Craig Easton and Nathan Craig, as well as forward Ryan Jarvis, for minimal outlay.
Having already stated the need to sign at least one more centre-back before Ellis’ departure, Ling today said: “I’ve been tracking three or four centre-halves for a while and we are hoping to make an announcement later today. Eventually, the right club and offer came in for Mark, but we have obviously been planning for this outcome.”
That will come as welcome news to United fans, who also await an official announcement on Olejnik’s replacement in the goalkeeping department – internet rumours claim custodians ranging from ex-Gull Michael Poke to former England no.1 David James are on the verge of signing on the dotted line at Plainmoor.
Similarly, supporters will be praying Torquay can keep hold of talented midfielder Eunan O’Kane – the subject of a £150,000 bid from Crawley Town. Should United lose all three of their interest-attracting assets, Ling will have his work cut out to ensure United are able to reach the play-offs for the third season running in 2012-13.