Torquay United manager Martin Ling had best make the most of his time off while he can – United’s supremo seems set to spend most of his summer break haggling with the various Championship and League One clubs rumoured to be interested in his biggest stars. Recent reports suggest two of United’s biggest assets, midfielder Eunan O’Kane and goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, are the subject of substantial bids from sides higher up the Football League pyramid.
Following a season of unprecedented success that saw the Gulls flirt with automatic promotion for much of the season before eventually falling away and being beaten by Cheltenham Town in the play-offs, Ling had made it clear that he expected bids for his top players, and he has been proved right in recent weeks.
Playmaker O’Kane, a youth international for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, arrived at Plainmoor in 2010 from Coleraine, following a spell in Liverpool playing for Everton’s youth team. He played an important role under Paul Buckle in 2010-11, showing glimpses of promise and maturity that defies his age – O’Kane is still only 21 and has already made over 120 appearances for Torquay.
As if his previous campaign hadn’t been successful enough, ultimately culminating in heartbreak in a play-off final loss to Stevenage at Old Trafford, O’Kane began the 2011-12 season in even better fashion. Sensational strikes, including a brilliant lob over Plymouth keeper Roman Larrieu from 35 yards in a tense November Devon derby, further endeared the Irishman to the Plainmoor faithful. Eunan’s scintillating form continued through much of the season, although burnout – having started every single one of United’s 46 league fixtures – arguably robbed him of a more significant contribution against Cheltenham in the play-offs.
Unsurprisingly, interest in O’Kane is reportedly not limited to the one club who have had a bid confirmed, League One new boys Crawley Town. A club disliked by many Torquay fans, thanks in no small part to antagonistic former manager Steve Evans, Crawley’s interest has sparked “Anyone but Crawley!” groans from the Yellow Army.
Crawley’s new manager – ex-Doncaster chief Sean O’Driscoll – is believed to have placed a bid of around £175,000 for O’Kane, triggering a release clause inserted in the player’s most recent contract that allows him to talk to other clubs.
Said Ling: “When Eunan signed a new contract both he and his agent requested a release clause to be included, which we were happy to insert because we wanted Eunan to stay…we also felt the release clause would ensure our value of Eunan would be met. Crawley Town have now fulfilled that criteria, allowing Eunan to discuss a deal with them next week.”
With other clubs, including Swindon Town, Rotherham and even Championship side Crystal Palace rumoured to be interested in Eunan, recently named in the League Two Team of the Year, some Torquay fans have understandably resigned themselves to losing their team’s brightest creative talent. However, Ling believes there is still hope of seeing O’Kane line-up in United’s first fixture of 2012-13, a Capital One Cup clash with Leicester City: “this doesn’t mean Eunan O’Kane is definitely going and [Crawley] are the only club to have met the criteria of the release clause at this moment in time”. Indeed, some supporters believe that the midfielder would be better advised to stay at Plainmoor for another year, cementing his reputation as one of the Football League’s best young talents, rather than spending 2012-13 sat on the bench of a League One or Championship club.
As if the speculation surrounding O’Kane was not worrying enough for United fans, Sky Sports reported on Wednesday that second-tier outfit Peterborough United have “had a bid accepted” for Torquay’s highly-rated shot-stopper Bobby Olejnik. The Vienna-born former Austria under-21 international only joined the Gulls last season, following spells with Aston Villa’s reserve team and Scottish side Falkirk.
Although the drop from Falkirk, one of Scotland’s biggest clubs outside the SPL, to fourth-division Torquay may have initially looked hard to justify, Olejnik’s use of a spell at Plainmoor to propel him up the Football League ladder has worked wonders for his career. A brilliant 2011-12 season that saw him smash United’s clean sheet record, feature in every league game and make the League Two Team of the Year.
Vital penalty saves, including against Crewe in a 1-1 draw late in the season, as well as countless impressive stops in open play, endeared Olejnik to Torquay fans, who will undoubtedly be sorry to see him go if the Austrian decides to accept Peterborough’s offer. However, there is some hope of the goalkeeper staying at Plainmoor for next season, with rumours that Peterborough chief Darren Ferguson has also placed a bid for Gillingham’s Argentinian custodian Paulo Gazzaniga. It seems unlikely that Sir Alex’s son would be willing to spend a sizeable chunk of his budget on two League Two goalkeepers, especially if one would only be a back-up.
Losing both players would certainly dent Torquay’s hopes of promotion in 2012-13, with many fans expressing doubts that Martin Ling would be able to find quality replacements before the transfer window slams shut. Similarly, the news that key centre-back Mark Ellis has yet to agree a deal for next season – with a move to Plymouth Argyle rumoured to be on his mind – will further raise concern amongst supporters.
It is a cruel but unavoidable consequence of an unexpectedly successful season, and United can only sit tight and hope that some of their key assets are still around come August. If not, the side could well struggle to reach the play-offs in 2012-13.
While simultaneously trying to avoid losing his star players, Ling has wasted no time in trimming United’s squad in his first full summer with the club. Recent departures include defenders Lathaniel Rowe-Turner and Ed Palmer, who have both been released, while midfielders Lloyd Macklin and Chris McPhee have been transfer-listed in a bid to secure more first-team football for the underused duo. Torquay have also signed ex-Everton winger Nathan Craig on a permanent deal, following a lengthy trial in 2011-12, while Kenyan international Taiwo Atieno leaves Plainmoor having failed to survive Ling’s post-season cull.
Images: O’Kane – TorquayUnited.com; Olejnik – ThisIsSouthDevon.co.uk.