Torquay United yesterday evening completed a double swoop that sees two new faces join the club in a bid to replace players sold in recent weeks. Defender Tom Cruise (no, not that one!) and goalkeeper Michael Poke have agreed deals at Plainmoor ahead of the 2012-13 season, as United boss Martin Ling aims to rebuild his squad.
Following the departure of Austrian goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik to Championship side Peterborough United last week for £300,000, coupled with centre-back Mark Ellis joining Crewe Alexandra in a deal thought to be worth £80,000, Torquay have swooped to sign replacements for the defensively crucial pair, who helped the club to its highest-ever clean sheet tally last season.
Ex-Arsenal reserve Cruise joins Torquay as a highly-rated young defender, despite having just three Football League appearances – attained during a loan spell with Carlisle in 2010-11 – to his name. Able to play as a central defender, left-back and left midfielder, Cruise’s versatility means he can provide valuable cover in a number of positions in Ling’s new-look squad.
A member of the Gunners’ FA Youth Cup-winning team in 2008-09, Tom also boasts Champions League experience, having played the full 90 minutes of Arsenal’s group-stage clash with Greek giants Olympiacos in December 2009. Despite this, Cruise was released in June 2011 at the age of 20, but the youngster has refused to let the setback affect him, enjoying trials with Italian side Sampdoria and American outfit New England Revolution last season.
Although neither of these temporary spells worked out, Cruise’s experience of football in several countries, as well as 6 England under-19 caps, stands him in good stead for a career in the English lower-leagues. Like Bobby Olejnik before him, Cruise may well have joined Torquay in a bid to kick-start a rise up the Football League ladder – as Ling admits “my job as a manager is to buy low, sell for a profit and then fetch in low again.”
That said, Tom’s youth means he is likely to begin the season as United’s third-choice centre-back, as Ling says: I see Cruise and young Kirtys MacKenzie as my numbers three and four at centre-back, so we need another first choice defender to play alongside Brian Saah”. Instead, Cruise is more directly a replacement of versatile defender Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, who was released at the end of the 2011-12 campaign after a season of providing cover for left-back Kevin Nicholson and centre-backs Ellis and Saah.
Goalkeeper Poke, who enjoyed three successful loan spells at Torquay between 2008 and 2010, joins the Gulls on a permanent basis following his release from Brighton & Hove Albion in April. Since beginning his professional career with Southampton in 2004, Poke has failed to hold down the no.1 jersey on a regular basis at either of his two previous permanent clubs, resulting in an incredible seven loan spells in as many years.
The fact that, at the age of 26, Poke has made 60 appearances in the Football League suggests that he is happy to be settling down at a club where he is expected to be first choice ahead of last season’s back-up goalkeeper Martin Rice.
Fondly remembered for an incredible, crucial save in Torquay’s 2008-09 Conference play-off semi-final second-leg against Histon, as well as being between the United sticks as they won promotion against Cambridge at Wembley, Poke’s return to Plainmoor seemed to please most Gulls fans – as one fan wrote on a Torquay forum, “Genuinely delighted with this [signing]! Thought Pokey was terrific before and good to have him back.”
Manager Ling admits Michael’s previous loan stints at Plainmoor played a large part in yesterday’s signing: “I’ve watched Michael play a few times, although Torquay fans will probably know him better than I do. When I mentioned Michael Poke’s name in a board meeting, it certainly caught their attention and we know he is a quality goalkeeper from his last time here…he is an ideal replacement for Bobby Olejnik.”
The former Leyton Orient boss also revealed that an attempt to sign Poke in 2011, soon after taking over the reigns at Plainmoor, was only foiled by then-parent club Brighton’s refusal to let him leave: “I tried to sign him last summer and it never came off because Brighton didn’t want Michael to leave…[he] will work well in the goalkeeping unit with Kenny [Veysey (goalkeeping coach)] and Martin Rice.”
Poke’s experience, albeit limited in playing time, encompasses spells at several League One, League Two and Conference clubs – the Surrey-born shot-stopper knows what it takes to be successful in the English lower leagues. Known as a vocal, able goalkeeper, Poke’s only real weakness is his kicking, which has previously been criticised for the custodian’s lack of distance.
With Ling promising the signing of a first-choice defender “with experience and at least 100 games of professional football under his belt”, Torquay fans will be hoping Poke can establish a formidable partnership with the new centre-back who will partner last season’s stalwart Brian Saah before the start of the new season.
The arrivals of Cruise and Poke on free transfers – combined with the signings of fellow free agents Ryan Jarvis, Craig Easton and Nathan Craig – means that Ling is yet to leave a dent in the transfer fund boosted by the sales of Olejnik and Ellis, fuelling rumours that a substantial bid for former Torquay loanee Billy Bodin is on the cards.