England’s fourth tier is a league infamous for its wheeling and dealing during the close season, and Torquay United fit this image perfectly. Manager Martin Ling has taken advantage of the summer transfer window to fully stamp his authority on a squad he inherited from Paul Buckle in June last year by completing a number of deals, although it is those heading through the exit door at Plainmoor that have attracted the most interest.
Having helped Torquay to defy the odds and reach the play-offs in 2011-12 in his first season at the club, Austrian goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik inevitably attracted interest from bigger sides after being named to the League Two Team of the Year. Less than a month after the end of the campaign he was linked with a host of Championship and League One clubs, and on 18 June he joined second-tier side Peterborough United for £300,000 – Torquay’s fourth-highest fee received in their 113-year history, and a great deal for the Gulls considering they had signed Olejnik for free in July 2011.
Ling was still searching for a new first-choice goalkeeper (backup custodian Martin Rice has never played in a Football League match) when United’s defensive unit was struck another cruel blow. On 27 June, just over a week after Olejnik’s departure, centre-back Mark Ellis joined Crewe for £80,000 after revealing his desire to play in League One. Having released youngster Ed Palmer, and lost senior centre-half Chris Robertson to Preston North End in January, Torquay were left with just two central defenders – Ling’s former captain at Cambridge Brian Saah, and teenage first-year pro Kirtys MacKenzie.
With Ling having further trimmed his squad by releasing forward Taiwo Atieno and left-back Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, new recruits were both necessary and inevitable, and duly arrived soon afterwards. Former Premier League forward Ryan Jarvis, who had spent the second half of 2011-12 on loan at Plainmoor, joined permanently on a free transfer from Walsall, while ex-Everton trainee Nathan Craig traded a four-month trial for a two-year contract after impressing for Torquay’s reserves.
Before June was out United had replaced Olejnik with the club’s former goalkeeper Michael Poke, who was between the sticks when the Gulls won promotion from the Conference in 2008-09. Ex-Arsenal defender Tom Cruise also signed on the dotted line on Plainmoor, bringing with him an impressive CV that includes a Champions League appearance against Olympiacos and trials at Sampdoria and the New England Revolution.
A further deal were concluded to bring in former Southend captain Craig Easton, who had also been on trial at Torquay in 2011-12, before Ling announced a signing that shocked and delighted the club’s fans in equal measure. Welsh under-21 international Billy Bodin had spent the first half of the season on loan at United, scoring 5 goals in 17 league outings and impressing Torquay’s coaching staff so much that the club made several attempts to sign the winger permanently in January – all of which were refuted by his parent club Swindon.
With a huge difference in valuations seeming to be the problem, both Ling and Torquay fans almost gave up on the deal going through. Thankfully for the Gulls, however, Swindon boss Paolo di Canio publicly suggested “it’s better if [Bodin] leaves” at the end of the 2011-12 season in order to earn more playing time, opening the door once more for a move to Plainmoor. Ling duly obliged and reinvested some of the Olejnik/Ellis cash, offering £70,000 – just shy of Torquay’s club record outlay. The deal was finally completed in early July, adding extra pace and youthful arrogance to the side’s attacking line-up.
All that remained was to replace Ellis, with, as Ling promised, a centre-back with “experience and at least 100 games of professional football under his belt”. Though the transfer took longer than expected, with United missing out on Oxford-bound defender Michael Raynes, new signing Aaron Downes was finally unveiled earlier this week. The former Chesterfield stopper joins after multiple injuries marred his stay at The Spireites, but Ling is confident that the Aussie’s worst is behind him. Should that prove to be the case, Torquay’s watertight backline could be even more stubborn next campaign, but if Downes limps out of a match early in the season, expect United to struggle.
As United breezed to a 2-0 win over Tiverton on Tuesday, the squad looked complete – Bodin, Poke, Craig, Downes, Jarvis and Easton all featured, and there were no obvious deficiencies in a side that looked solid in all areas. There was just one problem, however: playmaker Eunan O’Kane was ominously missing from the Torquay teamsheet, and it was later confirmed that League One side Bournemouth had lodged a £175,000 bid that was later accepted.
O’Kane had rejected a move to Crawley Town of the same division weeks earlier, but was tempted by Bournemouth’s passing football philosophy and long-term prospects and decided the time was right to leave Devon after two years at Plainmoor. With Ling preferring to bring in the majority of his new faces for nominal fees – saving the considerable cash accumulated from high-profile sales for the January transfer window – the former Cambridge chief has stressed that O’Kane’s replacement lies within the club’s current squad.
Ling has highlighted wingers Craig and Bodin, as well as last season’s first-choice left wideman Ian Morris, as possible substitutes for O’Kane’s central attacking role that was crucial to Torquay’s creativity last term. Whether any of the trio can fill the Irishman’s boots remains to be seen, but given that Welsh pair Craig and Bodin are both just 20 years old, and Morris has previously been criticized for a lack of guile and penetrative passing, Torquay will do well to emulate last season’s success without their creator-in-chief.
Although the Gulls may struggle to improve upon the fifth-place finish posted in 2011-12, Ling’s men will be out to prove the pundits wrong once more next season, and another play-off place is achievable if Torquay’s squad remains injury-free. Although commonly perceived as one of the Football League’s smallest clubs, the Gulls have reached the play-offs in four of their last five league campaigns. Promotion to League One has eluded United since a one-season stay in the division in 2004-05, and Ling’s Torquay look as likely as any of the club’s previous sides to reach the promised land of England’s third tier.
The only concern for most fans is the lack of striking options should last season’s top scorer Rene Howe succumb to injury, with Ryan Jarvis the only senior centre-forward in a youthful attacking line-up that also includes promising wingers Lloyd Macklin and Niall Thompson – both of whom boast pace capable of tearing apart even the most organised defence, as Championship side Leeds United found out in a friendly on Friday night.
Even if promotion cannot be achieved in 2012-13, the league season should still be a memorable one for Torquay fans: local derbies against Exeter City, Plymouth Argyle and Bristol Rovers are sure to stir up great atmospheres and crowds of over 4,000 to take in Plainmoor’s new stand, Bristow’s Bench, in its inaugural campaign.