A steady start to the 2012-13 campaign sees Torquay United lie mid-table in League Two after seven games, a return that is considerably more respectable considering the Gulls have taken in away fixtures at title favourites Rotherham United and Fleetwood Town, a local derby against Plymouth Argyle, and a clash against last year’s play-off finalists Cheltenham Town.
Twelve months ago such a start would have been seen as cause for optimism; Torquay’s unprecedented success in 2011-12 – during Martin Ling’s first season at the helm – has raised expectations, and keen to satisfy fans’ demands, Ling has set his sights on promotion. Where last season a play-off spot was seen as a huge achievement for a club that is typically among the smallest in the Football League in terms of both budget and support, Ling is aiming for a top-three finish “with the play-offs as the safety”.
Like last year, Torquay have lost only once in their opening seven league games (a 1-0 defeat at big-spending Rotherham), but the club are two points down on last season’s tally at this stage in the campaign. United won three of their first six games in 2011-12, but then embarked on a barren 9-game winless streak between 10 September and 22 October.
Supporters will hope Ling has learned sufficient lessons from his first season in charge to be able to avoid such runs this time around, and the early omens look good. Torquay exhibited both sides of their game in the first three fixtures: a steely defensive resolve earned a point at Fleetwood on the opening day; attacking prowess (if not the same defensive protection) were displayed in the first two home games – a 2-2 draw with Cheltenham and a 4-2 win over Rochdale.
When on their game, United remain tough to beat, with a competent, determined defensive unit which contains three veterans of last season’s campaign; the club are unlikely to receive too many hidings this season unless injuries ravage Ling’s back four. Though the four goals scored against Rochdale suggested an attacking verve – with exciting youthful arrogance in the form of skillful winger Billy Bodin and lightning-fast wideman Niall Thompson – supporters remain unconvinced that the side will score enough goals to earn promotion.
Despite finishing fifth in League Two last term, Torquay were the lowest scorers of the top nine teams in the division, and backup to lone striker Rene Howe remains sparse – particularly with the summer departure of last season’s fourth-top scorer Taiwo Atieno. Indeed, 1-0 wins look set to be a more common occurrence than large victories, and tellingly, despite 20 shots on goal during Tuesday’ s 1-0 victory at AFC Wimbledon, the winner came courtesy of home goalkeeper Seb Brown’s clearance that bounced off Howe and into the net when the striker’s back was turned.
United will hope to pick up at least four points from the next two home fixtures, against Burton Albion and Aldershot, because upcoming away games pit the Gulls against Chesterfield and Wycombe – both of whom were in League One last season. Much depends on whether Torquay can make it to Christmas without embarking on a losing run; if they can, a serious promotion challenge is possible if last season’s New Year form is repeated.