There are times, such as the ongoing transfer sagas of Torquay playmaker Eunan O’Kane and defender Mark Ellis, when even the club’s most loyal followers are left in the dark as to what is happening. Spare a thought, then, for Dubai-based Gulls fan Sam Jones, who lives over 4,500 miles away from his beloved Plainmoor.
Thankfully for Sam, the modern football fan can easily keep track of most ongoings through internet and television coverage – although, as the man himself explains, that’s not always the case. Following matches, particularly League Two games, via internet updates is a perilous position for any football fan, prone to internet crashes and slow connections. Equally, the lack of League Two media coverage in England, let alone the United Arab Emirates, can sometimes make it hard to keep up-to-date with proceedings.
It’s a credit to Sam, then, that he continues to follow Torquay through thick and thin, in a country where League Two football is not only ignored, but often laughed at! The locals’ favourite clubs – Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid – may be more glamorous and successful, but as Sam will explain, once a bond has been forged with a club, it is not easily broken.
I caught up with the Welshman to quiz him on taking the “fan from afar” concept to a new level, impressive air miles and cherished Torquay moments.
What made you support Torquay in the first place; what was the first Torquay game you attended; and how long have you been supporting them?
My parents bought a house in Torquay in 2005 so I have been supporting them since then. We thought we should support the local team, so the first time we were there we went down to a match – it was Christmas 2005 and Torquay drew 2-2 with Wycombe Wanderers. It was the season before Torquay went down and I have followed them keenly ever since.
Morike Sako celebrates during Sam’s first ever Torquay game, against Wycombe in 2005
Why did you move to Dubai, and how difficult is it to keep up-to-date with Torquay’s results and transfers from over 4,000 miles away?
I moved to Dubai in 2009 from Norway because of my Dad’s work as he is in the oil business, and stayed there because of schooling. Keeping up-to-date is not as difficult as people think, especially with the internet and sites such as the BBC or Sky Sports. They have the rolling updates so we can keep up with the latest scores. Transfers are harder because [Torquay] are a smaller club and obviously the Premier League transfers appear first on these sites, but fortunately the Torquay United website is up-to-date. The worst problems are when the updates are slow in tight games – for example, during the game against Crewe at the end of the season, we lost internet connection! Imagine how we felt when we saw they had equalized in the last minute!
How many Torquay games do you attend each season, and which was the most recent match you attended?
I try to attend as many as I can. Often it is only the friendlies due to the time we’re back in the UK, but last year I got to see a couple of league games at the beginning of the season. I saw the 2-2 draw with Burton and the 3-1 loss to Crawley at home. Little did I guess that we would have made the play-offs after seeing those matches. Next year I’m going to university in Cardiff so hopefully I’ll get to watch more as I’ll be back in the UK and not that far from Torquay.
It must be strange to watch a completely different set of Torquay players on each of your visits to Plainmoor. Does that make it harder to feel attached to the club?
Unfortunately, that is the curse of the lower-league clubs – the turnover is massive. Yet, this has not made me feel less attached to them. When I first started supporting, the team consisted of players such as Kevin Hill, Morike Sako and Tony Bedeau among others. None of that generation is still at the club [all three had left by 2008], but in recent years more players have stayed on for longer. Ever since Torquay went down [in 2006-07] the core of the team has been the same with players such as Lee Mansell, Kevin Nicholson and Danny Stevens, which of course makes it easier to feel attached to. Also, having [former manager Paul] Buckle for a number of years helped as well, but at the end of the day it is the club that I support, not the individual players.
Play-off final misery in 2011: “so much work goes to waste”
What is your favourite match and most memorable moment from your time supporting Torquay? And your least favourite?
My favourite match has to be Boxing Day 2008 when I went to the West Country Derby. Torquay beat Exeter 1-0 through a Tim Sills goal and he celebrated right in front of the Family Stand! It was an incredible experience as it was my first game in over year and I had never seen Plainmoor so full.
My favourite moment has to be promotion back to the League [in 2008-09] – a bit cliche, but true! My worst memory has to have been losing out on promotion last year. Despite the fact we were relegated in 2007, that was almost inevitable, yet losing the play-off final in 2011 was the worst as so much work goes to waste, and it was on Dubai TV!
Are there any other Torquay fans or supporters of other League Two clubs in Dubai?
I’m sure there are! There are so many British expats here [an estimated 240,000 in 2012] that there has to be supporters of League Two clubs. I’ve met a couple of Swindon fans, Gillingham fans and supporters of other clubs but have not found any fellow Gulls! I am actually about to start a club called Dubai Gulls to act as the official UAE fan group for TUFC and we’re going to sponsor a couple of the youth players to help the club.
How do people in Dubai react when you tell them you support Torquay? Have Emirati people heard of the club or the town?
I have only met a couple of Emiratis but when I tell them about Torquay they tend to ask who they are! Then when I say they’re in the fourth division, they start laughing and say “you should support Real Madrid or Barcelona”! Most people haven’t even heard of the town or club – that’s Western expats as well! A lot of the football-loving Brits do know about the club and the town so it is well known in the British expat communities.
Plainmoor: better than Camp Nou
Which club is the most supported by the people of Dubai, and how big is support for the game in the United Arab Emirates?
Football is massive in the UAE but the biggest game by a mile is cricket as there are loads of Indian and Pakistani workers. Amongst the Emirati population football is the main sport but most tend to support foreign clubs such as Real and Barca. The support for local clubs is not great as the stadiums are rarely even half full, but it is improving. There is a lot of money in the game though, with big names such as Fabio Cannavaro, David O’Leary, David Trezeguet and most notably Diego Maradona, having roles at clubs either in the form of playing or as a manager. The Pro League is very competitive but the standard of football is not great, with the most recent champions being Al-Ahli, who are also the most successful. The biggest club in Dubai is Al-Wasl as Maradona is their manager.
Have you attended any UAE Premier League games during your stay in Dubai?
I have not, for two main reasons. First, it has a reputation that if you’re not Emirati, you’re not welcome. Second, I have no idea where the stadiums are! All the information about games is in Arabic and I don’t speak a word of it! I watch it on the TV sometimes when it’s on, but that’s rare.
Finally, do you consider yourself to be Torquay’s most loyal foreign-based fan? Surely the amount of miles you have to travel to be at a Torquay game makes you one of the club’s most devoted followers?
Well, I would like to think that I am one of them. I do my best to keep track of news, scores and transfers and whenever I am back in the UK we watch a game, be it a friendly or league match. I would fly back more and watch them, as the highlight of my trips back to the UK are my visits to Plainmoor and the matches I attend. I am sure that somewhere in the world there are Torquay fans that fly back for the matches, but with the resources I have, I can consider myself one of Torquay’s most devoted.
Photos: Torquay 2-2 Wycombe, 2005 – www.wycombewanderers.co.uk; Eunan O’Kane – http://backpagefootball.com