As Paul Buckle beckoned his staff and squad pitchside in the dying few seconds of the Conference playoff final, you could forgive the Torquay United manager for wanting to make the most of the day. This was the third time in as many years Buckle had stood on the touchline at Wembley but until this year he’d never tasted victory at the home of English football.
Two seasons ago, when the tough-tackling midfielder hung up his boots and moved down the A38 from Exeter to Plainmoor, he inherited a husk of a club that had been tossed from owner to owner and was devoid of confidence, not to mention players. Relegation from the league saw so many players up and leave the Devon club that Buckle only had four senior pros on the books when he took over.
And, after coming so close to bouncing back into the league at the first attempt, Buckle’s Gulls held their nerve and hit Cambridge United with two sucker punches to send Torquay back into League Two.
Back from the bottom
Buckle has never been one to shy away from a fight but taking the Torquay job two years ago was probably one of the biggest, and bravest, moves of the much-travelled midfielder’s career.
Not only were Torquay trying to stabilise after a disastrous campaign that saw them finish bottom of the league after getting through as many chairman as managers, but he’d also made the jump from local rivals Exeter City, where he’d been player-assistant manager.
But it was easy to see why Torquay would be an attractive proposition to a young, ambitious manager. The Alex Rowe / Kris Boye consortium had, for non-league levels, enough money to build a decent team and the Gulls were expected to revert from basement strugglers to promotion favourites.
It was a far cry from the season before when matters both on and off the pitch were more akin to Fawlty Towers than a football club. After just over 16 years at the helm, Mike Bateson had stepped down as chairman and was replaced by businessman Chris Roberts.
While Bateson was grounded to the point of keeping his wallet shut regardless of how badly Torquay needed investment, Roberts was, at best, somewhat of a Walter Mitty character and certainly didn’t have the funds to back up the purchase of Torquay. In fact, he had no funds, full stop.
Out went experienced manager Ian Atkins, in came former Czech international Lubos Kubik, who had no management experience. As the Gulls slid towards the foot of the league, the fans, who’d quickly twigged Roberts had very little behind him, campaigned for his resignation. After just five months, Roberts left the club in debt and heading for the drop.
New coach Keith Curle couldn’t stop the rot while Bateson, never the most popular man at Plainmoor, found himself back in the hotseat as Torquay finally tumbled out of their league, a sorry mess of a club.
Appointing Buckle as manager was the best move the new consortium could have made. The midfielder had spent a season at Plainmoor in 1994 and, having spent the past two seasons as assistant manager at Exeter, knew the league inside out. His squad was impressive and contained the likes of veteran midfielder Chris Hargreaves and prolific striker Tim Sills. The bookies immediately pegged the Gulls as favourites.
Despite a storming start to Torquay’s first non-league campaign, Buckle’s first season as a full manager ended the same as his previous season as Exeter’s Number 2 – in disappointment. Aldershot had run away with the league, and the Gulls had to settle for a playoff spot against, in a twist of fate, Exeter City.
3-1 up on aggregate, with 18 minutes to play, Torquay looked to be heading for two appearances at Wembley in one season until Exeter managed to score four times, leaving the Gulls deflated. This rolled over to their FA Trophy final at Wembley a week later when Ebbsfleet beat them by a single goal.
Indeed, the hangover look to have stuck on the South Coast as, despite reinforcing heavily, the Gulls managed just seven points from their opening five games. Had their form in the opening weeks been as good as the rest of the season, Torquay would have been challenging Burton for the title instead of the playoffs.
But gradually their form picked up and new acquisitions such as Wayne Carlisle and Nicky Wroe settled into the team. What’s more, the Gulls added a touch of subtlety to their direct style of play, making them a daunting prospect for any team in the division. Although the team stuttered as the season came to a close, they cemented their playoff place and comfortably saw off Histon in the semi-finals.
The Wembley sub-plots
With Cambridge completing an impressive comeback against Stevenage in the other playoff semi, it meant the Wembley final had plenty of sub-plots both on and off the pitch.
Both teams had experienced Wembley heartache last season – Cambridge losing to Exeter in the final – and both sides had a number of players with experience on the big occasion. Chris Hargreaves had never won a playoff final, while Wayne Carlisle had gone up with Exeter the previous season.
Buckle had also never won at Wembley, but was well-acquainted with two members of the Torquay side, Jon Challinor, who he’d played with at Exeter, and Lee Phillips, the burly striker Buckle had signed from Exeter in his first season as Torquay manager but sold to Rushden & Diamonds in the Summer.
Phillips, who’d scored at Wembley for Exeter’s playoff defeat to Morecambe, had experienced somewhat of a nomadic season. The striker never quite settled at Rushden and departed for Weymouth during the January transfer window, but was a victim of the Terras meltdown and found himself leading the Cambridge front line as they pushed for promotion.
In one last twist, Phillips’ marker for the day would be Chris Todd, who’d followed Phillips from Exeter to Torquay. Todd, you suspect, would relish the day more than anybody else on the pitch.
In November the laid-back centre-half had a routine blood test after suffering a groin injury. This run-of-the-mill test came back with some shocking results – the 27-year-old was suffering from Leukaemia.
Todd was immediately withdrawn from all training – the disease had enlarged his spleen, meaning it could burst with any physical contact – and put on a course of drugs.
Showing the same fighting spirit that marks his game, Todd beat the disease and then helped Salisbury secure their place in the Blue Square Premier, after he was sent on loan to regain his match fitness. Now he was back at Wembley, ready for another shot at promotion.
The Gulls are going up
Although the bookies could pick a winner from the two (the most generous price was for a 0-0 draw), many neutral observers had pegged Cambridge as slight favourites, owing to their superior form over the course of the season and the momentum from their comeback against Stevenage.
In the opening minutes, the U’s did their best to live up to that billing and started well, with Torquay coming across as nervy and disjointed. But it seemed that, for all their good work in the middle of the pitch, Cambridge were freezing in the final third, while the Gulls rearguard was comfortably mopping up all that was thrown at them, with only Robbie Wilmott drawing a good save from Michael Poke in the Torquay goal.
With Tim Sills providing an outlet for holding up clearances and his lively strike partner Elliot Benyon willing to cover every inch of grass, Torquay gradually began to impose themselves on the game as the game evened out.
The Gulls opener came courtesy of their evergreen captain, Hargreaves. Latching into a beautiful through ball, the 37-year-old was crowded by defenders but barely looked up before crashing a fierce drive beyond Adam Barlett.
Despite being troubled by Cambridge’s wingers, Torquay made it to the break and came out with a more relaxed approach in the second half, knowing that it was the U’s who needed to take the fight to them. Unfortunately for Cambridge, two of their key players just didn’t show up.
Peterborough loanee Scott Rendell, who had spent the season terrorising Conference defences, was largely anonymous, while, out-wide, Courtney Pitt spent more time running into blind alleys.
As Cambridge got more frustrated, Torquay began to stroke the ball around and Sills and Benyon were giving the U’s defence a torrid time, and both played their part in the two key moments that took Torquay to victory.
First Benyon sprinted after a seemingly lost cause only to be needlessly hacked down by the already booked Phil Bolland, earning himself a needless second yellow and reducing the U’s to ten men.
Then Torquay took full advantage of the extra man and scored a wonderfully free-flowing second. Benyon broke and slipped the ball out wide to Carlisle who produced a pin-point cross for Sills to storm onto and head home, sending the Gulls support into raptures.
Looking to the future
Buckle’s two years in charge have meant that Torquay’s spell in non-league has been shorter than many other ex-league clubs. Cambridge are now facing a fifth season in the Conference, while Oxford, York, Kidderminster and Rushden were all relegated before Torquay. Even local rivals Exeter took five years to escape.
Indeed, like others before them, relegation may have even been a blessing in disguise for the Gulls. They have a stable, ambitious boardroom and a young, hungry manager with a squad now more used to winning than losing. In many respects, they may well be a stronger team than champions Burton next season.
Doncaster, Hereford, Exeter and Shrewsbury have all given decent accounts of themselves since returning to the league and there’s no reason to suggest Torquay can’t enjoy similar success. Buckle should manage to keep most of his squad together and has enough contacts to be able to strengthen the areas that need it.
As for Cambridge, it’s going to be another hard summer of rebuilding. Indications are manager Gary Brabin will be off to a league club, while some of the club’s higher earners may be shipped out. But then they were in the same position last year when Jimmy Quinn left, and that didn’t turn out too badly.
But for now, you can be sure Buckle is already plotting next season’s campaign. Torquay fans and players, meanwhile, will be enjoying the sunshine on the beautiful English Riveria more than usual this summer.