Ben Currie – @bencurrie8
Damon Lathrope played 152 games for Torquay United and scored the princely total of zero goals. This statistic is often trotted out in order to dismiss a player I’ve long admired and enjoyed watching over recent years.
Damon’s job was not to score goals; he was in the team to do all the ‘muck and nettles’ work, to break up play, win the ball and pass it on – so often he would do this in such an effective and resourceful manner that a lot of his good work went unnoticed.
Each team needs an unsung hero like Damon, and he proved a vital part of the jigsaw during one of my favourite seasons following Torquay: Martin Ling’s first season at the club which saw us narrowly miss out on automatic promotion. I’m not one for applauding ‘failure’ but that season was comparatively glorious given what has followed since.
An early season run of eight winless games saw Lingy under a bit of pressure, but a change of formation and the introduction of Damon into a three-man midfield saw an upturn of fortunes. Indeed, The Gulls won 16 of their next 23 league matches and soared up towards the top of the table. Lathrope was integral to that team.
So often Lathrope would win the ball and play a simple ball to set the team on the counter attack, his positional discipline allowing both Eunan O’Kane to float into pockets of space from which to dictate play and Lee Mansell to play further forward and help himself to a career best 13 goals. With full-backs encouraged to bomb on, Damon would regularly fill in the gaps and cover the space. There were plenty of candidates for player of the season that year, remarkably, 4 of our players made the ‘League Two team of the year’ but I often think Lathrope’s contribution to that side is somewhat overlooked.
Injury scuppered Damon’s start to the following season and saw him in and out of a team that was struggling for consistency. Lathrope played a typically tenacious part in a hard-fought derby win against Exeter at the end of January which left Torquay looking reasonably placed in twelfth and well set to push on. Sadly, as we all know, that was to be Ling’s last match as manager (he wasn’t actually present at St James Park that night) and with Alan Knill coming in on an interim basis, Damon dropped down the pecking order.
When ‘talismanic’ loanee Joss Labadie was recalled with four matches of the season remaining, Lathrope found himself back in the team and helping The Gulls over the safety line with assured performances in must win matches against Barnet and Morecambe.
Lathrope appeared to be surplus to requirements when Knill was installed on a permanent basis, the manager preferring to cultivate a more creative and dynamic midfield, but ultimately struggling to find a balance, with Damon sent out on loan to Hereford. He was swiftly recalled upon Knill’s removal however, and once again added a bit of bite (no pun intended, Joss) in victories at Wimbledon and Portsmouth that gave Gulls fans hope that things were starting to look up.
Sadly, a disastrous run of form and a failure to find a striker capable of scoring the goals needed to get us out of trouble ended in dismal relegation and Lathrope, out of contract, left at the end of the season. It was a sad end to a four-year stay at the club that saw Damon one game away from League One football two years in a row.
After two years at Aldershot, Lathrope returned to Torquay with the statement of ‘unfinished business’ which perhaps showed a genuine desire to see the club back in the football league. However, injury plagued Lathrope’s second spell at the club and once again saw him warming the bench even when fit. I saw nascent signs that Damon was finding somewhere near his best football in back to back wins against Sutton and Leyton Orient (used in a midfield 3) but, like most of the team, struggled to knit 4 or 5 of those performances together.
When Damon left for Woking in February I was disappointed because I know what an effective player he can be and I didn’t feel that we had seen the best of him in the last 18 months, but also felt a fresh start may have been beneficial for him after a period of frustration on the English Riviera. At 28, I felt he had enough time to get his career back on track and in hindsight I felt he may still have offered us more than the inexperienced loanees who would fill his midfield birth.
On 24th February Damon suffered a life-changing injury, an innocuous tackle during a match left Damon not only unable to play football again but serious question marks over whether he would even be able to walk. His playing career was over. At the age of just 28.
Since hearing this awful news, money has been raised by fans in order to give the Lathrope family a bit of help in troubling times. Torquay fan Joseph Pope organised a charity match, held at Plainmoor, on a sunny Sunday 6th May which saw a horde of familiar faces make an appearance to support a fallen comrade. Two teams of fans and ex-pros mixed together took to the field with all money raised on the day going to the Lathrope fund.
The team in white took the lead when Kevin Nicholson arrowed the ball past Ex TUFC CEO/Travel Club Organiser/Commentator/Summariser Steve Breed, who looked to be enjoying his appearance on the hallowed turf. Among those also on display for the white team were Lee Hodges and Ben Gerring, fresh off the back of an impressive season at Truro. Guy Branston, who could probably do no worse than some of the defenders we’ve fielded this season and Lee Mansell, former ‘heartbeat’ and holder of 389 appearances for The Gulls.
At the other end, and on the red team, Chris Zebroski, last seen underused at Eastleigh, equalised with a neat finish past Wembley goalkeeper Michael Poke. Poke threw back the years with a couple of acrobatic saves. Also appearing in red were Chris Todd, who characteristically threw himself in the way of everything. Aaron Downes, who carried the ball out of defence in a manner I didn’t think he was capable of. In Midfield, Joe Oastler, who surprised me with a 25 yard thunderbolt with smacked the crossbar. Danny Stevens, who is completely wasted as a removal man, and TUFC record appearance holder, Kevin Hill, who was here, there, and every-bloody-where.
The match was played in great spirit and ended in a 3-3 draw after a couple of late goals from a white team throwing caution to the wind in the closing stages, The ensuing penalty shoot-out went the way of the red team as ex-Chairman, Dave Phillips, did his best Dale Tonge impression and lamely tapped the ball towards goal only for it to be stopped by the gleeful boot of Breedy,
Torquay United’s present and future looks increasingly bleak and uncertain as we drop to our lowest position in our 119 year history as a professional (use that word loosely) outfit, so it was nice to delve into our recent past for an hour and a half. Some of these players have provided me with moments of joy and as a long-suffering fan these become all too fleeting and sometimes all we can hold onto. We can only hope that more memories can be produced in the very near future.
The result was immaterial, it was all for a very worthy cause. The day was superbly organised by Joe Pope, excellently and enthusiastically supported by the players and enjoyed by 250 fans who wanted to see a bit of light-hearted football at the end of a truly wretched season.
The fundraising has not been restricted to this charity match. Angus MacDonald has auctioned off a match-worn Hull City shirt and similarly Chris Hargreaves has put up several items of Wembley memorabilia up for auction too. Fantastic gestures both.
Absent from the day was the main man himself, which perhaps underlines the gravity of his injury. Some 10 weeks on and 8 operations later, the road to recovery will continue to be a long and arduous one. As a player Damon was fully committed, brave, intelligent and disciplined; perfect qualities to take into battle against this cruel setback.
It is heartening to see the esteem that Damon is held in by his former teammates and serves to illustrate how his role as someone who willingly rolls his sleeves up and does the less exciting parts of football is well appreciated by his colleagues. Lathrope may not have been the best player in any team he played in, but he was clearly much respected and well-liked.