“It felt that from the moment that he arrived, Gary Johnson was our saviour”
TT contributor Ben Currie reviews the triumphant Gary Johnson inspired season that was 2018-19:
Ben Currie – @bencurrie8
“I cannot remember a reaction to a goal quite like it”.
Supporting TUFC throughout the years I’ve celebrated all types of goal: last minute winners, longe-range humdingers, Devon Derby deciders. I’ve celebrated at the Battle of Underhill, the glorious promotion at Roots Hall, I went mental when “Carlisle, looking for Benyon, SILLS!” lit up Wembley. But still, I can’t remember a feeling that compares to Ben Wynter’s stoppage-time leveller at Woking.
I thought it had arrowed straight into the top-corner, it wasn’t until I saw a replay that I discovered that it had taken a massive deflection en-route. It didn’t matter, the moment that the ball hit the net I, and 1399 other troops of The Yellow Army, erupted with pure undiluted ecstasy.
It’s like an out-of-body experience when you celebrate a goal of that significance, you lose all self-control, you turn back into your five year-old self seeing a goal for the first time. You grab the nearest person, hug them, shake them around like a dog with its favourite chew toy. You turn around to the next complete stranger, you look into their eyes and roar a deep, guttural YEEEEES!!! right into their face, and they do the same back at you, you’ve never met this guy before but in this moment, a moment that feels like it lasts forever, you’re best mates, kindred spirits. You pause for breath and then repeat the process with another guy looking equally possessed. You end up ten yards away from where you were standing before.
In this moment of deep, unrestrained joy nothing else matters. Any personal problems are left at the turnstile for ninety minutes as you get lost in the football, in search of the ultimate buzz. It is 100% adrenaline, if you could bottle this feeling and sell it you’d be a millionaire. There is no feeling quite like it.
To my left the players have ran into the corner, they’re celebrating just as manically as the crowd. Some fans have spilled onto the pitch: this is not a violent moment, only happiness. We have earned this moment. This outpouring of emotion is years in the making, years of pent-up frustration, of despair and anger, released in an instant- in reaction to Torquay’s most important goal of the season, maybe longer.
The frenzy calms down and the match has to restart, you’re back living in reality but your heart is still racing, all you want to do is jump up and down and sing louder and louder. Nothing feels as good as this, this is what it’s all about, this is why we continue to follow our silly little football club. We never know when we’ve had enough. This is the essence of the beautiful game, the one we are all crazy about. Torquay have all but sealed the championship in dramatic style. It just about sums Gary Johnson’s turnaround up perfectly. But it could all have been so different.
Rewind seven months and I am sat at Plainmoor watching Chippenham ease their way to three points. In front of a sparse crowd, and getting emptier, we’ve barely created a chance. This is the sixth game this season that we’ve failed to score in: we’ve only played nine, we haven’t played particularly well in any of them. We were promised by then manager Gary Owers that this season would be “100% different” but sadly it’s more of the same and another season of struggle beckons as a disjointed team gets booed off once more.
It is not a nice place to be, the crowd is so small and so hushed that every insult hurled pitch-wards is audible, some fans take exception to these insults and throw a volley back. The supporters are turning on each other. Nine games in, we have twelve points, we’ve only scored five goals, we’re ten points behind the leaders. We are the only full-time team in this division. It needs to be better. Gary Owers walked straight down the tunnel with his head bowed, it was the look of a dead man walking.
Credit to Clarke Osborne- and I do so sparingly and with extreme caution – but he acted fast. The fiasco of the previous managerial change had been avoided and within forty-eight hours Gary Johnson was instilled as the new manager to not a single dissenting voice. Gary Johnson is a proven manager with a hugely successful CV, he would not have been available for long, and it would not have been cheap to dispense of the old and bring in the new; it was decisive leadership from our board.
Johnson wasted no time in making his mark. He is a winner and he was only interested in players who matched his mentality, everyone else was surplus. The whole mindset of the club changed immediately, his effusive and positive interviews were the antithesis of Owers’ who had looked increasingly haunted and defeated by the end of his tenure. The label of being the ‘big fish in the pond’ always seemed to add pressure to the job Owers was doing whereas Johnson was happy to revel in it. He had barely stepped foot inside the door when he was suggesting 3000 crowds at Plainmoor. It seemed fanciful but he only craved positivity from fans and players: a United front at Torquay. It felt that, from the moment that he arrived, Gary Johnson was our saviour.
During an early game in charge, at home to Woking, 2-0 down and ‘Plan A’ was not working. Johnson made a double substitution well before half-time, normally a bitter pill to swallow for the players coming off. Chris Regis threw a strop as he came off, Ruairi Keating shook his manager’s hand and took his place on the bench. Regis was released days later whilst Ruairi played a crucial role in Torquay’s success throughout the season. It was clear; Johnson was not standing for any nonsense. Torquay fought back to salvage a 2-2 draw.
The fans were only too keen to back Johnson, we have been so starved of success for too long. The first signs of our potential support appeared when we took over a thousand fans to Weston Super-Mare – we’ve taken far less to Football league matches at Exeter and Plymouth before. The product that Johnson was keen to create struck a chord with supporters, boycotts were ended, replica shirts that were mothballing in wardrobes made appearances at matchdays, at last it felt like we were moving on an upward trajectory.
Johnson continued to weed out the “shrinking violets” and would eventually strip back the squad to a skeletal 17 or 18. It was a shrewd move from a manager using all of his experience and it paid dividends as Torquay won ten matches in a row, claiming top spot in the process. It was not the biggest squad in the division, but every single player was focused on the job at hand, every player had a part to play. Once the balance was right, and barring injury or suspension, we simply did not need anyone else.
There was no drastic overhaul of the squad. Owers had left a nucleus of a competitive side in place, he had recruited well but couldn’t make the pieces fit into a whole. But the players Johnson brought in really made a difference, they pushed us onto a different level. Evans, we knew from last season, was a player, but he thrived in a team cast of Johnson’s quick, attacking football. Kalvin Kalala is the most exciting player I’ve seen at Plainmoor in well over a decade. If he can perform consistently then we have a real asset on our hands. Saikou Janneh was a joy to watch. His love of playing the game really shone through, tireless running, clever movement, lovely finishes, still bawling at team-mates, even when 4-0 up, for not passing him the ball: the guy has it all. These lads got bums of seats.
Ten wins in a row; a club record. These weren’t unconvincing, scratchy affairs either; we were playing teams off the park – scoring great goals as we went along. Some seasons you’d be lucky to see one belter, this year they were hitting the net from all angles. Going to the football was fun again, Saturdays couldn’t come quick enough. The support steadily grew and we averaged over 3000 for the three home games over Christmas, Johnson was making good on his promises and the fans were reacting in turn. Our away allocation of 1500 at Bath City as we went in search of win number eleven sold out quickly.
We should have won that one too. At 2-1 up, Jake Andrews blazed a penalty well over the bar. 3-1 would have been game over. Whilst it doesn’t account for the poor defending at the other end to seal Bath’s turnaround, that miss was the turning point. Andrews issued an apology via Twitter later, and not one fan replied with abuse, it was all about encouragement. In the next match Andrews scored a hat-trick, it felt like we were all in this together.
By now it was a two horse race for the Championship between us and Woking, each match was crucial and the lead changed several times. We lost at home to bottom club Weston on the 2nd of March. We didn’t play poorly, we had enough chances to win the game, we even got caught with a sucker-punch by throwing caution to the wind and chucking men forward in search of a winner. But it was a bad defeat. Looking back now I see it as a turning point, any complacency that might have been lingering was dispensed of, and our focuses were recalibrated and clarified. We won our next five in a row against teams all competing in the play-off mix.
The Weston defeat brought about calls from some sections of the fan-base to bring in reinforcements to help see us over the line. Woking were adding new players by the week. There was an ever-increasing worry (from some) that we would fizzle and burn out just before the finish line, that our ever youthful sub benches could do with a dose or two of experience. Johnson trusted his charges, we continued with what we had.
Two weeks later at home to Dartford we found ourselves down to ten men after a quarter of an hour. In years gone by you’d write this one off a certain defeat, but every single player dug in, gave that little bit extra – in horrendous conditions – to see us to a comfortable 2-0 win. A week later we became the first team to win at Concord all season, Kyle Cameron popping up with the winner, Shaun MacDonald making a ‘worldie save’ at the other end. Every player was contributing, all worth their place in the squad. The beauty of such a small, tight-knit squad is that these guys were giving everything they had for each other, for the club.
The end of March saw the start of a make or break week for TUFC: Two tough looking home games back to back before the show-down at Woking. We led by a point with our game in hand to play on the Tuesday. Wealdstone gave us a stern examination on the Saturday, we held on to win 3-2 but it was a close contest, the final whistle signalled a huge sigh of relief. Woking had lost; four points the lead. With a game in hand.
Tuesday night at Plainmoor under the lights, matches are always better under the lights. It’s 1-1 at half-time and Chelmsford are good value for a point. We get a penalty early into the second half but the keeper pulls off a fine save to deny Jamie Reid. In seasons gone by the Popside would have turned on Reid for such a crime but there’s a different mentality at home games now and instead of castigating our top-scorer the crowd chant his name, five minutes later he absolutely buries a chance from close range and Plainmoor erupts.
Without Janneh for this one and with Reidy struggling to find his by-now reliable brilliant best we need someone to raise their hand and take this match by the scruff of the neck to get it won. Ruairi Keating answered the call – giving one of the best all-round performances I’ve seen from a forward in many a year. It was the easiest man of the match call a sponsor has ever had as he laid goals two and three perfectly on the plate. Of greater immediate concern though is the fitness of our talismanic skipper, Asa Hall, who has taken a nasty knock to his back. It is a measure of the man, of the spirit engendered by this team, that he tried to carry on even though he could barely move. The show-down at Woking is four days away. Seven points the lead, five games to play.
At the end of every home match Gary Johnson has a ritual with the Popside. He waits for the players to take their praise from the crowd before going over for his moment in the spotlight. With every supporter in the palm of his hand he implores the fans to build the noise up to a moment which he then breaks with a triumphant fist-pump, punching the air in delight. In unison, the whole Popside erupts into “Gary Johnson’s Yellow Army” saluting our saviour as he salutes back. Looking on from Bristow’s Bench, it’s extra loud, extra long tonight. It’s a special atmosphere, extra passionate. The importance of taking a seven point lead into a six-pointer is not lost on anyone.
Our allocation of 1400 for Woking had sold out in hours, we could have sold another 500 easily. At the time tickets were released the two teams were neck-and-neck, now; we had a seven point cushion. Defeat would not have been the end of the world but it would have led to squeaky bum time, but after five impressive wins in a row I was confident. Woking quite simply had to win.
Janneh returned, Asa Hall was passed fit, we fielded what, on paper, looked to be our strongest line-up. Woking started at a hundred miles an hour and took the lead early on. We were slow to get going but responded with the most beautiful goal, Keating’s delicious, inch-perfect through ball bisected the two centre-halves and Reid ran through to slot the ball home. Pandemonium ensued in the away enclosure, there are photos of players and fans celebrating amidst yellow smoke, they have an almost mystical quality to them. This felt like a proper match, this is what it’s all about.
Woking battered us. They battered our players – captain Hall forced off with a reoccurrence of his back injury, Keating came in for the rough treatment and had to retire with a fractured cheekbone. They battered us on the pitch; wave after wave of attack, they were 3-1 up after 80 minutes and it should have been five or six, but they didn’t finish us off. It’s the measure of our squad, small on numbers it may be, but big in character. Two influential players down, our seven point gap whittling down to four in a matter of minutes, it looked a lost cause, but we didn’t give up, we didn’t know when we were beaten.
First, Janneh neatly nodded in from inside the six yard box after a brilliant header back by Cameron. 3-2, five minutes to go, all to play for. It had been a on-running feature of the run-in that ex-Torquay United defender and all-round figure of ridicule Ben Gerring had been shouting his mouth off about his former club and stirring up bad feeling between the two rivals. All match Gerring had been subjected to abuse from the Yellow Army, many believing that a characteristic ricket was always a moment away. Sure enough, Reidy had the beating of him, heading nowhere in particular in the corner, only for Gerring to stick out one of his long legs, fell our hero and pick up his second yellow card. It was a long walk back to the tunnel and Gulls fans enjoyed every second of it.
You could feel the atmosphere change around the stadium, and as we moved into stoppage time you felt it was now or never. Dickson throws long into the box, it evades many bodies and falls to Evans at the back post. Evans tries to play it hard and low across the six yard box but it’s half-cleared and falls to Wynter unmarked (would he have been unmarked if Woking had their full 11?) who, on his weaker left foot, rifles it towards goal. It deflects off a defender and pings into the top-corner. The away end explodes in a mass of euphoria. Four point lead extended to seven points in a matter of seconds. Four games left to play. We’re not throwing that away, we’ve all but sealed the championship.
It’s a very enjoyable journey home, I can’t stop smiling. All it took were those few crazy seconds to turn the entire day on its head, it would have been an extremely painful journey home had we lost, as looked likely for 90% of the match.
We wrap up the championship with three games to spare the following week with a nervy victory over Eastbourne. Since Gary Johnson was appointed he has overseen thirty matches in which we have accrued seventy-five points, wracking up nearly three goals a game in the process. The turnaround from where we were when he took over is remarkable, it’s hard to believe they are parts of the same season. Being in the National League South is not what any of us wanted, but it’s what we needed. We’ve built some positive momentum at last, the slide has stopped. Football has become fun again, Johnson is building something worth believing in.
Over 5000 fans fill Plainmoor on Easter Monday to see us crowned as champions of the National League South. It is the first time in our entire history that we have won a league. It’s not the most prestigious league we’ve ever been in but you can only win the league you find yourself in. I maintain that we should never have been relegated to regional football, that it’s a disgrace that we had fallen that far, it is also absolutely true that we deserved to be there. After such a poor start to the season it never looked likely that we could be champions, it made the celebrations all the sweeter.
We have been so starved of success that you have to grab it with both hands when it comes along. It was a glorious day, I’ve been waiting over twenty years for those sort of moments, there would have been people in the ground waiting three times as long.
There are videos of Reidy and Ruairi leading the Popside with renditions of well-known chants, they give me goosebumps. Moments of intense happiness shared by players and supporters, it’s been a long time waiting. As a fan, I can forgive a lack of talent, all I ask is that every player who puts on the shirt tries their best, gives it their all, shows the club respect. We’ve had far too many over the years who’ve taken the money and given nothing back in return. But this group of players have been fantastic, I’m proud that they represent my football club and with most of them signed on for next season it’s a solid base to build on. I want them all to succeed.
I am delighted for Jamie Reid, a TUFC fan, it hasn’t always been easy for him at the club, he’s put up with a lot of abuse in previous seasons. It was horrible to him score a goal last season and make a point of not celebrating what should be a joyous moment. To see him soaking up the adulation of the crowd and to lead a song during the trophy presentation was the icing on the cake for this season. He’s always tried his best, no matter where he was played. It’s taken an experienced manager to get the best out of him by playing to his strengths and with the league’s top scorer AND player of the season trophies sewn up, we’ve seen a ruthless striker with a strong all-round game, and I think there’s more to come. It’s been the perfect way to shut the doubters up.
With Johnson in charge there is cause for optimism next season, he’s made a habit of back-to-back promotions, you simply can’t argue with his track record. It won’t be easy, the National League gets tougher every season but positive momentum often goes a long way. He has the support of every fan, I haven’t heard one word of dissent against him since he arrived. There will be all sorts of speculation about the players we bring in over the summer, it’s all noise as far as I’m concerned. Whoever Gary brings in is good enough for me, I trust his judgment, I trust his plans to come to fruition. Johnson has managed all season by the mantra “keep calm and carry on” he’s certainly done that. And then some.