“Can Gary Johnson tell the difference between a Kathy Beale and a Chris Evans?”
Matty Hayward discusses ex-Gulls coming back to Plainmoor (obviously!)
Matty Hayward – @MattyHayward96
When Kathy Beale returned to Albert Square in 2015, it was a stunning success. Ian and Ben were reunited with their mother who was presumed dead; Gillian Taylforth got a decent pay cheque; and the character took over her son’s business, meaning the Greasy Spoon in Walford was to be informally known as Kaff’s Caff (which is just funny).
The return of Top Gear to BBC2 under the stewardship of Chris Evans, the bloke from Friends and a few other blokes who describe themselves as “into cars” was less successful. Evans cut short his contract two years early; the series’ final episode received the show’s worst ever viewing figures and The Guys’ “doughnuts around the Cenotaph stunt” did little to distance the new lineup from the controversy of Clarkson and co.
What I’m trying to say – in an admittedly convoluted way – is that returns are sometimes good and sometimes bad.
Tis the season of transfer speculation and, since the average Torquay fan is no expert on the careers of lower and non-league footballers, attention often turns to former-Gulls players as potential targets. Basically, if a player has played for us and done okay, their name is mentioned as someone the Johnson Brothers should be looking at. Just in the past couple of weeks, I have seen names from Luke Young to Matt Green, from Eunan O’Kane to Courtney Richards mentioned as prospective targets.
Should Gary be looking at ex-Yellows to bolster his squad? Does it work has a tactic? Who are the good and bad examples of it? Who should we be trying to bring back to the Bay? Who should we leave in the Yellow dustbin of history? Is there a way to distinguish between a Kathy Beale and a Chris Evans? These are all questions I will aim to answer in this article which has taken five paragraphs already to get going.
Perhaps the most high-profile – or at least the most expensive – returning player was Billy Bodin. This was an absolute classic case of a young lad coming on loan and doing well (in fact, he was bloody brilliant) then signing permanently and flopping. It wasn’t his fault that we went down in 2014, but his six goals from 70 games following his return to Plainmoor certainly puts him in the Chris Evans Top Gear category of returns. Clearly a good player though, as his more recent transfer moves have shown.
Bodin’s comeback, however, was far from the worst we’ve seen in the last few years. Dan Lavercombe, Danny Stevens, Toby Ajala and (don’t scream at me) Elliot Benyon are all vying for that throne. Much like the Conservative Party Leadership contenders, these lads appear to have been competing to be the least competent and least impressive in the pack. While I doubt any of them have smoked opium at an Iranian wedding, I think we can be pretty sure that none of them would be great at running the country.
Lavercombe’s lobbed-by-the-‘keeper-cock-up sticks in the mind, while Benyon’s perennial slowing down was more upsetting than funny to see. I remember being extremely excited about the return of Ajala, partly because we had no recognised wingers at the club, but his one scrappy goal from 18 appearances puts him far closer to the Top Gear end of the scale. Wee Danny Stevens, bless him, failed to replicate his heroic performances of the Conference promotion season when he returned for six games in 2014 and is more ammunition for the “never go back” thesis.
Last season, though, provides some even starker examples. If Benyon is an unlikely-to-win-but-nonetheless-worth-mentioning contender for the Chris-Evans-Top-Gear-Crown (a Matt Hancock, if you will), Andre Wright is very much the frontrunner, the Boris Johnson. An exceptionally bright young prospect when we had him on loan under Nicho, Wright appeared to have gained about 4 stone and lost every semblance of footballing ability by the time Owers signed him last August. His seven uninspiring substitute appearances and subsequent releasing by Gary Johnson is testament to that.
Another comeback-flop from last season is Brett Williams. Given the captain’s armband at the start of the season, the centre forward – who scored once from open play in 16 appearances the campaign before – notched just twice in 2018/19, both goals in the cup. Bretty was rightly moved on not long after Johnson took charge.
Last season’s success, though, was in no small part down to three Beale-esque returnees. Most notably, top scorer Jamie Reid was not in his first spell at Plainmoor. In what can only be described as a backwards-Bodin, Reidy was delightfully poor when he first joined the Gulls on loan in 2015. Some would argue he was worse in the 2016-17 season where he played a whole season on loan. Those same people would have been bemused when he was signed on loan again for the following season and penned a two-year deal in the winter of 2017 under Gary Owers. However, our Northern Ireland U21 international scored 32 goals last year and is undoubtedly in with a shout of the best returning player of the season, if not ever.
Ryan Dickson, who made nine appearances in two loan spells in 2007, is another player who contributed to our most recent promotion. While he certainly didn’t have the same impact as JR, he did a good job in his 28 appearances, in three different positions. The more impactful midfield returnee was Connor Lemonheigh-Evans. We saw Connor’s ability towards the latter end of our relegation season and the Bristol City loanee came back and provided an even better set of performances. For me, he was the best youngster we had from the Johnson-Johnson and son partnership.
Chris Zebroski, Michael Poke, Joss Labadie and Angus MacDonald also had relatively successful returns to the Yellows fold, the latter of those probably being the stand-out. If I were to name all the other players who have had more than one spell at Plainmoor you’d be intensely bored, but Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Brendan Moore and Damon Lathrope are names worth mentioning, though none of whom had an enormous impact for the Yellows. Kevin Nicholson must also be remembered, but I’d be scolded by Dom (TT’s editor) if I wrote the necessary 2000 extra words on whether his return was a good one. Is there a formula to separate the Reids from the Wrights; the MacDonalds from the Bodins; the Beales from the Evans Top Gears? Clearly, no. But I ought to talk through a few players who I think could emulate our Kathy in being a success upon a return to their spiritual home this season.
All four of the Bristol City loanees from last season would be very worth bringing back. They may all be beyond our reach, especially Janneh and CLE, but I’d welcome them all back with open arms. There are growing rumours about the return of Jake Andrews, who would be a decent signing.
I think Reuben Reid, Danny Leadbitter and Nathan Blissett would all be worth looking into re-signing. All three have experience of being promoted from the Conference and I feel they’d all add a lot to our squad. Reid has been transfer-listed by Forest Green Rovers, so will surely be looking for a club around the top half of the National League to kick-start his career again, while Danny Leadbitter has been let go by Bristol Rovers. Blissett – along with former Gulls teammate Dan Sparkes – is under contract for next season so I expect we’ll find it harder to tempt them back, though they’d both be top signings.
Other names that have been floated, and that I think are achievable signings, are Courtney Richards, Alex Fisher and Jake Robinson. It probably won’t be a surprise that I think we should avoid these signings. Alex Fisher stinks of Brett Williams. Did ok in a poor Torquay team, had semi-cult status because we had a good song about him, now without a club. He’s not good enough for us anymore. Richards is definitely a good player, much better than people give him credit for, but his passing ability isn’t up to that of Asa Hall in the same role, and I think there will be better back-ups out there. As for Robinson, no thanks. A man who is happy to pick up a good wage at ‘Ricay then makes no impact for a struggling Maidstone is a man whose attitude isn’t what we’re looking for.
Overall, I think we should trust the Johnson brothers’ scouting networks and their ability to sign players we’ve never heard of. After all, this time last year we weren’t saying “let’s sign Janneh” or “bring that lad Kalala in!” and it went pretty well. The gulf between Beales and Top Gears, between Jamie Reid and Andre Wright is huge, and bringing a player back for a second spell is generally a risk. I don’t subscribe to the “never go back” thesis, I prefer the “be cautious when you go back and make sure you don’t spend £70,000 on a flimsy winger who had a decent dozen games on loan” thesis, and I care more about how good a player is than how well he played for us a couple of years ago.