“I’m ready for the season now. I cannot wait to be back on the horse (and then sing “goodbye” to it)”
With the fixtures soon to be released at last, Matty Hayward blogs about the start of the season
Matty Hayward – @MattyHayward96
It’s August. It’s been sunny all week but the clouds have inexplicably come out on Saturday rendering today Officially Not Quite Warm Enough For Shorts. Perhaps you’ve spent the last few months occupying yourself with cricket, taking in a major international tournament, popping across the pond for a family holiday, walking the dog, writing articles for Torquay United’s premier blog or just ticking the weekends off one by one while making up rumours about potential incomings and posting them on forums and Facebook. You’ve probably been to one or two friendlies, perhaps a local non-league one and the one against the Championship side just to check out the new signings and get your football fix.
But nothing will ever replace that feeling when you’re standing there in your jeans and maybe your new shirt (depending on price; how horrific the sponsor on the front is; and whether you’re the Replica Shirt Wearing Type), remarking to the people around you how good the pitch looks as a referee from somewhere like Wiltshire blows the first whistle of the season. You recognise half the players from the presumably underwhelming previous campaign, the rest are relatively unknown quantities. Those debutants are the potential, the glimmer of possibility, the renewed hope of the upcoming season.
You’re brought back down to earth within minutes, though. The drum stops playing, the songs die down and you’re reminded of that useless player from last year who we couldn’t get rid of. He’s still useless. What’s worse, that flashy winger with green boots who terrorised Tiverton’s left back in pre-season is actually not that good at all. But that feels insignificant at the moment, because you’ve got the Gulls back. You’re back in the stands, be it home or away, sitting or standing, and you’ve got nine months of downs and ups supporting the Yellows ahead of you.
That feeling, those emotions are closer than you think (just over a month away!!), so it’s worth considering how the first game of the season has gone in the past and whether we’re right to get excited.
That answer to that question, really, depends on whether you believe in patterns or the law of averages. We’ve only won one of our last eight first games of the season – that being Macclesfield at home in 2015. Paul Cox’s side, which included the oft-forgotten trio of Bayan Fenwick, Josh Carmichael and Waide Fairhurst, battled to a victory thanks to a goal from Alex Fisher. Any hope that was drawn from that win was immediately quashed as the Gulls won one of their next 14 (two of their next 24) and ended up celebrating not being relegated to regional football rather than making any sort of impact on the league.
The following year was worse. It was Macclesfield again, away this time, to start Nicho’s only full season as manager. The Silkmen got their own back in a 2-0 victory, sowing the seeds for another year of Yellow disappointment which we painted as a success.
The game at Moss Rose was one of many in the last twelve years where – much like Keaton Jennings for England – Torquay have struggled to score when opening. Grays at home in 2007, Fleetwood away in 2012, Tranmere at home in 2017 and last season’s exploits at Chelmsford are all occasions where The Yellows have played out a goalless draw to start the campaign.
2007 is the first opening game I can remember. I stood with my dad in the Away End, which had been opened up to the home fans because the Grays Athletic supporters’ coach had carried down fewer people than the players’ bus. The game itself was still one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It fulfilled all the clichés: “the team needs time to gel”; “the new gaffer needs time to stamp his ideas on the players”; and “sort it out Buckle!”. Looking back now, that squad was a strange synthesis of players who’d go on to become semi-legends (for my generation, anyway) and players who I associate with a former era. Steve Woods, Kevin Hill, Tony Bedeau all started alongside Tim Sills, Chris Hargreaves and Lee Mansell. The bench makes for even more entertaining reading: Zebroski, Benyon, Stevens – the subs used – with Hockley and Rice remaining unused and creating a very unbalanced five-a-side team. The squad, however, went on to do well that season. They treated the Conference with the contempt a club of our size should treat it with, missing out on promotion in the play-offs and reaching the final of the FA Trophy at the first time of asking.
Oh, I can pick my games. The only time I’ve watched us away on the first (league) game of the season was the Fleetwood draw. It came days after we’d been hammered by Leicester in the League Cup – a game I’d missed due to cricket commitments (Paignton away, 6 runs, caught behind, did not bowl, comfortably defeated) – and Martin Ling’s men put in a similarly ordinary performance at Highbury. It was Fleetwood’s first ever game in the Football League and, weekend fun in Blackpool aside, the Trawlermen made their big day a relatively forgettable one for the Yellows.
“What about games I tried and failed to get to?” I hear you cry! Well. On the way back from the Commonwealth Games and a subsequent holiday on the Isle of Skye, my family and I had planned to break up the drive to Torquay by taking in our opening game of the 2014/15 season at Gateshead. Roadworks and diversions meant that we listened to much of the game on the radio in a park in Jedburgh which was…unpleasant. Louis Briscoe’s late goal was not enough for Hargreaves’ Gulls to beat the Heed, who ran out 3-1 winners.
So, is it all doom and gloom on the first day? Not exactly. Here’s a reason to be optimistic. The last time we got promoted, we won the first game of the following season (Chesterfield at home in 2009) 2-0 thanks to strikes from Scott Rendell and Lee Mansell. With a side that makes up much of my generations’ “Yellows Dream Teams”, it’s no surprise that Buckle’s men avoided relegation with relative ease.
We won the following season too, at home to a Northampton side (containing one Liam Davis), with three goals in six minutes from a fans’ favourite trio of Nicholson, Zebroski and Benyon. Also, ridiculously, Martin Gritton started for us! In his second spell at the club, The Yellow Goal Machine became one of many players to tick the “Striker”, “Unquestionably tall”, “Links to the South West” and “Experienced” Boxes without necessarily ticking the “good at football (anymore)” box – joining Rory Fallon, Mickey Evans and Enoch Showunmi in that infamous club. That season ended with our famous defeat at Old Trafford in the play-off final, a day that continues to haunt me and instil a vivid hatred for Stevenage and John Mousinho.
The only recent opening games I’ve not mentioned have been score draws against Histon, Burton and AFC Wimbledon. The Burton game stands out in the memory because of our impressive overturning of a 2-0 deficit which included Rene Howe’s first of 28 goals for the club. The other two, however, are far more forgettable and lend themselves to the aforementioned clichés about the players not gelling on day one.
Of our last twelve opening games, we’ve won three, drawn seven and lost two. The law of averages says we’re due a defeat. The law of consistency (is that a thing?) says it’ll be a draw. I, a pessimist who pretends to be an optimist because I’m often accused of being too grumpy, predict we’ll win 1-0.
Fixtures are released on the July 3rd. I’d like a nice cushty away game, somewhere like Aldershot or Barnet. To be honest, I’m ready for the season now. I cannot wait to be back on the horse (and then sing “goodbye” to it). In the words of P!NK, let’s get the party started.