“We basked in the sweet smell of finishing 91st out of 92”
Ben Currie – @bencurrie8
THE MATCH: Barnet vs Torquay 5/5/2001
THE SITUATION: 23rd met 24th on the last day of the Football League season. Winners would stay up, losers would be relegated, draw favouring Torquay.
A match that must surely rival Liverpool vs Arsenal 89′ for last day drama, No? In our own minds it was far more important than that. One of the most iconic matches in Torquay United’s long and not always distinguished history: a real ‘I was there’ moment. Well, I was there, I just didn’t happen to see much of it.
A couple of scrappy ‘skin of our teeth’ victories had staved off the spectre of certain relegation, for a couple of extra weeks at least, and fate and circumstance dictated that the winner of Bees vs Gulls would stay in the Football League, the loser consigned to non-league oblivion. Not attending was never an option.
We boarded a supporters coach, one of the many laid on for this special fixture, it seemed like the entire home crowd was on the way to North London. The atmosphere amongst those travelling was one of nervous excitement interspersed with deep uncertainty. Relegation was not mentioned, though everyone feared its menacing presence.
As we neared the ground, much later than one would reasonably like, the importance of the day really hit home. We were one of perhaps twenty coaches that had travelled, adding to the thousands of fans already in situ rushing around manically, queuing impatiently and doing little to settle the stomach-churning tension that had now insidiously manifested.
We were on official club travel though, we’d be ok, ‘the clubs have sorted out the logistics of this operation, absolutely nothing to worry about’. A thought that got incrementally less rational as our driver missed the turn off, took us on a detour back towards the M25 and then watching Underhill as it got smaller and smaller, further and further away in the distance.
When we finally joined the line for the away end our predicament, and the clubs failure to make this an ‘all-ticket fixture,’ had become frighteningly apparent. With the ground already three-quarters full, and the Yellow Army in place already making an almighty racket, the queue still stretched the length of the ground. The gates slammed shut with us metres from the turnstiles, it would later transpire that fans had been queuing since 8am, we had never stood a chance.
It’s a figure that gets larger with every story retold, but I would estimate there to be at least 500 locked out from Torquay, and comfortably double that for Barnet fans wandering the perimeter frenetically, desperately trying to conjure a plan b that they had never imagined needing.
The failure to make the match ‘all-ticket’ was a gargantuan oversight, how could the administration of both clubs presume that the demand to attend the biggest fixture in both club’s history would not be so immense? It’s one of the great TUFC questions, up there with ‘Is Sean Cooper fit yet?’ ‘Who’s 50k helped pay for Billy Bodin?’ and ‘What damage could Paul Bastard possibly do with a plastic fork?’.
As it turned out, and whilst I will always wish that I had got in, the situation leant itself to an opportunity to create our own little bit of TUFC folklore.
Locked out and with the teams already on their way onto the pitch, the time to make the best out of a bad situation was rapidly diminishing, sickening dread had well and truly sat in. Watching the knife-edge drama unfold is intoxicating enough but travelling all that way and then NOT seeing it? It’s a hundred times worse.
A brief conversation with a concerned copper did little to quell the anguish, ‘find a local pub and ask to listen on the radio’ a very unhelpful suggestion, ‘do you want to continue this chat down the police station?’ an even less helpful quip.
With all hope lost and resigned to joining the throng of Torquay fans who had been herded into a corner of an adjacent sports field, Dad then had a moment of inspiration: ‘we’ll climb up that tree’.
Even half-way up that tree it was cold, and windy, and probably not health and safety friendly but it did allow me a window into a very small section of the pitch. Dad, at the very peak, could see a lot more than I, and relayed information back down as and when something happened. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than being detained in a field like cattle on a farm.
So what did I see? Jason Rees’ precise opener from distance? No, I was still climbing the tree. Kevin Hill’s bullet header and David Graham’s prodded finish at the far post to extend our lead? Well, I saw the ball hit the net and I saw the Torquay fans erupt in unbridled jubilation, but I can’t say I knew what was going on, I could just about see along the six yard line.
What about Stuart Jones’ 30 seconds of fame at the other end? I’m afraid I relied on dad to talk me through the penalty blow by blow as family legend Darren Currie (genuine relation, 24th cousin, 63rd time removed) saw his spot-kick saved by the Torquay keeper.
I had barely seen anything of the first half, but at 3-0 at half time, I more than settled for that, we had one hand on survival. Colin Lee’s brave decision to counter-attack and play three strikers away from home had paid dividends, it was a masterstroke.
It was at this point that the away end terrace turned to salute my dad’s feat of derring-do and dedication, giving him a big cheer. Spurred on by the spotlight, Dad raised his scarf to reciprocate, forgetting momentarily the precariousness of his position, swaying freely in the breeze. His actions led to spate of short-lived nicknames: ‘treegull’ ‘swampygull’ and my personal favourite ‘idiot up the tree’.
Into the second half and the predictable Barnet onslaught down the slope duly occurred, pulling the score back to 3-2 with plenty of time left to play. The home team still needed two more goals to pull off the most improbable of comebacks but this is Torquay United; we never do things the easy way and we feared the worst right up until the final whistle.
It was torture only seeing the ball as and when it pin-balled around our penalty area, relying on the reactions of our increasingly tense fans to determine the nature of the action. The only other time I saw the ball was when dear old John Gayle, as subtle as a hammer to the face, was through on goal with a chance to settle the match and relinquish the nerves. I saw the ball very clearly as it went into orbit and landed in Barnet high street.
Torquay held on for a famous victory, and the fans who were denied entry would not be denied the chance to celebrate. The floodgates were opened and the Gulls fans, both those inside and outside of the stadium, flocked onto the pitch. Some Barnet fans held an emotional vigil on the pitch, most cleared off home. This was not a time for losers.
I managed to find our mates from the Popside, they had been queuing since 9am, and we basked in the sweet smell of finishing 91st out of 92. ‘Hey, did you see those t***s up the tree?’.
The Torquay fans congregated around the tunnel as Colin Lee reluctantly joined Mike Bateson in the director’s box, stood together arms aloft as if we’d just conquered Europe. Relief was the word of the day. “Staying in division tree” was the Monday headline in the Herald Express – do you see what they did there?
‘Never again’ were the famous words uttered by the chairman in the immediate aftermath. Torquay were relegated 6 years later.
But Mike was partly right, I have never been locked out of a match since.
*Article first published in Highway to Hele fanzine