TEAM OF THE DECADE
Over the last couple of weeks, the TT elves have been looking at some of the best players to play for the Gulls over the last 10 years. But now all the picks have been chosen, and the manager has been appointed so the team is ready.
TorquayTalk presents, the Torquay United Team of the Decade!
Manager – Gary Johnson
TT Twitter Poll
Torquay United managers over the last decade have been, as Ronan Keating put it, a rollercoaster. Paul Buckle and Martin Ling built very good teams that challenged for promotion and Kevin Nicholson managed to pull off two great escapes with a very limited resources. However, for all this good, there were the Chris Hargreaves and Paul Cox’s, who meant well but couldn’t stop the rot. Or the squirrel man Alan Knill, who only won 18.5% of his games as manager and is now somehow assistant manager at the club that’s fifth in the Premier League. And then there is Gary Owers, the least said about him the better, probably the worst manager we’ve had in a while (I refuse to accept the existence of Dean Edwards). But there is one man, who figuratively stand above the rest as the Torquay United Manager.
Step forward Lord Gary Johnson, Torquay United legend. The veteran manager joined us in September 2018 after Gravy Gary had finally been relieved of his post. We had been languishing in the lower reaches of the National League South before Johnson came in, and the turn around was almost instant. It took 17 games for his first loss as manager, as we propelled ourselves up the table. It wasn’t long until we were fighting it out for promotion, which we should have been the whole time. Despite a few twists and turns towards the end, we managed to clinch our first ever title with a 2-0 win over Eastbourne at Plainmoor. Despite the erratic start to life back in the National League, the way the club has been transformed by Johnson is nothing short of phenomenal. He is also statistically our greatest ever manager, with a win rate of 58.21%. He’s got the excitement and passion back in Torquay United, and long may it continue.
Goalkeeper – Bobby Olejnik
Bobby signed under Martin Ling, along with Martin Rice and replacing the departing Potter and Bevan, having been with Falkirk in Scotland before joining the yellows. He was a pivotal player in a season that saw United narrowly miss out on automatic promotion and ultimately fall short in a play-off semi-final to Cheltenham. Olejnik was part of a defence which set a record of clean sheets for a season and also deservedly made the League Two team of the season. His contributions were understandably recognised by bigger clubs and a summer move to Peterborough followed in a £300,000 deal. In the years I have supported Torquay, only Andy Marriot comes close to Olejnik.
Right Back – Ben Wynter
Our current incumbent is the best right back we have had for years and a rare tick next to ‘Owers recruitment’. Despite a rocky start to his time at Plainmoor, Wynts really came into his own when Sir Gary Johnson rocked up and switched to a more cohesive back four. After seeing off the non-existent threat of Bobson Bawling. Ben barely looked back, becoming an ever-present in the Non-League South as we romped to the championship title. In addition, Wynts has the glory of scoring TUFC’s most iconic goal of the decade: the last minute equaliser/chaos-creator at Woking, it’s well worth mentioning again, isn’t it.
This season has seen Utd experience peaks and troughs and suffer an alarming number of injuries. Ben has been consistent throughout, ever-present again, and has made the step up with ease. Improving with every match, I think Wynts could manage another step up into the league above too. Fingers crossed.
Centre Back – Nathan Smith
When we signed Nathan Smith on loan from Port Vale in 2015, I was less than inspired. We were in the National League, we had money problems and the future was less than bright. Although the single season Smithy had at Plainmoor was not a successful one for the team, he stood out like a sore thumb and played way beyond his 19 years on this planet. We eventually managed to avoid the ignominy of relegation and a lot of that was down to Smith, who would end the season with the Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards in his back pocket before heading back to the Potteries. Not the archetypal centre-back, at less than six foot tall, he more than made up for his lack of size with skill and passion. And that has translated into a regular role with Vale, where he had a run of 110 consecutive starts at one point. He’s been their Young Player of the Year twice as well and would be more than welcome back at Plainmoor given our current defensive issues!
Centre Back – Angus MacDonald
Gus was another to come to Torquay via the loan route, having two temporary spells at Plainmoor during his time with Reading. He would then come to the club on a permanent deal in 2014, coinciding with our departure from the Football League. Although his two years were not the most inspiring in the club’s history, he proved to be an astute signing and at least earned us some money when he left the club for Championship side Barnsley just before the start of the 2016-17 season. Gus definitely lives for football, and you could tell that in his play. Sometimes it spilled out into his reactions as well, making headlines for verbally abusing Torquay fans during the FA Trophy semi-final defeat against Wrexham in 2015…but all was soon forgiven and it wasn’t long before he was named club captain. Since his move to Oakwell, Angus has not played at a level lower than the Championship, although the last 14 months have been wrecked by illness – first a deep vein thrombosis and more recently when the sad news broke he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. All I can do here is wish him well in what is sure to be the fight of his life and hope we will get the chance to see him play football again.
Left Back – Liam Davis
It’s hard to believe that Liam has only been with Torquay Utd for 3 or so seasons now. His consistently high level of performances, his strength in defence, his pace, those attacking forward runs. A player who despite being a part of one of the lowest periods in Torquay history with relegation to the NLS, still maintained his own personal high standards of performance and while many supporters were resigned to losing this exceptionally skilful defender, were given a glimmer of hope when he signed a new contract.
Liam is versatile, skilful, poised and assured on the ball with great distribution, plus uncompromising and battling. To have a player of his calibre with the club is some honour. A player who we can say without argument is the finest left back in non-league football and would grace many a league side even at the age of 33 years. It was no coincidence that our results dipped when he was out with surgery at the latter stages of last season and again during this season, his quality is much missed.
It was hard to enjoy much (if anything) about those seasons under Gary Owers, but LD’s performances were still a shining light. Under Gary Johnson he has continued to be an invaluable part of the team and instrumental in Torquay’s march up the National League table. Cruel then that the fractured ankle he sustained in the cup game at Maidstone could curtail his contribution to this season (after his return from previous injury) and his absence has dented the balance of the team. No player is irreplaceable but in Liam Davis’ case, he is a very, very hard act to follow. The first name on the team sheet, no question.
Right Wing – Danny Stevens
Danny Stevens was instrumental in the late noughties: memorably scoring twice against Yeovil in the FA Cup and a screamer at Burton. Those performances don’t count here. In two spells, the shortest adult in the Western world made 100 appearances for the Gulls between 2010/11 and 2013/14 and a few others on the right side of the 2009/10 season. His return under Chris Hargreaves was bleak, but I’m willing to overlook that because he’s sort of a cult hero in my eyes. He featured heavily in Buckle’s playoff final team and Lingy’s strong side the following year. With such a low centre of gravity, Danny was a dangerously nippy wide-man with an eye for goal: netting 28 times for the Yellows in his career. Also a laugh when he won a header. He plays on the right.
Centre Midfield – Eunan O’Kane
Eunan O’Kane was easily one of the most talented players ever to play on Plainmoor’s hallowed turf. The Irishman was signed from Coleraine by Buckle, and it was clear from the beginning that he was a special talent. Playing in the midfield with Mansell, he was a player that always seemed to have time on the ball and could pick a pass like nobody’s business. His pass to Mansell in the 2-2 draw at home to Burton Albion in 2011 springs to mind. He could also score a goal or two, with his double in the Devon Derby showcasing the very best he had to offer (highlights below). He was also included in the League 2 team of the year in 2013, alongside 3 other Gulls. Unfortunately, it was also clear that his immense ability meant that he would be playing much higher in the football League and in summer 2012, Bournemouth came knocking. Since then he has played for Leeds and has seven caps for the Republic of Ireland. He suffered a double leg break while on loan at Luton, which has ruled him out for the campaign. Would be great to see him fit and back on form.
Centre Midfield – Lee Mansell
Manse was a stalwart in the Gulls midfield for years, becoming a key part of both Buckle’s and Ling’s promotion chasing teams. The all-action midfielder (and sometimes very competent right back) made 391 appearances for us over an 8-year period, putting him 6th in the total appearances list. An integral part of the team that won promotion back to the League in 2009, he would become captain in 2010 as we tried to push our way up to League One. His tremendous form under Ling earned Lee a place in the League 2 team of the year, alongside Olejnik, Nicho and Eunan. Manse’s loyalty to us never wavered, but unfortunately his Gulls career ended on a sour note as we dropped out of the Football League in 2014. The midfielder then moved to local rivals Bristol Rovers, winning promotion with them the following season before eventually retiring in 2017. He is now the Development Squad Manager at Rovers. A true Gulls Legend.
Left Wing – Dan Sparkes
This guy is a proper, unapologetic, old-school left winger. Insert Jeremy Corbyn jokes here. Dan Sparkes was a bit like the left-sided equivalent of Wayne Carlisle. He didn’t have much pace to speak of, but his crossing ability was unparalleled. A season of him floating balls in for Brett Williams, Nathan Blissett and (to a lesser extent) Kieffer Moore, Ruairi Keating and Shaun Harrad pretty much kept us up. He accumulated sixteen assists and six goals from just 36 appearances that year (in a rubbish team), including crucially notching late on a cold evening at Solihull. Sparkes understandably fled the sinking ship in the summer of 2017. If he didn’t win player of the season then he really should’ve done. He adds balance, experience and a dangerous set piece taker to this Team Of The Decade – I’d love to re-sign him.
Striker – Jamie Reid
It’s difficult to imagine a player so utterly transformed during his time at Torquay. First arriving in 2014/15 on loan from Exeter City, Reid had some awful seasons under different managers when he was in and out of the team and often stuck out on the right wing. It turns out that he’s not a winger, something Gary Johnson immediately realised when he joined in September 2018.
The turnaround was instantaneous with Reid looking like a completely different player, finishing the season with 29 league goals. It’s amazing what playing week in week out and in your correct position can do for a player’s confidence. At the first game this season there were some on the Popside who before the game questioned whether Reid had the ability to step from the Conference South to the fifth tier. He answered these questions almost immediately, scoring in that game and going on to get 15 by time of writing. He is a thrilling player to watch, able to get himself into goal scoring opportunities with such ease. Probably the best example being at the Aldershot game a few months ago, back to goal but with some ingenious footwork leaving the defender for dead, he let fly from from some way out giving the goalkeeper no chance.
I hope Reid will be with us for a long time to come but given the inevitable level of interest in him if he continues on his current trajectory, a big money move will surely be on the cards in the foreseeable future.
Striker – Rene Howe
Signed by Martin Ling in the summer of 2011, to replace the outgoing Chris Zebroski, the new manager described him as someone “who has spent his career in a caravan” and “the type we need – he’s big and strong and can score goals”. It was a risky signing as Howe had been unable to find any sort of consistency with clubs before his move to Torquay. He repaid Ling’s faith, however, netting 14 in his first season (equalling Lee Mansell’s tally for the season).
It wasn’t just his goalscoring ability which earns him a place in this team though. His physical presence allowed him to hold the ball up and bring others into play, something Ling stressed was essential for the modern striker.
Howe is a player the likes of which we’ve lacked at Plainmoor since he left, significant physical presence but skilful and had an eye for goal. None of these things applied to his replacement, Karl Hawley.
The talented keeper had two spells with the Gulls under both Buckle and Ling. Best known for his wonder save against Histon in the play-offs of the 2009 promotion season.
The Torquay legend was a permanent fixture in the Yellows defence for a number of years. Helped win promotion to League 2 and scored a few crackers along the way.
A no-nonsense centre back who became a stalwart under Ling. Always gave 100% and was included in the League 2 Team of the Year in 2010/2011.
The Plymouth youngster was a stand-out in a succession of poor teams. His passing range was incredible and would score a handy goal too.
The Bristol City loanee made the National League South look like the Village League it was. Struggled with injury this season, but we all know what he can do.
Forget about his run-in with the law and exes, Zebs was so dangerous for us on the wing and upfront under Buckle.
The Torquay boy is now a full Welsh international. His 5 game spell on loan at us will be something we will be reminiscing about for years.