“My consortium also reached the conclusion that professional full-time football could not be sustained at Plainmoor”
“The Chris Roberts era of ownership was an embarrassing pantomime at United that threatened our very existence as a football club. In 2007 with Roberts on the way out we had reached breaking point, but a new board including Alex Rowe came in and resuscitated the club, ushering in exciting times under young manager Paul Buckle. To my delight Alex agreed to answer questions about his time at Torquay United…may I introduce a A Catch Up with Alex Rowe“
TT – Hi Alex, great to catch up with you. So before we discuss your time on the board at United, what’s keeping you busy these days?
AR – I have been very fortunate to have enjoyed a business career across a diverse range of sectors. Currently, I chair a boutique financial services business in Torquay, sit on the boards of a general insurance company based in High Wycombe, a ‘start up’ financial advice business in London; and a company that operates in the regenerative medicine sector in Plymouth. I am also a trustee of Wild Planet Trust that operates Paignton and Newquay Zoos and Living Coasts; and which does great wildlife conservation and education work both locally and overseas.
I had a similar range of responsibilities when involved with United, chairing the board of the Riviera Centre, vice chair of the TDA; and in the sporting arena, chair of both Torquay Cricket Club and Torquay Golf Club.
You were part of the new regime that took over the club in the summer of 2007, how did that come about?
The people most responsible for recruiting me were legendary United chairman, Tony Boyce and his sons and devoted Gulls fans, Mark and Cris. I had known Tony for many years through business and personal connections; and the Boyce brothers are close friends of mine. When people of their stature came to me with a proposition involving the football club I had actively supported since moving to Torquay in 1984 and had grown to love, I knew this was the moment to fulfil a long held ambition of joining the board of my local football club.
We then set about adding to the group by identifying and approaching other individuals we thought would make suitable consortium members. The criteria were simple: they must be Gulls supporters, live locally, be sufficiently well-resourced to be able to invest in the Club; and be prepared to roll up their sleeves and make an active contribution to getting TUFC back on its feet.
The attendant publicity really helped as this brought us into contact with experienced club directors, Ian Hayman and Brian Palk; and also Paul Bristow. His interest and subsequent investment took us to the next level and I knew we had assembled a winning team off the pitch at least!
It also helped that I count nearly all of consortium members as friends, with only Simon Baker and Paul Bristow being relatively unknown to me. In a short space of time they too became friends and we forged a close relationship within the group. I recruited Tony Carter who was ‘lucky’ enough to be driving past my house one Sunday morning. I flagged him down and invited him in for a cup of tea, which turned out to be comfortably the most expensive cuppa he’s ever had!
I’m not quite sure how I ended up being chairman but I considered it an honour and a privilege – and an awesome responsibility.
Just what sort of state was the club in at that time, were we in danger of losing our football club?
I think all of us who witnessed the shenanigans of the Roberts’ regime knew that the club was unravelling and spiralling into potentially terminal decline. His ignominious period ended when he defaulted on a payment and the club’s shares thus reverted to the ownership of the Bateson family.
This was clearly the last thing Mike and his family wanted. Having made a huge contribution to Torquay United over the previous 17 years, they were drained mentally and emotionally and not minded to add to their already considerable investment in the Club.
My take on it is they would not have allowed the Club to die, but would have run it on a minimum level of funding – essentially on life support.
I believe the club would have operated on a part-time basis from 2007 onwards and I doubt a return to the Football League was ever going to be a realistic prospect on that basis. In the absence of credible buyers, we would have slipped inexorably into the depths of non-league football, never to return.
How did the new board set about rebooting TUFC as a football club, and what were the biggest challenges?
The new board had two priceless commodities: energy and money-and I believe we used both to good effect. Further more, we were successful in our respective fields of expertise and not prepared to contemplate failure at Torquay United. We were proud and ambitious, very much members of the Torbay community where we lived and worked; and we wanted Torquay United to reflect our values and culture. In short, we were visible to our supporters and therefore accountable; and this was highly motivational when it came to relaunching Torquay United.
The biggest challenge was regaining the trust of our stakeholders. We needed sponsors to re-engage with the club and bring much needed financial support; and we needed supporters to trust us that we would bring exciting football back to Plainmoor and genuinely challenge for Football League status. This manifests itself in renewing season tickets, coming through the turnstiles, using our pub, bars and restaurant; and journeying to away fixtures – and they did this in droves. For the fans placing our trust in us, I will be eternally grateful; and their goodwill never faltered even when results did!
Another challenge was to get a group of talented but single-minded, strong willed individuals to work together as a team for the greater good of the club. It is fair to say that my board colleagues, Chief Executive Colin Lee, and Paul Buckle were never short of opinions but by and large we thought things through, worked well and constructively together; and made more good decisions than bad ones.
What was Paul Buckle like to work with and how disappointing was it to lose him to Bristol Rovers?
To summarise Bucks in a few words: brilliant, ambitious, uplifting, demanding, challenging, difficult, inspirational, ruthless – often all of the above within the same 15 minutes! He had exactly the characteristics I would look for in a young manager working in any organisation with which I was associated. I really enjoyed working with him and while we had some spectacular differences of opinion, we shared the same ethos and values as to how Torquay United should play and how our players should conduct themselves away from Plainmoor, when they were de facto ambassadors for our club.
By and large I left football related matters to the experts, but soon after his appointment I asked two things of him: 1) That no Torquay United team of my era would ever be bullied off the park; and 2) that our players would not let the club down when engaging with the South Devon community. “Don’t worry, Chairman” he replied “we will recruit good players and good people”. I believe most of us reflecting on the Buckle years will agree he did just that.
I like to think we enjoyed a mutual respect and we certainly shared confidences that only a successful Chairman/Manager relationship can sustain. My wife and I are good friends with Paul and Rebecca and keep in regular contact across the Atlantic.
I was and remain philosophical about Paul’s departure for Bristol Rovers. At the time, I remember being irritated by the rumours of his departure hanging over us when we faced Stevenage in the Play-Off Final at Old Trafford – a distraction we could have done without. That said, Torquay United is often likely to be a nursery for emerging talent and those with ability will move on to greater challenges in due course. Paul was no exception; and the club was handsomely compensated for the loss of his services.
What were the highlights of your time at the club between 2007-14?
I could probably write a book on this section alone; but I will restrict my answer to those moments that continue to resonate with me and which made those years among the most memorable of my life.
The victory over Cambridge United at Wembley that secured our return to the Football League was obviously one of the greatest days in the Club’s entire history, but there was so much riding on the outcome, it was almost stressful! I didn’t really begin to enjoy the moment until the team coach returning to Devon drove all of 500 metres before making it’s first stop at the Wembley Hilton Hotel where many colleagues, friends and supporters were congregated.
Seeing Chris Hargreaves lead his band of warriors into the bar clutching the trophy with their medals around their necks brought a tear to my eye. The icing on the cake was hearing Wayne Carlisle’s version of how just prior to delivering the greatest cross of all time he had the presence of mind to glance up and weigh up his options. He dismissed Danny Stevens as ‘too small’, Elliot Benyon as “too unreliable” but thankfully spotted Sillsy’s timely arrival – all in a split second!
Perhaps strangely, in view of the result, I also regard the FA Trophy final at Wembley the year before as a highlight. It was fantastic occasion for our supporters who must have thought days like these would never happen again, given where we were just 12 months previously. I, for one, chose to celebrate how far we’d come in 12 months and not to get hung up on the result. I knew we’d learn valuable lessons for campaigns ahead – and I knew we’d be back!
Three individual matches stand out. A 3-3 draw away at Oxford United where we came back from 3-0 down at half time; with a brilliant individual goal from Zebroski and a trademark Tim Sills header rounding off a great counter attack straight from an Oxford corner.
Also a 2-1 win away at Forest Green Rovers which was as close as I ever came to sacking Bucks – for not including a keeper on the subs bench. Fans may recall how we lost Michael Poke to injury, Chris Todd likewise; and ended up putting Tim Sills in goal. With the spine of the team effectively dismantled, we then gave away a needless corner on the stroke of half time which led to an FGR goal. Apoplectic, I sought the calming influence of Tony Carter – not one of Tony’s most obvious qualities – and a large brandy. The 2nd half was incredible with Rovers missing a penalty while we scored 2 to pull off an unlikely victory which I massively over-celebrated.
Finally, the 4-1 victory over Yeovil in the FA Cup, live on Match of The Day was absolutely incredible. One of those occasions when Plainmoor was rocking and the noise unbelievable.
Perhaps most importantly, Jacqui and I believe our lives were greatly enriched by our time on the board at United. We made lots of friends across the football community, travelled widely in both the UK and abroad in the service of the Club; and had experiences that money simply cannot buy.
And what were the lowlights?
In the context of the outcome of football matches, not too many. I am a strong believer in taking the rough with the smooth; and not being able to appreciate success unless you experience failure.
I was annoyed at the way we performed in a 3-0 defeat away to Southport in the FA Trophy; and gutted to lose to Coventry City in the FA Cup when we performed with great distinction, were the better side and where victory would have secured considerable financial benefit.
Of course, ‘gutted’ does not begin to describe the feeling of devastation following our semi final play-off defeat to Exeter City. Perhaps we weren’t quite ready for League 2 – but I would have liked the chance to find out!
More generally, being relegated from the Football League at the end of the 2013/14 season was a horrible experience; and a huge kick in the teeth after working so hard to win promotion 5 years previously. League status is a precious commodity for a small club like ours; and to lose it on my watch is a failure I take personally.
All of the above pales into insignificance alongside the human issues that impacted on me during my time at the Club. Specifically, the untimely passing of Paul Bristow whose death deprived us of one of the original and pivotal Consortium members and valued friend; and also the way we handled Martin Ling’s departure from the Club. I won’t expand on what is already in the public domain; but we should have managed this situation better and I take my share of the responsibility for not doing so.
There were certainly plenty of characters around the club at that time, any stand out stories you’d like to share?!
Correct! We had an amazing cast of characters both on and off the pitch; and I believe much of our success emanated from harnessing their strengths and negating their weaknesses. There are plenty of stories from those days lodged in my memory, some of which may even be true!
However, I am not going to offend or embarrass any individual around the club at that time as I know everyone of them gave 100% for the cause – except one! I am going to ‘out’ John Milton’s retired greyhound, Tom, who stole a joint of meat off the table at Tim Sills’ barbeque. Tom may have retired from the track but he was still quicker than anyone in our squad!
I should also mention the 2007 Christmas Party at my wife’s family restaurant, Yum Sing. Attended by all staff, players and their partners, it was one hell of a party with Sillsy and Toddy magnificent on the karaoke. Unfortunately, we didn’t sober up until March and only just crawled over the line into the play-offs.
Which players stood out for you during your time at the Club and why?
For obvious reasons the 2007-09 period holds the fondest memories for me and so my favourite players inevitably featured during that period.
My office wall has a photograph of Hargreaves, Sills, Todd, Mansell and Carlisle posing with the Bob Lord Trophy after Wembley 2009 and that’s a great place to start. If I add Nicholson and Hodges to this group of senior professionals, then what an outstanding cohort of players with which to form the backbone of any squad of that era.
These guys wore our shirt with pride and gave their heart and soul for our club. Players who inspired those around them to grind out results on miserable nights in Drolysden, Lewes, Barrow and Histon where lesser men would have given up and been swept away.
It is impossible to single out individuals: they are all wonderful characters, family men who graced our club and were the epitome of Buck’s statement – ‘Good players, good people’. It is no surprise that many of them have gone on to have successful careers as coaches, managers and teachers either in football or education.
Of the younger players, Ellis and Robertson stood out for their resilience under pressure and potency in opposing penalty areas; and Danny Stevens could be mesmerising on his day. After 2009, I would pick out Eunan O’Kane, Bobby Olejnik and Rene Howe as the players I most enjoyed watching. An honourable mention, too, goes to Guy Branston who terrified me when playing against us and was pretty scary when playing for us!
How was your relationship with Paul and then Thea Bristow?
As I mentioned earlier I didn’t know the Bristow’s personally before we took control of the club; but I had admired the way they had invested some of their Lottery win into local projects and organisations; and they certainly took the same benevolent approach with Torquay United, which they regarded as a vital community asset that needed protecting and nurturing.
From the outset, they were outstanding benefactors either directly funding or effectively underwriting considerable investment into the club. They became close friends with us all, loved going on away trips to support the club; and enjoyed being part of the consortium. Although they were by some distance the biggest investors, they respected the contributions of all of us, never tried to impose their will on the basis they had the deepest pockets; and fully subscribed to the ‘primes inter pares’ philosophy that we tried to follow.
Personally, Jacqui and I got on well with both of them and even went on a Disney holiday to Florida with them, where we got to know them and their family even better. It should be remembered that Paul had assumed the vice chairman’s role prior to his death not just because of his investment but because of his overall development into an astute and thoughtful businessman.
Thea deserves our eternal gratitude for picking up the mantle after Paul’s sad passing. While the board room was not her natural theatre of operations, she used her great intelligence and sound common sense to steer the club through some difficult times. She remains an avid supporter of the club, home and away, and I still meet up with her to contest the Kent’s Pub quiz from time to time.
In summary, I have nothing but the greatest respect for them: for their contribution to local causes, for underpinning some of Torquay United’s greatest successes and for their enduring friendship.
You left the Club in 2014 as the club were relegated down to the Conference, what would you say were the main reasons for the club’s downturn in fortunes?
That’s a really good question; and I put it down to a number of factors. Firstly, there was less money available to support the manager with the redevelopment of the main stand into Bristow’s Bench taking up all surplus cash.
Secondly, regarding Alan Knill’s tenure as manager, one of my colleagues described it as a ‘lazy appointment’ following his rescue act from the previous season. In hindsight, it was certainly the easy option and one that I supported at that time. But on reflection, we probably should have taken stock, regrouped over the close season and appointed a manager with closer ties to the westcountry where Alan never seemed entirely at home.
His recruits certainly let him down either through poor form or succumbing to injury; and perhaps we should have acted sooner as Chris Hargreaves had little chance to arrest the decline. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, because Alan had a great track record, fantastic work ethic; and has gone on to do great things supporting Chris Wilder at Sheffield United.
Are you still a regular at Plainmoor and what’s your views on the current management and squad?
Yes, I have retained a season ticket ever since I left the board and perch in Bristow’s Bench near the front on the half-way line close to my friends and former board colleagues, Cris and Mark Boyce. Our mate, Leigh Extence, also sits with us, glorying in his role as the greatest director we never had! This spot is perfect for sharing opinions with fourth officials, passing advice to Gary and Aaron; and making the opposition’s management team feel welcome.
The only thing that stops me attending is if my son, James, who plays in central defence for Torquay United U16s has an away fixture. Jacqui and I always travel to his matches. James has also turned out for the U18s managed by Chris Todd; and it’s great to see my son coached by a Plainmoor legend.
In the main, I think Gary Johnson and Aaron Downes have done an excellent job; and if the day after Owers was sacked, someone had offered us mid-table in the National League in January 2020 we would have shaken their hand off!
I think the acid test of the current squad is to ask how many of them would have got into the promotion winning team of 2009 who set the bench mark. Currently, I suspect not too many. Indeed you only have to look at the subs bench at Wembley 2009 – Rice, Thompson, Hodges, Carayol, Green – to realise the strength in depth you need to reach the Football League.
That said, a solid core certainly have that level of potential; and if we can get our best eleven match fit and playing regularly, then we may yet reach the play-offs. After that, anything can happen!
You were chairman between 2007-09, what are your views on our current owners and what do you think they could do better?
I am reluctant to criticise our owners as I know from my own experience that owning and running a football club is not as easy as it looks. I have only met Clarke Osborne on a few occasions; but I must say he made a point of arranging to meet me to seek my opinion on matters affecting the club and the wider Bay, and to explain his plans going forward. I was very grateful for the time and courtesy extended to me, even though he left me with the bill for the coffee!
In terms of ongoing financial support, I think we should be thankful he continues to fund day to day operations; and in addition, he appears to allow Gary to bring in a replacement every time a player gets injured which must put the playing costs well over budget.
From a personal perspective, I’m delighted to hear his often repeated commitment to youth development at United via the establishment of a fully functioning academy. I watch the U16s every week and know that coach Richard Cherry has developed a talented group of players, many of whom have first team potential. They will be transitioning into the U18s in June and will be within touching distance of the first team squad.
In principle, I also support his plans to relocate the club to a new purpose built stadium. My consortium also reached the conclusion that professional full-time football could not be sustained at Plainmoor, unless the club could double its revenues; and Plainmoor, much as we love it, simply does not present that opportunity. Hence we explored options just as Mr Osborne is doing.
Finally, while I have no real objection to Clarke being a largely absentee owner in the fashion of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, though he could certainly improve his PR by allowing his representatives to be candid with supporters; and to engage openly with fans groups.
My regime was far from perfect, but we took every opportunity both formally and informally to talk to our supporters and keep them abreast of developments. This helps builds a reservoir of goodwill which is massively beneficial when the club hits choppier waters as invariably happens.
I wish Clarke and his board every good wish for the future and urge them to stay committed to our wonderful club. But if he ever wanted to sell and if I won the Euro Millions, I’d be back in a heartbeat.