Dave Thomas has been a mainstay in all our Yellow Army lives for a number of years, either through the Herald Express or commentating on the Gulls. TT caught up with DT to discuss his move to the Torbay Week and much more:
Hi Dave thanks for talking to us. Before we delve into the past, let’s discuss the future! You are leaving the Herald for Torbay Weekly, what prompted this decision and what should we expect from the publication?
It was obviously a very difficult decision to say ‘Goodbye’ to something which has been such a huge part of your life for so long, especially leaving friends who have worked so hard and so well during a very tough period in regional media in recent years.
But the new Torbay Weekly has been a long time in the planning by people, many of them former Herald Express staff, who believe not only in the future of local media, but also that the area is poised for a period of regeneration and to realise potential which has gone untapped for far too long.
It aims to tick lots, hopefully all, the boxes that readers and visitors want and expect from their local press.
When did you start working for the Herald and what memories have you got from your early coverage of Torquay United?
I started on the HE in February 1973, in the creaky old town-centre offices at Braddons Hill Road. I had first stood on the Popular Side at Plainmoor as a teenager in 1964, and I had trained on the Torquay Times during the days of Frank O’Farrell and Allan Brown before working in Manchester and London.
Malcolm Musgrove was manager in ’73. In those days United finished in the middle of the old Fourth Division almost every year, and they were knocked out in the 1st round of the FA Cup in five successive seasons – not exactly a vintage era.
But it did feature players like the terrific defensive duo of Clint Boulton and Dave Stocks, winger Steve Morrall (only Rodney Jack ever matched him for sheer pace), the classy Cliff Myers in midfield and the always-fun Scottish pair of Willie Brown and Andy Provan in attack. Oh, and we had that fastest-ever own-goal by Pat Kruse against Cambridge in January 1977, of course.
Which TUFC era has been your favourite since then and why?
That’s so tough. I travelled everywhere with the team under Musgrove, Mike Green and Bruce Rioch in the seventies and early eighties, and the friendships made then have lasted – it was never dull, and I had to be the soul of discretion at times, believe me!
I always had huge respect for the way that Stuart Morgan held the club together during the Great Escape of 1987 and how the late Cyril Knowles then turned things around so completely. But there’s nothing like travelling to every away game thinking that you’re going to win, and for that you could hardly beat Leroy Rosenior’s great 2004 side, then at least the first two years under Paul Buckle (2007-2009) and last season in the NL South under Gary Johnson.
You have interviewed many managers over the years; which ones gave you the most enjoyment to speak to and why?
Chris Hargreaves says that there are good times to be managers of clubs and bad times, and he’s right. So I’ve always regretted that men like Mike Green, Bruce Rioch, Kevin Hodges, Roy McFarland and Ian Atkins never quite achieved the major success that they might have done, possibly through a limit on resources or circumstances at key times.
Leroy Rosenior was quite a private man, still is, but I loved watching his team play as everyone else did.
Paul Buckle had known United as a player under Don O’Riordan and, like Frank O’Farrell and Knowles before him, he believed that it is a club which has to be driven – hard. He certainly did, and I’m glad I knew him well enough to get over our occasional ‘moments’, but nobody can take away what he achieved from 2007-2011. And Gary Johnson – you’d need to be brain-dead not to enjoy working with him.
Give us your five favourite games that you’ve covered for the Herald Express?
Wow! With apologies for inevitably leaving out some belters, here goes in no particular order…
A. Turf Moor April 1987 – Burnley 2 United 2…Both teams in desperate relegation trouble but the wonderful, incorrigible Mark Loram scores two corkers, absolutely vital as it turned out. He started one from inside his own half, facing his own goal, left one defender for dead on the turn and went past two more before roofing a shot over the advancing goalie. In the press box Jimmy McIlroy, the old Burnley and Northern Ireland legend, described it as ‘the greatest f*****ing goal I’ve ever seen’, adding ‘Where the f*** did you get him from?’
B. Wembley May 1991 – Blackpool 2 United 2 (Utd win 5-4 pens)..what a night.
C. Wembley May 2009 – Cambridge 0 United 2…you know, THAT cross and THAT header; emotional.
D. Plainmoor May 1998 – United 4 (Jack 2, McCall, Gibbs) Scarborough 1 (Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd Leg)…one great night at Plainmoor is worth a year in any other place!
E. Roots Hall May 2004 – Southend 1 United 2…the best team of all delivers automatic promotion in style; never seen so many tears.
(…and, among others, I’ve left out Plainmoor November 2011 – Martin Ling’s United 3 (O’Kane 2, Stevens) Plymouth 1…sorry!)
You’ve followed the Gulls all over the land for many years, what are your favourite stories from these away day travels?
I once managed to cut the late, great Jimmy Armfield off in full flow – I pulled his BBC phone lead out instead of mine at the end of a game at Blackpool in 1984 – he was a bit put out to start with, but he couldn’t have been nicer about it as I spluttered more apologies later.
After little or no sleep at a New Year’s Eve party in Ashburton 1987/88, a regular car load of us drove to Leyton Orient in four hours the next morning, had a serious breakfast in Leyton High Road, I did my HE stuff as Loram and Caldwell destroyed the O’s 2-0 to go second in the old Fourth Division under Cyril Knowles and then we all drove home – a proper day out.
Neil Warnock was so happy at keeping us in the Football League in May 1993 that, after clinching safety with a 1-0 (Duane Darby) win at Carlisle on the penultimate day of the season, he ordered the team coach off the M6 and took everyone into Lancaster for a slap-up meal at an Italian restaurant he knew. We still had the best part of 300 miles to go, but no one gave a damn. I never did find out who paid – probably chairman Mike Bateson!
In November 1983 I got on the team coach as usual at Newton Abbot, bound for York City, to find John Turner and Steve Cooper arguing with Bruce Rioch over which film to watch on the TV. When Turner and Cooper ‘won’, Bruce announced that, since his authority obviously counted for nothing any more, he might as well make me ‘manager’. Everyone played along, I changed a few room pairings, levied some ‘fines’, organised a trip round York Minster the next morning (which most of the lads loved) and gave a quick ‘team talk’ before leaving the hotel. We won 3-2, inflicting York’s first home defeat for 18 months, I got a standing ovation from the lads as we set off for home – and immediately announced my ‘retirement’. I am still, as far as I know, the only Torquay United manager with a 100% record!
How would you say press coverage has changed over the years and how come you have yet to enter the world of social media?
Going from three editions a day to a weekly paper was as much of a downer for us at the Herald as it was for the readers, even though the same thing has happened all over the country.
I have never regretted spending most of my career covering lower division football. There is so little trust higher up the game now that coverage is increasingly driven by agents, who obviously have an agenda of their own.
My job is not, as some people seem to think, getting paid to watch football matches – it’s actually filling the space between the ads, day-in day-out or week-in week-out. I’m not complaining, of course, but it’s not a breeze all the time.
Social media is a hell of a communication tool, especially if you’re holed up in some desperate corner of the world, but it has become an animal that’s in danger of eating itself here. Of course, argument and speculation are a big part of football’s lifeblood, but instead of sounding off fairly harmlessly to your mates, as we’ve all done for yonks, social media has turned into a voice which refuses to shut up and go home for its tea.
I’ve obviously been urged repeatedly to join in, but I’m quite glad, in view of how some of the criticism over the last few years touched my family and friends, that I have stayed out of it. The worst thing you can do with a new toy, no matter how special it is, is to play with it all the time. You stop doing proper stuff.
Who are the biggest personalities you’ve dealt with during time at the Herald?
The obvious ones of course – Boyce, O’Farrell, Rioch, Turner, Knowles, Bateson, Impey, Caldwell, Fashanu, Warnock, Lee, Atkins, Mansell, Nicholson, Hargreaves, Buckle and now, definitely, Gary Johnson.
But I have always been equally drawn to people whose ‘personalities’ were not always so obvious – Mike Green, Stuart Morgan, Alex Watson, Roy McFarland, Leroy Rosenior, Alex Russell, Martin Ling, Craig Taylor, Steve Woods, Luke Young. Let’s hope the current generation throws up a few more…
What’s been the best and worst press boxes you’ve sat in during your time?
The press box in Plainmoor’s old grandstand was ridiculously cramped and you often had to be a contortionist to see all the pitch, but it had two great advantages -tea/sandwiches and an electric fire which kept you fairly warm even in the harshest winter. The view from the box in Bristow’s Bench is terrific, but as everyone else sitting around there will testify, it can be a bit parky!
You would expect the biggest clubs to have the best, but you can keep Old Trafford (disappointing) and the same went for White Hart Lane – no view at all.
Wembley is, as you’d expect, pretty good (catering excellent!) and there should still be stickers on a couple of seats, in the names of my esteemed colleague Guy Henderson and I, in the sure and certain knowledge that we will be back again soon..!
You had to take your life in your hands just clambering up the ladders to the boxes at the old Vetch Field (Swansea), Saltergate (Chesterfield) and Boothferry Park (Hull City).
Non-League football grounds have obviously tested resolve and patience, especially in the NL South (Concord Rangers, Weston-super-Mare etc), but for a surprisingly good afternoon I’d go for Kidderminster Harriers – friendly staff, a good view, points and plugs that always worked, tea/coffee and, the crowning glory on a cold afternoon, a cup of the delicious ‘Aggborough Soup’.
What’s been the biggest news stories you’ve broken at the Herald over the years?
We’ve hopefully kept ahead of the game most of the time, but one of the biggest stories had to be the exposure of Chris Roberts and his regime in 2006-2007. It started through some good contacts, the trail led us all over Europe and, thank goodness, we had a staff who were prepared to keep ‘digging’ and an editor who backed us. It was hard graft though.
What are your thoughts on the current ownership at Plainmoor and do you think overall the club is heading in the right direction? Also, how would you respond to accusations that the HE has not dug in deep enough in regards to Clarke Osborne?
The big problem with football club ownership is that most fans ideally want a cross between the Sultan of Brunei and Saint Francis of Assisi, preferably living just round the corner from the ground.
It was outgoing chairman David Phillips, a lifelong and very local United supporter, who first said that the cub was ten days away from going into administration before Clarke Osborne took it over in December 2016. And yes, he acquired United pretty cheaply as a result.
Osborne is a businessman to his bootstraps. Just like the late Tony Boyce and Mike Bateson – and for all their combined stewardship of 35 years, both of them annoyed or outraged supporters from time to time.
The current regime had never before run a club under the sort of spotlight as United, and we can all argue until the cows come home that some decisions and stances have been flawed. The Gulls were relegated to the NL South of course.
But it’s one thing to fire off allegations via social media, it’s another, even in this day and age, to stand them up in the mainstream media, especially when you have a duty to present a balanced picture of all issues.
Anyway, actions usually speak louder than words, and the club surely looks in a better place now than it was three and a bit years ago.
The last few balance sheets have reported that Riviera Stadium Ltd has invested more than £2.4 million in the club over that time.
That investment may be part of a wider strategy to deliver a dividend in the future, but if anyone thinks there is something inherently wrong in that, then they are hardly living in the real world.
Are the services provided by the club better than they were three years ago? Is the matchday experience better? Is the club more professionally run? Are there more season-ticket holders? Does it stand a better chance of winning promotion back to the Football League than it did three years ago? Is there a developing youth structure?
The thought of leaving Plainmoor tugs at all our heartstrings, but was it Clarke Osborne who first proposed it?
No – first it was Boyce, then it was Bateson, who was never a football fan incidentally, and, finally, it was Phillips. They all sang exactly the same ‘long-term sustainability’ song as CO has done.
Of course, we’ll all crawl over every detail of his proposed new stadium complex, when he finds a site for it and brings out the plans, and we will chase him to deliver it as promised.
Passion and loyalty are what keeps everyone coming to football. But, as Bateson once said in the face of criticism from a particular fan: “He calls Torquay United ‘my club’. That’s fine, and thanks for coming, but if so, would he mind turning up on Monday morning and help to pay the electricity bill?”
What do you make of the current squad and are you confident that Gary Johnson can get us back in the league?
Cyril Knowles growled to me one day: “If I make a hundred decisions every week and get 98 of them right, I don’t want you having a go for the two I might get wrong.” I cheekily asked what if those two decisions were the two big ones – and then made a run for it! No manager gets everything right, especially with the finances available in the lower divisions, and they are often limited by factors unknown to the fans.
Chris Hargreaves was once slaughtered by all and sundry for taking off young Shaq Coulthirst in the 70th minute of a vital relegation game at Plainmoor. But that decision was dictated by the terms of his loan from Tottenham, Hargreaves refused to reveal it for fear of losing another loanee he was hoping to get from Spurs, and he took the criticism on the chin without ever saying a word on the matter.
Gary Johnson can call on more experience, contacts, expertise, tactical and man-management skills than any United manager I’ve known for many years, if ever. His record speaks for itself. If he left Plainmoor tomorrow, would his phone battery be in the red for weeks to come? Yes, I think so.
United are not a club which can ship out one set of players and get in another set every year, even if that worked anyway, and all the best sides here have been built over two or three seasons, not one.
No team in the National League has suffered a greater level and duration of injuries to key players than Torquay have this year – Wynter, Davis, Vincent, Lemonheigh-Evans, Hall, Little, Edwards, Dickson, Buse, Kalala, Janneh etc etc.
But Johnson is still reshaping the squad that won the NL South title by ten points last season into one that’s capable of pulling off the hardest-to-win promotion in English football. So my feeling is that we should try and understand some of the problems associated with that process, keep a smile on our faces and let him get on with it…