“This was the season when we dared to dream”
The Ed blogs about the glory that was TUFC 2003-04
Dom Roman – @DomRoman
“Forget the world we currently inhabit and take a trip back back down memory lane with me to the summer of 2003”. Clichéd it might be, but a simpler time and simpler world. Brexit sounded like a puzzle that was yet to be invented, Corona was still just a beer. The news? Well in the world of football Roman Abramovich bought perennial cup team Chelsea FC for what looked like a pricey £140 million; in cricket the unknown entity of 20 20 begins, police start to use tasers for the first time and weapons expert David Kelly was found dead in his home in Oxfordshire. Facebook had not arrived into the UK and social media was an internet addition that had yet to grip us all. Meanwhile a pint of beer cost just over £2, I’m not sure that’s relevant, but here I am including it anyway.
In the world of Torquay United, optimism quietly filled the hearts and minds of the Yellow Army. Leroy Rosenior took on the mantle of Gulls manager in 2002 and brought with him a swagger and attitude that enthused fans, who had become frustrated by the somewhat out-dated tactics from Roy McFarland, who left the club after a disagreement with Mike Bateson. Ahh Mikey, a man who never shied away from making headlines and a dream for the Herald writers! He decided to give Leroy his first managerial opportunity, and was not to be disappointed by the results.
United finished 9th in Leee-roy’s first season, only four points off the play-offs and looking well set for another good season, especially when ex-Argyle defenders Craig Taylor and Brian McGlinchey joined to give the team valuable experience and knowhow for the battles to come. As the usual mix of pre-season friendlies came to an end the omens didn’t look quite so rosy. With the likes of Bedeau, Hazell and Gritton injured and David Graham only returning from an operation to play against Exeter City (a match in which the receipts were all gifted to the Grecians as they struggled to survive), the squad looked stretched already. No time to panic though, 7 days later the season began.
A heat-wave melted the country at the start of August and on the 9th United travelled to Northampton, with an excellent following pushing the team onto a very nice 1-0 win – Jason Fowler on target as both teams battled the temperatures and each other. The campaign was under way and the Yellow Army were ready to march.
Inconsistency marred the early months of United’s season, but there were good signs that this could be a year to remember. Two wins against Westcountry opposition stand out from September. Beating Bristol Rovers has always been sweet and goals from David Graham and Craig Taylor were enough for a 2-1 win at Plainmoor, whilst at the end of September nearly 1500 Gulls supporters travelled to Huish Park and celebrated a comfortable 2-0 win over Yeovil Town. David Graham adding to an already growing goals tally and Jo Kuffour back-heeling in from close range. Sweet. At the other end Arjan Van Heusden did his bit with some smart saves. United fans started to believe.
ARJAN VAN HEUSDEN – GOALKEEPER
“Arjan was not a clear first choice that season for Leroy, with the charismatic Kevin Dearden covering for spells as AVH suffered injuries. Indeed the Dutchman will never go down as one of United finest keepers…he was however a solid enough glovesman, quieter than Kevin, but a decent shot stopper who knew his own limitations and did the job to the best of his abilities in a wonderful season for the club”
Torquay’s momentum stuttered a little in October as Huddersfield and Hull City presented sizeable challenges and the Gulls could only take one point, and towards the end of the month Leroy Rosenior was strongly linked with a move to Brighton and Hove Albion. Unsettled or not the team played their worst game of the season at Boston and were thrashed 4-0. Thankfully that was about as bad as it got and thankfully the main man Leee-roy stayed put at Plainmoor as United headed into the winter.
This might have been a Gulls team on the up, but the old frailties in the FA Cup still existed as non-league Burton beat us 2-1 at Plainmoor in Round 1 (whatever happened to them?). But never mind that, the boys in Yellow were soon back at it, despatching Cheltenham 3-1 with David Graham scoring two delicious goals and then Southend 3-0 with Tony Bedeau, Graham and a rare Hockers goal from close range doing the job. Plainmoor buzzed at the enjoyment of watching this United team pass the ball on the deck, something which Rosenior demanded from back to front. Rarely had a TUFC XI been so pleasing on the eye and we loved it!
MATT HOCKLEY – DEFENCE/MIDFIELD
“Hockers was a popular figure around Plainmoor and rightly so. A local lad who played every game like it was his last, Matt never left anything on the football pitch. Charging around, making tackles and keeping it simple with the ball (pass it to Russell or Graham), a team player who did much of the dirty work that allowed Alex Russell time to dictate games. A guy with limited skills for sure, but someone who loved playing for Torquay United and always did his very best”
December provided little Xmas cheer for the Yellow Army, with the weather s### and a Boxing Day game at Plainmoor V Swansea played in ridiculously bad conditions. 0-0 in front of 4,447 supporters who were most likely just glad to get back to their left over turkey! New Year didn’t get any better, with Rochdale beating us 2-0 on a misty afternoon up north, a debatable penalty and the woodwork denying United. With the Gulls struggling to find the net, the prospect of a promotion challenge suddenly seemed more unlikely as 2004 rolled in.
United returned with a bang by beating the Cobbers 3-1 and Macclesfield 4-1 in January though, Lee Canoville bagging a rare goal in the first one and Craig Taylor heading one home on his 30th birthday against the Silkmen (yes I did think he was older!). The ex-Argyle stalwart was a big asset that season at the back. Taylor and Woods just made perfect sense, one with aggression and brawn to combat the big strikers, the other clever, concentrated and possessing composure to begin United attacks. Not many TUFC centre back partnerships have ticked so nicely as that one.
STEVE WOODS – CENTRE BACK
“I don’t need a second invite to talk about Woodsy! Steve was actually on a month by month deal at the start of this season, with previous injury problems making him a gamble to chairman Mike Bateson. In reality it ended up being no gamble at all as Steve had an excellent season, whether he was taking the ball off the keeper and distributing wisely, marshalling strikers with his careful and considered approach or popping up far post with the odd goal, we were lucky to have him. Woodsy won the supporters club player of the year, and certainly deserved the plaudits. A class act”
February loomed large on the Yellows horizon with Swansea, Huddersfield and Hull City sure to be a real of United’s credentials, with Leroy’s team edging into the play-offs the pressure started to mount. United responded well, beating Swansea away with a late goal from Jo Kuffour. The little attacker was frustrating at times, but he could always produce a bit of magic to turn a game. Huddersfield then turned up to Plainmoor and claimed a fortunate 1-0 victory, Torquay had played well but it wasn’t their day. Then a long away trip to Hull City and their spanking new KC Stadium. With Hull amongst the challengers this was a day for us to show our mettle and a Martin Gritton goal did the trick. What a win! A trip that still ranks as my longest following United, and belief seeping into the team that 2003-04 could turn out nicely…
As spring arrived things did not go all United’s way; the highlight of March was Kevin Hill scoring two goals on his birthday to help see off Carlisle 4-1 – including one beauty of a volley. The cavalry also arrived mid-way through the month in the form of Liam Rosenior, on loan from Fulham. His zest and energy helped keep his dad’s team on the front foot as the season reached it’s climax. Another fine win at Plainmoor saw David Graham score two more as Cambridge succumbed 3-0. Teams had started coming to the bay in hope more than expectation, and the excitement in the home crowd built and built as the weeks passed. Indeed this was my nephew Sam’s (aged 7ish) first season watching the team, things never got any better for him to be honest!
ALEX RUSSELL – MIDFIELD
“Speaking of class acts… Alex Russell was perfect for Leroy Rosenior and Leroy Rosenior was perfect for him. The boss preached passing football and in Alex he had the right man to set the tempo. Attacks so often flowed through the midfield maestro, whilst Russell was also happy to do the hard yards and help out in defence or attack. It felt like we took him for granted at times and I’m not sure we appreciated just how good he was. Once he had left and the likes of Garner and Hewlett arrived…everybody knew! One of our finest modern day players I’d say”
April swung into action and the anticipation of a Westcountry derby versus Yeovil Yown had reached fever pitch. Yeovil were having a decent first season in the Football League and arrived confident of taking the game to United at Plainmoor. The atmosphere was brilliantly noisy as 6,156 filled the ground and we were treated to cracking 90 minutes. The Glovers taking an early 2-0 lead before Leroy rang the changes and goals from Craig Taylor and Steve Woods salvaged a draw. Not quite what was required but a wonderful afternoon to be a Gull.
A hiccup arrived in the form of Bury away, but then Torquay kicked into gear and what looked like a play-off push suddenly turned into something even more tantalising. David Graham scored his 21st goal as United sped past Oxford United 3-0. Next on the cards a Doncaster team who had already been crowned as champions. That man Hilly did the business in front of 5,800 and United held on for a 1-0 win. We were now on the cusp of 3rd place, with three games left to play and could smell the strong whiff of a rare automatic promotion.
KEVIN HILL – MIDFIELD
“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every f##king where – Kevin Hill Kevin Hill. Hilly had been at Plainmoor for seven years and experienced all the usual ups and downs that Torquay United offer! As a footballer Kevin was not flashy, he wouldn’t dribble past full backs on the wing and he couldn’t pick players out regularly with 50 yard passes..but what he did offer was total and utter commitment, the ability to out-jump any opposition and an under-rated football brain that allowed him to cover various positions on a football pitch. Always last into the dressing room after games rousing applause and a true United legend. Hilly”
Next up as the finish line neared was a trip to Cheltenham Town and on a hot sunny day the Yellow Army were out in force, packing the away end and spurring the team onto perhaps their best performance of the season. Jo Kuffour was electric and scored two, whilst Woodsy got one from a corner – 3-1 to the Yellows and a fabulous away day! Even Cheltenham’s manager John Ward was full of praise for United and their total football. Two more wins and Torquay would be promoted…two more nerve shredding games to make history…
Kidderminster came to Plainmoor looking like potential whipping boys and David Graham scored yet another goal as the crowd of 5,515 rose to salute their heroes. But things could never be that easy at Torquay United, and with nerves starting to take hold the team could not put Kiddy away. The away team responded well in the second half and equalised, and so it finished 1-1. Plainmoor quiet and understandably despondant afterwards as automatic promotion suddenly appeared to slip away. My good friend Rich suggested that we give the away game at Southend a miss, I assured him we still had a chance. Thank goodness he listened…
DAVID GRAHAM – STRIKER
“What a bloody player Davie was that season! By the time 03-04 started the Scotsman had been on Torquay’s books for a few years, but had only found his form in fits and starts. This was his time to shine and bag 23 goals. On his day the striker could do it all, bang one into any corner of the net from outside the box, score glancing headers, hold the ball with aplomb and provide a perfect pass for colleagues – at Torquay’s level there was no-one better. He never hit those heights again after leaving United, but for those marvellous times at Plainmoor I’ll always be thankful we saw his best”
SOUTHEND AWAY. Mention those two words to any Torquay United supporter of a reasonable age and they will smile a knowing smile back at you. Personally it was a day of footballing heaven, a day when my time following the Gulls probably peaked – if I get any better days then they would have to be bloody amazing! 2,000 fans headed to Roots Hall, more in hope than expectation as we had to improve on Hudderfield’s result at Cheltenham to take 3rd spot. Myself and Rich took the travel club up and met my sister and nephew at the ground. My sister had been late booking tickets, how late was illustrated when we walked into the away end and found ourselves perched in the very top right hand corner.
From the start nobody…and I mean nobody sat down. Whether it was nerves or excitement, our seats would only be used at half time. This was tough on my little nephew (now 6′ 2″) who had to stand on the seat to see the action…but never mind the view, the Gulls were doing the business down the other end. First a Woodsy volley…get in therrrrre! Then a Davie Graham header….yessssssssss! Then Southend replying through Dudfield…all in the first 17 minutes. Pulses were racing. Huddersfield had taken a 1-0 lead at Cheltenham, a scoreline that filtered around the crowd. No smartphones in those days kids, just the odd fella plugged into a radio…well I told you they were simpler times.
The second half is then a blur to me. News filtered around that Cheltenham had equalised…then they hadn’t….then they had. F##king hell this could be our day! Amongst the supporters down the front you could make out the wonderful Helen Chamberlain who had Sky cameras following her that day; chewing her nails with the rest of the Yellow Army hoards as the minutes ticked down on this spine-tingling couple of hours. Surely Hudds would equalise…surely we’d blow it ourselves and hand Southend an equaliser….
Then with not long to play a Southend attacker advanced into right-side of our penalty area, the usually calm Reuben (Reeeeubbben) Hazell dived in and for all the world looked he’d brought the guy down. Often in football’s biggest matches everything and everybody freezes as all eyes point towards the referee, this was one of those moments. NO PENALTY was the call! Rich could not watch such was his panic (wimp), whilst my nephew’s legs were knackered…but then a final whistle, a joyous final whistle. And now you’re gonna believe us THE GULLS WERE GOING UP!
Scenes of ecstasy and joy filled the away end. Helen Chamberlain jumping into the gleeful arms of Alex Russell, Cav crying, happy moments to treasure for years to come. The calmest person around…Leroy Rosenior. Inwardly he was surely bricking it, but his presence did so much to turn this United team into promotion heroes. Afterwards I shook his hand through the barrier as we danced out of Roots Hall, and we returned to the coach emotionally shattered from an ridiculously emotional afternoon.
MANAGER PROFILE – LEROY ROSENIOR
“A man who will forever be known at LEEEE-ROY to the Yellow Army. The ex-West Ham man arrived at Plainmoor as an unknown quantity in management and hit the ground running at United. Leroy had presence. When he arrived onto the pitch pre-match there was a confident swagger about him and when he walked down the touchline fans always saluted the main man. He did inherit good players such as Jason Fowler, Alex Russell and David Graham, but the team was low on confidence and lacking direction. He set about enforcing a new DNA, built around pass and move. Play out from the back, be brave and go for 3 pts – it was a refreshing approach and paid off in spades. The season didn’t go all his way, but he never lost confidence in his bold tactics and eventually found the pot of gold. A tremendous effort”
Kevin Dearden – Kevin was a real character around the place and despite his noticeable lack of height brought authority and experience to the defence when deputising for AVH.
Arjan Van Heusden – See Above.
Lee Canoville – When reminiscing about 03-04, Cannoville is probably one of the last regular first team players that comes to mind. But the ex-Arsenal youngster played his part, rampaging up the right flank where possible and being fairly assured at the back.
Reuben Hazell – I’m not sure we’ve had many better cover players in defence than Reuben. A big strong player, Reuben was my nephew’s favourite player and rarely let the team down. Mind you if that penalty had been given and scored, he may never have lived it down!
Brian McGlinchey – McGlinchey was a lovely little left back, not showy or spectacular but consistent, concentrated and focussed alongside Woods and Taylor. It was sad when his Plainmoor career was cut short one year later by injury.
Craig Taylor – The acquisition of Craig Taylor helped push us from also-rans to challengers. A strong and authoritative centre back, Craig built a strong partnership with Steve Woods and also provided a threat from set pieces.
Steve Woods – See Above.
Jason Fowler – Fowler was a class act on his day and a joy to behold alongside Alex Russell, with the combination too clever for many opposition midfields. Unfortunately injuries took their tole and it was left to Matt Hockley to help Aggy out, but it was a pleasure to see him in a yellow shirt.
Kevin Hill – See Above
Matt Hockley – See Above
Liam Rosenior – Leroy’s son arrived right on time. With United reaching the crunch period of the season, young Liam’s energy and drive gave us an extra dimension, and there was no doubt a bright future lay ahead.
Alex Russell – See Above
Kevin Wills – Kevin was a decent utility player for United someone who came on 16 times from the subs bench to offer support to the first team regulars.
Tony Bedeau – Beds had to be content as bit part player for large parts of 03-04 and only started 13 times, but when called upon he still offered a pacey threat at wide midfield or striker.
David Graham – See Above
Martin Gritton – Gritton and Kuffour gave Leroy terrific alternatives to partner David Graham. Gritton was an unselfish striker happy to work hard and help create space for the Scotsman, whilst chipping in some valuable goals here or there.
Jo Kuffour – I think you could probably say Jo Kuffour was under-rated as a Torquay United player, indeed he never turns up in any Dream Teams. But Jo was a cracking little lad, all jinks and turns, fun to watch and scoring 10 goals to aid the promotion push. A sometimes infuriating player but someone who could provide magic to turn a game on it’s head.
“This was the season when we dared to dream, when after years of supporting the Gulls I bought my first ever club shirt and then booked my first ever season ticket. I had supported United for close to 15 years, but had never been so gripped by Yellows fever before. Seasons like 2003-04 don’t happen very often to teams like Torquay United, as wonderful football and league points go hand in hand. I’ll always be tremendously thankful to Leroy and the boys for those memories. Emotional“. Dom