‘Gullactico’ – Lee Mansell by Sam Druiff

GULLACTICO

Sam Druiff shares an article first written for Highway to Hele fanzine on Lee Mansell

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Sam Druiff – @samdruiff

Just a midfield hustler…

After Ian Atkins miraculously kept the Gulls up in 2006, he set about building a team capable of pushing on for the oncoming season, one of those signings was Lee Mansell. ‘Manse’ was signed from Oxford United, who were condemned to the Conference after our great escape. He joined the Atkins revolution and was given the number 10 shirt for his first season at Plainmoor.

The former Hatter played 45 games that season; not bad going considering he played under three managers. The team started well that year and found a knack of scoring late winners, one of which came at home to Wycombe from Lee himself. Cementing a place in the Torquay midfield, fans took to his hard work ethic very quickly, something he maintained through his years. Fast-forward to the end of the season, 80 years of league football came to an end as Torquay were relegated the conference, and for Manse, it was a second consecutive relegation in his fledgling career. The first of many eventful seasons with the Gulls.

An entire new board and management came into the club over the summer of 2007, and a major squad overhaul came in, with only a handful of the players staying from the season prior. The Buckle-era was underway, and the manager Lee would play under for the majority of his time at Plainmoor. Being given a new number, 7, Buckle played him in midfield with former Oxford teammate Chris Hargreaves at the start of the season. But come January Buckle signed veteran former Argyle midfielder, Steve Adams, this signing gave Mansell a new position under Buckle in right back, one he would play in for the most part of the Buckle era.

That season he did offer so much attacking threat from his new position, none more so than the home game against Aldershot Town. If my memory serves me correctly, Danny Stevens, giving Shots’ left back Darius Charles a hard game from the wing, laid back a perfectly weighted pass to Mansell who whipped in a delicious cross for Lee Phillips to head home – cue eruption from the Plainmoor faithful. Torquay finished third that season and met fierce local rivals in a blockbuster play-off semi final. Torquay dramatically lost a 3-1 aggregate lead in twenty minutes to a rampant Exeter comeback and could only watch on as the Grecians won promotion at Wembley against Cambridge United. That season Mansell signed a new two year deal at Plainmoor much to the delight of the Yellow Army.

The following season was one where he would get his first real career success, another season filling in at right back after new signing Nicky Wroe pinned down the midfield position with captain Chris Hargreaves. But Mansell made the right back position his own, creating a good partnership with Wayne Carlisle. That season he was part of the team that famously beat Cambridge in the play-off final to send United back to the Football League. I’m sure many people have seen the great photo of Mansell and Nicholson holding the trophy after the game. Finally some deserved success for a player who had been relegated twice, and lost a play-off semi final.

The first season back in the league saw crowd favourites Tim Sills and Chris Hargreaves pushed out of the club in January by the somewhat ruthless Paul Buckle, but Manse stayed, and played nearly every league game. Still operating at right back, he was in a back four that struggled in the early stages of the season, but a good end to the season saw Torquay finish seventeenth, and a strong finish had many around the club believing the club could mount a serious challenge the next season. And that they did, in what would be Buckle’s final season in charge of the Gulls.

Again, starting the season at right back, Lee made himself a mainstay of a strong Torquay team. In the January window of that season Nicky Wroe was placed on the transfer list, and Manse was appointed Buckle’s new captain. This was another eventful season; United made the 4th round of the FA Cup for the second time in three years. A home tie to big spenders Crawley Town was the draw and proved to be one of the more eventful cup ties to be played at Plainmoor. Crawley took an early lead through Matt Tubbs. In the second half Mansell was given the armband when Billy Kee replaced Nicky Wroe. Crawley, having already had a Tubbs penalty saved by the giant Scott Bevan, were awarded another one after Mansell allegedly fouled Steve Cook running into the box. A dubious decision but it brought another save from Bevan. Despite a disappointing exit in the cup, Manse helped guide the team to a play-off final at Old Trafford against Stevenage. Captaining the side in the game, Manse could not prevent the side slipping to a 1-0 defeat, in what inevitably would be Paul Buckle’s last game in charge. 

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Photo by Andy Styles – Herald Express

The following summer saw big changes at the club, Martin Ling was appointed manager, and brought in an almost new squad, Mansell was named team captain, in what was undoubtedly his best season for the club. A midfield three of Eunan O’Kane, Damon Lathrope and Lee Mansell gave Mansell the freedom to play as a box to box midfielder; he must have covered every blade of grass at least twice per game that season. It was also a prolific season for the midfielder, scoring thirteen, only one shy of top scorer and referee favourite – Rene Howe.

The team didn’t have the best first half of that season, but the turning point was an away game at local rivals Plymouth Argyle. A 2-1 win on the 2nd of January was a catalyst for a surge into the top seven. It was a game in which Mansell scored probably his most iconic goal for the club, prodding in right in front of the Yellow Army, sealing a massive away win and celebrating in front of the adoring Yellow Army with a classic knee slide. Later on in that season in a home tie against Bristol Rovers, United found themselves 2-0 down with twenty minutes to go, and almost single handily, Manse dragged the team through; scoring on 72 minutes and later putting the ball through to Rene Howe who equalised in the last minute.

Despite Mansell’s incredible form that season, it wasn’t enough as the team fell just short of the automatic promotion places, and completely fell apart against a strong Cheltenham team in the play-offs. But despite the season not finishing as well as it deserved too, it was bitter sweet for Lee, as he and three of his United colleagues – Bobby Olejnic, Kevin Nicholson and Eunan O’Kane all made the Football League Two team of the year.

The next season saw Torquay lose important players and make some pretty average signings. Mansell continued to captain the team, but in the days leading up to the away tie to Exeter City, manager Martin Ling was taken ill. Assistant Shaun Taylor was forced to take charge for the next couple of months and the team started to slide down the league table. Interim manager Alan Knill took over and the team managed to halt the slide and end the season with their Football League status intact. Unfortunately, the board took the decision to relieve Martin Ling of his duties, a sad decision on a manager who had got the very best out of the Gulls’ captain over the time he was here.

Yet another pre-season, entering the last of his contract, Lee was again manning the ship that was now being run by Alan Knill. Some very poor recruitment saw the team start terribly. A New Year’s Day defeat to local rivals Argyle saw Knill sacked much to the delight of the Yellow Army. The first game without Knill was at home to Morecambe and Geoff Harrop was put in temporary charge. But it was an expected appointment when former teammate Chris Hargreaves was appointed manager. Mansell remained as captain but the team kept sliding. On the 26th April 2014 the Gulls were relegated back to the Conference. The third time Mansell had experienced it in his career. Facing another spell in the Conference, there was a lot of speculation surrounding the squad; club legend and future manager Kevin Nicholson was amongst the first casualties to be released. But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that Mansell was contacted by the other relegated team, Bristol Rovers. After eight years, 389 appearances, 24 goals, the club legend was off.

Lee Mansell will always be held in high regard amongst many Torquay United fans, although he was also an opinion splitter. A player who gave his all every single match he played, connected with the fans, and managed eight, very eventful years. I once saw someone describe him as ‘just a midfield hustler’. If a midfield hustler achieved all he did for Torquay, and then went on to win promotion back to the league in his first season at Bristol Rovers, and the win back to back promotions and play in league one, he can’t be all that bad.

In the time I have supported the Gulls, Lee Mansell has featured in more games than any other. He was a player I enjoyed watching an awful lot, it’s rare to see a player care as much as he did. So for me he is a true ‘Gullactico’.

Sam D

If you’d like to write about a United favourite of yours (from any era of the club’s history) feel free to get in touch – Dom

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