Steve Harris – @steveharris84
Since the suspension of live football following the Covid-19 lockdown, Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright have kept us entertained with their top-10 lists in the absence of the normal Match of the Day.
I will now take a leaf out of their book to put forward my own list of the top ten all-time Torquay United managers. From an initial shortlist of around 20, I have managed to whittle it out to a final ten, which will no doubt prompt plenty of lively debate.
Before I reveal their identity, I will give an honourable mention to those who didn’t quite make it. Bruce Rioch enjoyed a fine career with Middlesbrough, Millwall, Bolton Wanderers and Arsenal amongst others but unfortunately never remained at Plainmoor long enough to achieve the success he might have achieved with more time.
The man who first brought Rioch to Plainmoor as a player Mike Green put together a number of competitive sides in the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons on modest budgets which fell short of promotion.
Roy McFarland helped to lay the foundations for the success enjoyed by Leroy Rosenior in the 2003-04 season and the architects of two of United’s ‘great escapes’ Stuart Morgan (1986-87) and Ian Atkins (2005-06) also deserve a mention in dispatches as does John Impey who guided United to promotion via the play-offs in the 1990-91 season after succeeding Dave Smith.
Don O’Riordan and Kevin Hodges both suffered play-off misfortune in the 1993-94 and 1997-98 seasons respectively and if luck had been kinder to both of them they could have been promotion winners. Percy Mackrill also deserves a mention for leading United to their Southern League Western Section title in the 1926-27 season, which, of course, paved the way for the club to secure election to the Football League in place of Aberdare Athletic in 1927.
Neil Warnock and Colin Lee also a mention for their contributions in the 1992-93 and 2000-01 campaigns, but as they were only caretaker managers, they aren’t being considered for the main list.
10. Allan Brown (1969-1971) Key game: Wrexham (h), September 1971
Named as the successor to the Leicester City bound Frank O’Farrell (a position that he had actually applied for), former Blackpool and Scotland winger Allan Brown helped to keep the momentum of the Irishman’s success following his appointment midway through the 1968-69 season.
At the end of his first season in charge, the Gulls finished 6th – the club’s second highest ever league finish – which was followed by 13th and 10th placed finishes in the 1969-70 and the 1970-71 seasons respectively. However, the magic wore off in the 1971-72 season as he was sacked following a 3-2 home defeat against Wrexham after he perhaps prophetically said in his post-match interview ‘this team will get me the sack’.
9. Dave Smith (1989-1991) Key game: West Ham United (h), January 1990
The ‘Ciderman’ had already won four promotions as a manager with Mansfield Town, Southend United (twice) and Plymouth Argyle before he replaced Cyril Knowles as manager in the 1989-90 season. He also led the Pilgrims to their highest post-war finish of 7th in the ‘old’ Division One – now Championship – before returning to his native Scotland to manage his hometown club Dundee.
After his arrival at Plainmoor, Smith steered the Gulls away from 23rd in the ‘old ‘Fourth Division and led them to an eventual 15th placed finish. He also masterminded one of United’s best ever results in the FA Cup as they defeated West Ham United in the 3rd round of the competition.
In the summer of 1990, following the takeover of the club by Mike Bateson, Smith brought Wes Saunders for a club record fee of £60,000 and signed Tommy Tynan on a free transfer after he was released by Plymouth. United made a strong start to the campaign, which saw him win the manager of the month award for September 1990 as the Gulls topped the Fourth Division table. Smith later resigned following an inconsistent spell in April 1991, and he was replaced by John Impey who would later lead the side to promotion following their play-off final win over Blackpool at Wembley. Had he stayed to finish the job then he would probably feature higher up in this list.
8. Gary Johnson (2018-present) Key game: Eastbourne (h), April 2019
Eighth place and rising is probably the best way to describe Gary Johnson’s placing in this list as he will be hoping to lead the Gulls to promotion back into the Football League when professional football in this country resumes. Nevertheless, Johnson’s achievements to date in winning the National League South title have already ensured that he will always be remembered by the Plainmoor faithful.
At the time of his arrival United were 14th in the National League South table and ten points behind the then leaders Woking, but at the end of the season United finished the campaign as champions – ten points clear of Woking. Johnson also deserves a lot of credit for turning around the fortunes of Jamie Reid, who struck 52 of the 63 goals he scored in his 176 appearances for United following Johnson’s arrival in September 2018.
7. Paul Buckle (2007-2011) Key game: Cambridge United, May 2009
Paul Buckle’s drive, determination and occasional ruthlessness transformed the fortunes of a club who had been relegated from the Football League for the first time in it’s history into one that won promotion back from the Blue Square Premier two years later. Having been denied the chance of an immediate return by local rivals Exeter City, who Buckle previously served as assistant manager, in the play-off semi-finals. However, United went one better a year later as they beat Cambridge United 2-0 in the final at Wembley.
Two years later United were contesting another play-off final, this time the League Two final at Stevenage at Old Trafford where a 1-0 defeat proved to be Buckle’s final game in charge, as he later left to take charge of Bristol Rovers.
One of the key ingredients of Buckle’s success was his recruitment in bringing in strong personalities such as Chris Hargreaves, Tim Sills, Chris Todd and Kevin Nicholson, as well as younger players such as Elliot Benyon, Danny Stevens, Mark Ellis and Eunan O’Kane who served the club well.
6. Martin Ling (2011-2013) Key game: Plymouth Argyle (h), November 2011
After succeeding Paul Buckle as United manager, it could be argued that Martin Ling kept the momentum created by Buckle going – and possibly even built on it with the additions of Bobby Olejnik, Brian Saah and Rene Howe.
In one of his early games in charge, Ling led the Gulls’ to a 2-1 victory over Buckle’s Bristol Rovers side. However, United’s most notable scalp under his reign came in the following November when a Eunan O’Kane brace inspired the Gulls to a 3-1 win over Plymouth Argyle – their first league win over the Pilgrims in nearly 40 years. In January 2012, the Gulls followed up this result by beating Argyle 2-1 at Home Park to complete their first league ‘double’ over the Pilgrims since the 1971-72 season.
This proved to be a start of a seven-match winning streak which lifted United firmly into the promotion race and a draw against Crewe Alexandra and a defeat away to Hereford United saw the Gulls miss out on automatic promotion, and they were forced to settle for a play-offs where they lost to Cheltenham Town. With 81 points to their name in the 2011-12 campaign, in almost any other season United could have won automatic promotion.
In the 2012-13 season Ling went on a leave of absence, which it was later discovered to be due to depression, and was replaced by Alan Knill on an interim basis. At the end of the season United opted to replace him with Knill on a permanent basis, but Ling later returned to football with Swindon Town in 2015 and is currently working as Director of Football at Leyton Orient.
5. John McNeil (1947-1950) Key game: Notts County (h), August 1948
Possibly a surprise name on this list but John McNeil served the ‘Magpies’ well in the post-war years. As a player, he had been a centre half with Reading and Plymouth Argyle amongst others and arrived at Plainmoor in 1947 after managing Merthyr Tydfil.
Over the course of his three years in charge, he signed some of the most notable players in the club’s history. These included Dennis Lewis (who held the club’s appearance record until it was beaten by Kevin Hill in 2008) and record goal scorer Sammy Collins and he was also responsible for bringing Don Mills to Plainmoor for the first time when he joined on loan from Queens Park Rangers in March 1949 – Mills would later return to United on a permanent basis in 1952 and was voted as the club’s greatest ever player in poll run by the Herald Express in 1998.
McNeil also guided the Gulls to 9th and 5th place finishes in Division Three South in the 1948-49 and 1949-50 seasons respectively, which at the time were the club’s highest league finishes to date. The team of the 1949-50 season became known as the ‘£500 team’, as it was assembled on a low budget. McNeil left United for Bury, who were then playing in the ‘old’ Second Division, in 1950 – citing the club’s low gates as his reason.
4. Leroy Rosenior (2002-2006, 2007) Key game: Southend United (a), May 2004
There was something of a surprise around Plainmoor when it was announced that Roy McFarland would resigning as Torquay United manager at the end of the 2001-02 season. A few eyebrows were also raised when former West Ham United striker Leroy Rosenior was unveiled as his successor.
However, the Gulls were soon amongst the promotion front-runners while playing one of the exciting brands of football seen at Plainmoor for many years. After inheriting a number of talented players such as Alex Russell, Jason Fowler and David Graham, Leroy added Plymouth Argyle striker Martin Gritton and former Arsenal trainee Jo Kuffour and formed a team that won many admirers, but ultimately missed out on the play-offs due to their defensive frailties.
In the close season, Leroy looked to remedy this as Craig Taylor arrived from Plymouth on a free transfer, following a successful loan spell at Plainmoor in the 2002-03 campaign, and he joined later on in the 2003-04 season by left-back Brian McGlinchey. The new signings paid dividends as the Gulls achieved automatic promotion for the first time in 38 years with a 2-1 away win over Southend United on the final campaign at the expense of Huddersfield Town.
Unfortunately the Gulls couldn’t retain their new found status in League One, as a final day defeat to Colchester United saw them make an immediate return to League Two. Sadly Leroy couldn’t recreate the magic formula of the promotion season following United’s return to League Two and left the club in January 2006. Nevertheless he did make a bizarre return in the summer of 2007 for a reported ‘ten-minute spell’ before the club was sold to the Alex Rowe-led consortium by Mike Bateson, who installed Paul Buckle as his successor.
3. Cyril Knowles (1987-1989) Key game: Wolves (a), April 1989
Cyril Knowles’ stint at Torquay United may have only lasted for just over two years, but it contained enough excitement and endeavour that could arguably have been fitted into an entire decade.
After taking over following the Bryn the Police Dog inspired ‘great escape’ of the 1986-87 season, United won his first game in charge at home to Wrexham 6-1, which helped the set the scene of the rest of the campaign. The Gulls also enjoyed success in the Littlewoods Cup as they reached the second round where they drew Knowles’ former club Tottenham Hotspur. United won the first leg at Plainmoor 1-0 with Derek ‘the Dude’ Dawkins scoring the game’s decisive goal, but a 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane in the second leg saw them bow out of the competition.
In the FA Cup, wins over Bognor Regis and Bristol City saw the Gulls paired with holders Coventry City in the 3rd round where they were beaten 2-0 at Highfield Road despite a spirited display. United would play a record 62 games across all competitions, including the league, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Sherpa Van Trophy where they reached the Southern Area semi-final.
Meanwhile in the league United were battling for automatic promotion right up until the final day of the season, but a 2-1 defeat to Scunthorpe United saw them condemned to the play-offs, where they were paired with Scunthorpe again. A two-legged victory over Scunthorpe set them up for a two-legged final with Swansea City – the finals weren’t played at Wembley until 1990 – but their meetings with the Swans proved to be a bridge too far, as Swansea won 5-4 on aggregate.
Remarkably it was achieved with the squad that Knowles inherited from Stuart Morgan with the additions of player-coach Sean Haslegrave, Phil Lloyd, Dave Caldwell and a young winger by the name of Lee Sharpe, who was sold to Manchester United in the summer of 1988 for a fee that would eventually rise to £185,000.
The 1988-89 season saw United achieve a mid-table finish, but it was in the Sherpa Van Trophy that the Gulls really caught the eye as they reached the final against Bolton Wanderers after memorably beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 in the second leg of the Southern Area final at Molineux after losing the first leg at Plainmoor 2-1.
Knowles left Plainmoor early on in the 1989-90 season following a disagreement with chairman Lew Pope. Following his death from a brain tumour in 1991, a sign was left outside Plainmoor which read ‘Nice one, Cyril, thanks for showing Wembley was more than just a dream’.
2. Eric Webber (1951-1965) Key game: Leeds (h), January 1955
With 14 years at the helm of Torquay United, Eric Webber holds the record for being the club’s longest serving manager; a record that will probably never be broken.
He initially arrived at Plainmoor as a player manager from Southampton and at the time was United’s fourth manager in the space of 18 months. Webber’s tenure in charge would see a period of great change for the club as in the 1954-55 season United changed their colours from black and white to yellow and blue to reflect the town’s image of sun, sea and sand – and would eventually lead to the club changing their nickname from the Magpies to the Gulls.
The 1954-55 campaign would also a memorable one for another reason as United defeated a Leeds United side that contained the legendary Welsh striker John Charles in the 3rd round of the FA Cup before facing Huddersfield Town in a front of a club record crowd of 21,908, which Huddersfield won 1-0.
Three years later, United came agonisingly close to winning promotion to the ‘old’ Second Division – now Championship – as they finished as runners-up to an Ipswich Town side managed by future England manager Alf Ramsey. United needed to gain a better result in their final league game against Crystal Palace than Ipswich did in their fixture with Southampton; sadly the Gulls could only draw while the Tractor Boys defeated Southampton to clinch the title.
Three years later Webber eventually led United to their first promotion, which was clinched with a 2-0 home win over Gillingham as United secured promotion from the ‘old’ Fourth Division. United were relegated from the ‘old’ Third Division at the end of the 1961-62 season.
Webber’s final hurrah came in the 1964-65 season when United famously held Tottenham Hotspur to a 3-3 draw at Plainmoor, before losing the replay 5-1 at White Hart Lane, as he was replaced by Frank O’Farrell in the summer of 1965.
1. Frank O’Farrell (1965-1968, 1976-77, 1981-82) Key game: Bury (h), March 1968
It could be said that Frank O’Farrell’s arrival from Weymouth as successor to Eric Webber raised the bar on everything that has happened before or since at Plainmoor.
Cork-born O’Farrell had first made his name in England with West Ham United and he used the contacts made at Upton Park to bring a number of players to Plainmoor including John Bond, Ken Brown, Bill Kitchener, Tony Scott and John Smith during his three and a bit years in charge.
In his first season at the helm at Plainmoor, United won promotion at the first attempt. This was then followed by 7th and 4th placed finishes in the ‘old’ Third Division – the latter saw United fall agonisingly short of promotion to the ‘old’ Second Division.
O’Farrell achievements were soon being noticed from afar as he left United in December 1968 to take charge of Leicester City, who he would later lead to the FA Cup final in 1969.
In 1971, O’Farrell became one of the many managers who attempted to revive Manchester United’s fortunes following Sir Matt Busby’s retirement and he later had spells in charge of Cardiff City and the Iranian national side before returning to the Plainmoor dugout briefly in 1976, following the dismissal of Malcolm Musgrove.
O’Farrell helped to identify Mike Green as the club’s new manager before agreeing to continue as General Manager. He took on the managerial reins once again in the 1981-82 season, before moving upstairs in 1982 after his assistant Bruce Rioch was appointed as player-manager and remained at Plainmoor until retiring from football in 1983.