The 1991 Wembley Heroes by Dom Roman

Nobody was coming forward so I just looked at John Impey and said I will have it” – Gareth Howells

The Ed not only blogs about the promotion season of 1990-91 but also speaks to two members of the squad:

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Dom Roman – @DomRoman

What better way to spend the lockdown than look back at another TUFC season? This week I’m taking you on a journey back to the year 1990, s##t was that really 30 years ago! The first 90s summer saw us all fall in love with Gazza and Pavarotti as England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Italy – no need to tell you how that finished. Other ongoing news stories included a BSE (mad cow disease), Kinnock pushing Maggie Thatcher in the polls and the Beeb’s Radio Five debuting – it’s first new station in 23 years! All fairly tame again to be honest..

At Chez Plainmoor ex-Argyle chief Dave Smith had taken over from Cyril Knowles in late 1989, and had the job of building on (nice one) Cyril’s successful play-off and Sherpa Van campaigns. Dave was a terrific character (similar in ways to Gary Johnson), I remember him wandering into crowd and chatting to supporters including me and my dad. He just loved talking to people. Behind him was new chairman Mike Bateson who had succeeded Lew Pope and would soon put his unique stamp on Torquay United! With the likes of Sherpa heroes Mark Loram (my earliest Plainmoor idol) and Dean Edwards remaining at Plainmoor, some promising youngsters and new signing Wes Saunders taking over as captain, there was quiet optimism amongst the Yellow Army for another decent season at United. Unsurprisingly it wouldn’t be dull. 

On the 29th anniversary of the play-off win, I had the pleasure of collaring two key players from that squad – goalkeeping hero Gareth Howells and midfielder Chris Myers, as we talk you through what was my 2nd season as a Gulls supporter, let’s do this…

ROUTE TO PLAINMOOR

GH – “I was a 2nd year pro at Tottenham and the chance came about to go out on loan to Torquay which I took initially for a month. At that time I was probably 4th in line as a goalkeeper at Tottenham so it was good to get league experience. Things went well Torquay wanted to sign me permanently and after discussions with Terry Venables (Tottenham manager at the time) I felt it would be more beneficial to get as many 1st team games under my belt as possible at a very young age. So I signed for Torquay. It was tough to leave Tottenham as I had been there since the age of 11 and it was and still is the club that I have always loved and supported. Having said that Torquay was a lovely place to live and very easy to settle into as the people down there are so friendly”.

CM – “After being released by Cyril Knowles I spent a couple of seasons playing non- league football in the Western League with Barnstaple Town. I found it tough at first, but realised if I wanted to get back into the pro game I would have to work hard and knuckle down. After working on the building sites during the day I would train on my own by doing some fitness work. This included doing some of the pre-season runs we used to do when I was at Torquay United!!!!! Everybody knows about those horrible hill runs around the bay. John Turner the ex-goalkeeper at United was back as a coach and recommended me to Dave Smith. I had played for John when he was manager of Waldon Athletic in the local leagues. I was invited back for a trial during the summer and took my chance with both hands. The work I had put in during the close season really helped me in the pre-season and I came back feeling really fit and strong. I was offered a contract by Dave Smith after a game at Minehead in that pre-season and was delighted to sign for my hometown club again”.

RECORD-BREAKING START

The Gulls started 1990-91 with a bang, and broke a club record going unbeaten for the first 14 games as Dave Smith’s team clicked into gear, flying high at the top end of the table. At the sharp end of United’s form was veteran striker Tommy Tynan who joined in 1990 as a player coach and had already scored 11 goals by November.

GH – “It was a great start and thinking back it was a great mixture of youngsters playing with no fear coupled with some great experienced players such as Tommy Tynan, John Uzzell, Russell Musker and Wes Saunders”.

CM – “We started brilliantly, unbeaten in the first 14 games and I believe it was down to a great team spirit, we had a mix of experience and quality. Tommy Tynan banging in goals up front. He knew how to finish. The whole team had a balance about it, quality in Gareth Howells in goal, a solid defence especially the partnership between Matt Elliot and Wes Saunders. Paul Holmes pace both attacking and defensively, a strong midfield with Sean Joyce, Russel Musker, Mickey Holmes and I’d like to think I contributed in some way. Tommy Tynan being supported by Mark Loram and Dean Edwards upfront, we had goals in us. Dave Smith had a belief in us and he gave us confidence. That first season back at United was brilliant for me, I’d gone form the building sites and playing for Waldon Athletic to playing at Wembley in 12 months. Me and Sean Joyce always laugh at that”.

THE GAFFER

Dave Smith had tasted success at a higher level with Plymouth Argyle and quickly charmed the Yellow Army faithful with his bubbly and extrovert personality.

GH – “Dave Smith’s a great guy and a real eccentric character. Real old school who could have fun, but if needed could really come down on you hard. Very honest man which is the best attribute you can have as a manager”.

CM – “I loved playing for Dave Smith. He gave me confidence to play in that team, He liked the way I played, he knew I didn’t have the ability of others but liked my grit, determination and enthusiasm. He had a big influence on all of us, certainly me and I was so grateful that he had given me another chance at United. Yes he certainly was a character!!”

WINTER OF DISCONTENT

After setting the pace early on, the wheels started to fall off United’s promotion bid during a tough winter at Plainmoor. From December onwards the team’s form stuttered badly and they gradually dropped down to 12th in the league, an unthinkable position earlier in the season. The pressure amplified on Dave Smith to turn things around.

GH – “I remember us picking up a few injuries Peter Whiston and John Uzzell I think. We didn’t have a big squad so that with a loss of confidence was the reason”.

CM – “I can’t really put my finger on what went wrong. Maybe after a couple of poor results we lost confidence, did the winter months take its toll with the soft/muddy pitches we had to play on back then!!!!. We had played some really good football on the firmer pitches earlier on in the season”.

SMITH OUT

On 2nd April Dave Smith resigned as Torquay United manager, a sad end to his once promising reign at Plainmoor, as the club’s season appeared to be over.

GH – “Really sad to lose Dave Smith as he had signed me but as we know football is a results driven business”.

CM – “I was disappointed that Dave Smith resigned personally. He had signed me and I’d been doing ok. Who was going to come in? Would the next manager play me? These are all questions footballers ask themselves when there is a change in manager. Luckily for us it was John Impey who was to be the next manager. John came in and did a fantastic job. He turned us around again and got us back believing, the results picked up again and we managed to get into the play-offs”.

IMPEY IN

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Mike Bateson had promoted ex-youth development office John Impey to the position of Smith’s assistant in March, and when the top job became available the ex-Gulls captain was appointed manager. It was a surprise announcement from Mike Bateson, but he was never afraid to make unexpected decisions as chairman!

GH – “I remember Impey stepping up from running the youth team. My memories are that we didn’t do a lot of training with the ball but plenty of running. I guess he felt we weren’t fit enough but we had already played 30 odd games before he took over and ended up playing around 50 games that season, so we can’t have been that unfit!”

CM – “John Impey brought a bit of discipline back to the team, he got us fitter and stronger with his training sessions and results improved for us. Not everyone liked his methods but John was a good old fashioned pro and he knew how to get the best out of us. When I say discipline I mean on and off the pitch too!!! It’s no secret that the lads enjoyed a few beers, some characters in that squad who enjoyed the social side too much at times. We managed to get into the play-offs at the end of the season and looked forward to it”.

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PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL

After an excellent end of season run under John Impey, the Gulls finished on 72 points and reached the play-offs in 6th position. They faced 5th placed Burnley in the semi-final and triumphed 2-0 at Plainmoor, before winning the tie despite a 1-0 loss at Turf Moor in front of a bumper 13k+ crowd. Wembley was booked.

GH – “I remember the first leg on a Sunday afternoon. I had watched my brother win the FA Cup on the TV the day before. Very tense game and I remember being very pleased we got the 2nd goal and kept a clean sheet. 2nd leg up there felt like the longest game of football I’ve ever played in. I remember we defended really well but Burnley got a goal with about 5 mins to go. I recall the ball going behind my goal for a goal kick, the ref said I am blowing for full-time as soon as you take this so make sure you get if the pitch as fast as you can!!!”

CM – “We played Burnley at home in the first leg. The atmosphere was electric that afternoon, the supporters were class for us. Burnley were favourites, a massive club that was looking to get back up the leagues. It was a tough game , we managed to score a couple of goals and I remember thinking, we have got a real chance here of getting through to play at Wembley!!!! Surreal for me. We kept a clean sheet but knew we were going to face a different test away at Burnley. But, we have given ourselves a chance. The second leg at Turf Moor will live with me forever. We were up for it obviously, but Burnley threw everything at us that night. We defended as a team magnificently until near the end when they scored!!!! We had to ride out a storm that night in Burnley but we managed it and were on our way to Wembley”.

WEMBLEY 31ST MAY 1991

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The play-off final would be Torquay United versus Blackpool on a Friday night at the end of May, and Blackpool with the likes of Paul Groves, Ian Gore, Alan Wright, Andy Garner and Dave Bamber in the squad were heavily fancied to beat Impey’s Gulls. 

GH – “We were very confident going into the game as we had nothing to lose and I don’t think anyone ever thought we would go up that season, but we knew that we were capable of winning the game”.

CM – “Friday 31st May 1991 will live with me forever. A night and experience I will never forget. We faced another sleeping giant in Blackpool FC at Wembley Stadium in the Division Four Play Off Final. I never felt we were underdogs going into that game, we had beaten Burnley over two legs and really had deserved to be there that night. I felt confident going into the game. You have the nerves, but that’s a good sign for me. Excitement before the game obviousy, but we all settled down going into the game”.

The Wembley Squad:

Gareth Howells, Chris Curran, Paul Holmes, Wes Saunders (c), Matt Elliott, Sean Joyce, Chris Myers, Micky Holmes, Stewart Evans, Dean Edwards, Mark Loram, Subs: Paul Hall, Andy Rowland

THE 1ST HALF

Blackpool took charge early through a Paul Groves goal, but United responded well with an inviting Mark Loram cross headed into the corner by the skipper Wes Saunders. Then a debatable penalty decision was awarded to the Gulls and Dean Edwards slotted home a calm penalty in to give Torquay the lead.

GH – “Wes was a great skipper and led by example”.

CM – “Wes Saunders was a major factor in our success that season. His partnership with Matt Elliott was formidable that season and was very crucial to our winning that night. Both of them were man mountains and solid that night at Wembley. I can’t remember a mistake by either of them, they never put a foot wrong and Wes scored a very important goal with a brave header from a quality Mark Loram cross”.

THE 2ND HALF

In the second half Blackpool pushed for an equaliser but it took a terribly unlucky own goal from Chris Curran to bring them level and put our promotion chances back in the balance.

GH – “I don’t ever remember thinking it wouldn’t be our night. They didn’t get many chances in the game and I think overall we created the better chances”.

CM – “It felt like a big blow at the time, but we had to deal with it. It was unfortunate for Chris but he was a strong character and didn’t let it affect him. We just got on with it, but I do remember thinking, the next goal wins this game, make sure it’s not them who score!!!! Eventually we went to extra time and penalties”.

EXTRA TIME

In a tense extra time neither side created much and with Wes Saunders and Matt Elliott leading United at the back, the game remained level and headed into the drama of a penalty shoot-out.

GH – “As I said I didn’t have an awful lot to do as the back 4 were excellent but what I did have to do I done ok”.

CM – “I have great memories of the game. I think we started ok, but found ourselves 1-0 down early on. We played our way back into the game and drew level with a goal from our skipper Wes. Dean Edwards put us in front just before half time and I’m going down the tunnel thinking “just hold on now, we can do this, Stay switched on and be up for it”
I think we were the better team on the night, rode our luck at times but definitely deserved to win that game. There were some outstanding performances that night but above all a real team performance. I’d like to think I played my part on the night too. I really enjoyed the experience and it is something I will never forget, I still talk about it now at work and sometimes show my penalty to the lads at work on Youtube!!! hahaha”

PENALTIES

Over 21,000 supporters held their breath as their players stepped up one by one to take penalties. With the score at 4-4 after goals from Mick Holmes, Saunders, Paul Holmes and Myers (Mark Loram missing the first), Gareth Howells stepped up to calmly to place a shot into the corner and it was left to Dave Bamber to keep Blackpool in the shoot-out..

GH – “I think we practiced penalties a couple of times leading up to the final but not loads. I do remember feeling very confident myself when it went to pens as I had a very good penalty record that season”.

CM – “We hadn’t practised penalties beforehand, not that I remember anyway. Dean Edwards was our penalty taker on the night so he may have practised in training. I hadn’t even thought about penalties beforehand, but when they came round I was asked by John Impey to take one. I agreed to take one but didn’t realise it was the 5th one which is usually the decisive penalty!!!!! what had I agreed to? Haha. In my mind I knew what I was going to do, “just don’t change your mind Chris “ is what I was saying inside. When it went in it was a dream come true. I had dreamed of playing at Wembley as a boy, scoring at the tunnel end and I had just done it in front of my father and the whole of the supporters of my home town club. Brilliant”.

GH – “There were no plans for me to take a penalty, I just remember looking back to the halfway line when it went to sudden death and nobody was coming forward so I just looked at John Impey and said I will have it. Really didn’t have time to get nervous. I just looked at the bottom right corner as I placed the ball on the spot and I knew that their keeper had seen me look there. Thankfully he went that way and I put it in the other corner!”

PROMOTION

Bamber missed (badly), United players rejoiced, the Yellow Army celebrated, waved their flags and the Gulls had won an unlikely promotion to Division Three. Inspirational skipper Wes Saunders climbing the steps first to collect the trophy.

GH – “Pure relief when Bamber missed I just remember us all going crazy”.

CM – “It was an incredible feeling. To win at Wembley, to score a penalty and to have played well in a tough game too. It doesn’t get any better than that for me. Knowing that we had achieved promotion was something I was very proud of. This was my hometown club, my father had played for the Gulls in the 70s and he was there to witness it on the night”.

CELEBRATIONS

GH – “Celebrations lasted all night. We went back to the Hilton opposite Lords cricket ground in St Johns Wood. I don’t think there are many stories from the night but none of us went to bed and we had a great night with our family and friends”.

CM – “The celebrations lasted long into the night. We stayed over in London and partied hard !!!! HAHA. As you do after winning at Wembley. We travelled down to Torquay the next morning for more parties and the open top bus parade around the town to show the supporters our trophy. That was a special day too. To see the whole of Torquay come out and celebrate, WOW, something else that. There was a lot of partying going on that week and the team went to Tenerife, paid for by Mike Bateson the chairman as a thank you and bonus for getting promotion. That week was fun, I can’t tell you stories cos most of the lads are still married. Haha” 

THE SQUAD

GH – “That team was full of characters and we had some fun times I guess you could say we played hard but also worked hard. It’s a shame we couldn’t keep everyone for the following season as I think we were a weaker squad in a higher division. Mark Loram, Dean Edwards, Matt Elliott, Mick Holmes as well as others were great characters”.

CM – “I enjoyed playing with all the team that year. There was a few characters too. Wes and Matt stand out because of their quality performances that season. Man mountains together. Sean Joyce and Paul Holmes because of their wit. They could wind anybody up them two together. Sean was a quality team mate and we became good friends off the park too. I think it showed on the field that we backed each other, we had a good understanding together during that season Mark Loram for his quality, he should have played for England with his ability. Tommy Tynan banging in goals for fun at the start of the season, I’ve said before, he knows where the onion bag is, a real quality finisher”.

IN SUMMARY

GH – “Bit of a rollercoaster season and mental at times but we got there in the end. There’s a saying in football that you don’t forget players that you win things with and I certainly have some great memories from that season that will stay with me forever”.

CM – “It was an amazing season. We started so well and looked on course for automatic promotion until the mid-season blip. To go 14 games unbeaten was an achievement in itself but we wanted more. Promotion was the aim after the start we had. I enjoyed and love playing my football that season. I have so many memories of games home and away. Magical Saturday afternoons playing in the yellow/white and blue shirt. Scoring my first league goal at Plainmoor was special, another dream come true for a Torquay fan as a boy. Playing under the lights was special in front of our fans too. I met so many good people over my time at Torquay United and have remained friends or in contact with them”.

FINAL WORD

Dom – “After a relatively calm debut season as a supporter in 1989-90, this was the year that introduced me to the rollercoaster life I had signed  up to as a paid up Torquay United supporter! I loved the characters from around that period at Plainmoor and the crowds just seemed more packed and noisier – looking back they probably weren’t, but as an impressionable 10 year old I loved everything about it. Sitting on the old benches in the Family Stand, dashing on after games to get autographs, checking out programmes in the old shack near the Family Stand entrance and my first visit to Wembley on a late night in May. Shouting myself horse as the tense penalties unfolded and celebrating wildly with my mum and dad when Bamber shafted his shot wide.  Hugely evocative and wonderful memories for me – my TUFC journey had truly begun”.

G Howells
Photo courtesy of the Herald Express

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I simply live and breathe Football and have supported Torquay United since 1989. I am a season ticket holder on Bristows and a Trust member. I set up TorquayTalk in 2017 to give true supporters a voice and honest opinions on their club.

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