Matty Hayward – @mattyhayward96
A lot can happen in two years. At the start of September 2018, Corona was just a pretty average mass-produced lager; face masks were the reserve of medical professionals and over-cautious public transport users; and the country was being led by a robotic, rudderless leader who had no discernible plan and no power with which to carry it out.
At Plainmoor, too, things have changed a lot. Two years ago the club was in the worst place it had ever been, losing at home to Chippenham Town to leave us lying 14th in the 6th tier of English football; and the club was being led by a robotic, rudderless leader with no discernible plan and no power with which to carry it out.
It’s September 2020 now, and both leaders have been replaced by charismatic, talkative men named Johnson, both of whom have a clearly established and previously successful method of leadership. For fear of overstretching the metaphor, making this article a tiresomely predictable political rant, and doing huge disservice to Plainmoor’s Johnson, I’ll finish with that comparison now.
The atmosphere at that Chippenham game is the most toxic I’ve ever experienced. The loudest noise from the crowd was the chorus of boos, not as Chippenham scored or as the final whistle blew, but as Ruairi Keating was substituted off. This was proof, if it were needed, that the fans’ anger was to be primarily directed at the decisions of the manager. The players were, mostly, good enough – eight of the starting XI that day finished the season at Torquay and were instrumental in our promotion – but they were being led by a man without a clue.
Three days later, that man was sacked. A day after that, Clarke Osborne (presumably with some very sage advice) made the best decision a board member has made for this club since, I don’t know, the appointment of Martin Ling? Gary Johnson would be the man to lead this band of fairly-average-but-capable-at-this-level merry men, to turn the club around, to – as he put it in his initial interview – “change our thoughts to change our world”.
And hasn’t our world changed?
A 2-0 win at sunny Hungerford was a good start, a 7-0 win the following week at a soaking wet Lymington continued that momentum, and a point salvaged after being 2-0 down at home to Woking showed renewed levels of fight and determination not seen by men in Yellow for a long time.
This would just be the beginning. 79 games into Gary Johnson’s tenure, his side have won 43, drawn 12, and – much more importantly – are in a considerably less village division having won a league title for the first time in our history. After scoring four times in the first nine games of the NLS season, the Yellows went on to score 89 in the following 33, breaking a club record for goals scored in one campaign.
Last season, we finished ten points off the playoffs with three games in hand on the team in seventh. This was disappointing, given our electric start, yet we were still within touching distance of the promotion lottery when the campaign was curtailed. While some might, rightly, point to a change in financial circumstance, it’s still impossible to think that a Gary Owers side would have been disappointed with a 15th place finish in the National League. The turnaround in expectations is evident.
And yet, Johnson has always offered more than just good football and decent results. Part of Owers’ downfall was his, completely fair from what I saw, characterisation as a dreary, uninspiring man whose teams played dreary, uninspiring football as he watched on in dreary, uninspiring jumpers. Johnson is, perhaps in every possible way, the opposite to that in character. He’s bubbly, passionate, effusive. He wears nice scarves (in fact, we definitely need to see the return of that yellow scarf). His words have an air of wisdom, of experience, of knowledge. You trust him. He makes you think you’d want to be part of his dressing room. If he shouted at you like he shouted at the players at East Thurrock (as seen in the Champions Documentary), you’d listen, you’d want to play better, you’d want to prove you weren’t the “weak c-word” that he called you.
As we look forward to this season, it’s obvious Gary’s job isn’t done. He’s said many times himself, as have the players he’s signed, that Torquay United should be a Football League club. And he’s right. The aim for this campaign has to be promotion, and for Johnson to be considered an absolute great of the club he’ll need to have success at a level that isn’t 100% farmer.
But even if we have an appalling start to this season and he’s sacked by Christmas – which I think is exceptionally unlikely – he will still be the man who breathed fresh air into our failing football club. He’ll still be the man who gave us a reason to look forward to Saturdays again, who gave us a reason to be proud of Torquay United again, who gave us Woking (a) and Chelmsford (h) and Halifax (a) and Stockport (a) and [insert your own favourite game here, there are plenty to choose from] and a football team that was a joy to watch and a football club that was a joy to be a part of. He’ll still be the man who gave us that ridiculous thing he does after good results where he runs over to the crowd, back hunched, then punches the air to the sound of a massive “ooooooooooohh…wayyyyyyyy” from the fans, and that lovely yellow scarf and that fantastic flag with his face on and that oh so beautifully angry bollocking at East Thurrock. He’ll always be the man who turned Jamie Reid into the striker we knew he could be, who introduced Saikou Janneh and Kalvin Kalala and Ben Whitfield to our lives, the man who gave us countless opportunities to go to a football match because you were excited to watch the football not just because you needed an excuse to meet your mates for a pint, who gave us joyous memories of wins and goals and records broken, who brought tears to the eyes of middle-aged men who had supported the Gulls for decades but never seen us win anything. More valuable than all that, he’ll be the man who gave hope, warmth, and confidence to a club, a town, and a group of players that was so desperately devoid of it.
Fingers crossed, I’ll be writing an even more embarrassingly gushing tribute next September.
COYY – Matty