Steve Harris – @steveharris84
At the top end of the game forward pairings have become something of a rarity in modern times, with many Premier League sides opting to field one upfront. However, in the lower leagues that is often not the case and many Torquay United fans will be eagerly anticipating the prospect of Gary Johnson selecting a strike duo from the three strikers he signed this summer: Danny Wright, Andrew Nelson or Josh Umerah. Wright is no stranger to Gary Johnson after helping the United boss to win the National League title with Cheltenham Town in the 2015-16 season, while Nelson arrives at Plainmoor looking to kick-start his career after a spell with Dundee in Scotland. Umerah, who netted twice against the Gulls for Ebbsfleet in their 4-2 defeat against United in October 2019, will also be hoping to stake a claim for a starting berth.
I will now take a closer look at some of the more memorable strike duos that have been forged at Plainmoor over the years, partnerships the aforementioned trio will be following the footsteps of.
Robin Stubbs and Tommy Northcott (1963-66)
They might have been two contrasting characters, Robin Stubbs was the star striker who defined the swinging 1960s for United while Northcott was the archetypal ‘local boy made good’ – who had also represented England at youth level – but they both combined to great effect in front of goal for United.
After Stubbs first arrived from Birmingham City in 1963, the duo scored 37 goals between them in the 1963-64 season, which was followed by a further 53 in the 1964-65 campaign – which included the brace that Stubbs scored as United famously drew 3-3 with Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup 3rd round at Plainmoor in January 1965.
The summer of 1965 saw Frank O’Farrell replace Eric Webber as United manager; however, the goals continued to flow as they scored another 25 between them to secure the second Football League promotion in the club’s history in the 1965-66 season. In the close season O’Farrell decided to release Northcott, but Stubbs would continue to find the back of the net alongside Jim Fryatt and Alan Welsh before joining Bristol Rovers in 1970.
Steve Cooper and Les Lawrence (1978-82)
It is often said that to win promotion in the lower leagues you need a strike-force who can score you 30—40 to between them to win promotion, and had they played for Torquay United in a different era, Steve Cooper and Les Lawrence could have done just that for the Gulls.
The pair were both plucked from non-league sides in the Midlands – Cooper from Stourbridge in 1978 and Lawrence from Telford United in 1977 – and both scored 31 league goals between them in the 1978-79 and 1979-80 campaigns as United recorded 11th and 9th placed finishes respectively in the ‘old’ Fourth Division under Mike Green.
They continued to spearhead the Gulls’ attack for a further two seasons – during which time Green was replaced by Frank O’Farrell in the 1981-82 campaign – before Lawrence left Plainmoor to join Port Vale in the summer of 1982. Cooper remained with United until he retired from playing at the end of the 1983-84 season – but not before he enjoyed an epic duel with former Everton defender Mike Lyons when the Gulls faced Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup 4th round in February 1983.
Paul Dobson and Dave Caldwell (1987-88)
When the late Cyril Knowles signed Dave Caldwell from Chesterfield for £7,000 to partner Paul Dobson in November 1987 he declared: ‘he’ll either be a disaster or the talk of the town’. Aberdeen-born Caldwell had already been dismissed twice for the Spireites in the 1987-88 season at that point, and had had a chequered disciplinary record throughout his career along with a fine goal scoring haul. He soon hit the ground running for the Gulls as he scored an overhead kick against Hereford United on November 21, 1987 and quickly established himself as a Plainmoor favourite.
Dobson had famously scored the Gulls’ equaliser in their Bryn the Police Dog inspired ‘great escape’ – which was his 16th of the 1986-87 season – and he was amongst the goals again in the 1987-88 campaign. He carried on where he left off in the 1987-88 season, scoring five goals in the opening three games of the campaign – which included a hat-trick in a 6-1 win over Wrexham on the opening day of the season.
In the FA Cup the duo helped United to reach the third round stage, where they were beaten by holders Coventry City 2-0 at Highfield Road. Dobson was on target in the Gulls’ 1st round win over Bognor Regis and against Bristol City in the next round Caldwell scored one of the most talked about goals of his United career, when he pounced with a diving header against the Robins.
The pair were both on target in the Gulls’ first ever foray into the play-offs against Scunthorpe United, which saw United beat ‘the Iron’ 2-1 as they headed into the 2nd leg, which was the last ever game at Scunthorpe’s Old Showground home before their move to Glanford Park. Such was the feistiness of the 1st leg between Caldwell and the Iron defence that Knowles left him out of United’s starting line-up for the return meeting and Caldwell even required a police escort to take part in the warm-up!
Nevertheless United secured a 1-1 draw to book a two-legged final appearance against Swansea City. After losing the 1st leg 2-1 at the Vetch Field, United drew the 2nd leg 3-3 with Caldwell amongst the scorers in the final fixture in which they would partner each other in as they would go their separate ways in the summer. Caldwell headed for Belgium to join KVV Overpelt in a £13,000, in a bid to avoid an eight-match that was hanging over him, and Dobson joined Doncaster Rovers.
Caldwell would briefly return to United on loan midway through the 1989-90 season, which saw him score 6 goals in 20 appearances in all competitions.
David Graham and Jo Kuffour/Martin Gritton (2002-04)
Leroy Rosenior’s Torquay United side of the 2003-04 season didn’t just defy the then perceived wisdom that you couldn’t win promotion in the lower leagues by playing passing football, he also proved that it could be done without an archetypal six foot plus lower division target man. Neither David Graham nor Jo Kuffour could claim to be the tallest of strikers being five feet 10 inches and five feet seven inches tall respectively. However, they did manage to score 34 goals between them (Graham 23, Kuffour 11) in all competitions, as United claimed automatic promotion for the first time in 38 years.
Such was the quality of Graham’s touch and movement that he could hold up the ball to great effect, and combined with Kuffour’s pace it made for a partnership that was more than a match for Third Division defences up and down the country – many of whom were well versed in the dark arts of the game.
In the previous 2002-03 season, Graham’s partnership with Martin Gritton had been equally as effective, as they found the back of the net 31 times between in all competitions (Gritton 16, Graham 15). It is also interesting to note that Graham, Kuffour, Gritton and later Bayo Akinfenwa all enjoyed the most prolific goal-scoring spells of their careers under Rosenior.
Tim Sills and Lee Phillips (2007-08)
A new look strike-force in a new look side, Tim Sills and Lee Phillips signed for United in the summer of 2007 as part of manager Paul Buckle’s rebuilding job following the Gulls’ relegation from the Football League in the 2006-07 season.
Sills arrived at Plainmoor following his release by Hereford United, while Phillips was one of three players who joined the Gulls from Exeter City, including Martin Rice and Chris Todd. They both knew Buckle from earlier in their careers; Sills was a team-mate of Buckle’s at Aldershot and Phillips, of course, had previously worked alongside Buckle when he was Paul Tisdale’s assistant at St James Park.
The pair were soon up and running as they scored three goals apiece in the Gulls’ first four Blue Square Premier fixtures – United drew their opening fixture 0-0 with Grays Athletic which was televised by Setanta.
Although United missed out on promotion in the play-offs following a defeat to Exeter City in the semi-finals and lost to Ebbsfleet United in the FA Trophy final, they could still look back on the campaign with a regained sense of pride.
Across four competitions – the league, FA Cup, FA Trophy and the play-offs – Sills and Phillips scored 38 goals between them. Sills found the back of the net 22 times, making him the first Gulls player to score 20 goals or more in a season since David Graham in the 2003-04 campaign. Phillips scored 16 times before moving to Rushden & Diamonds for a fee of £17,000 in the summer of 2008.