Steve Harris looks back at Gary Johnson’s first 100 games in charge of TUFC
Steve Harris – @Steveharris84
From 14th in National League South to the strong possibility of a return to the Football League, that is the difference that Gary Johnson has made to the fortunes of Torquay United since he became manager in September 2018.
When Gary Owers was relieved of his duties following the Gulls’ 1-0 defeat at home to Chippenham Town on September 8, 2018 – many of the Plainmoor faithful were expecting an appointment along the lines of Lee Hodges or Steve Tully. However, it would be the former Yeovil, Bristol City and Cheltenham boss Johnson who United chairman Clarke Osborne and CEO George Edwards turned to when selecting a successor to Owers.
However, a century of games in charge later for Johnson and the Gulls have soared to the top of the National League table – after clinching the 2018-19 National League South title along the way. They are currently eight points clear of second placed Hartlepool United.
United’s journey under Johnson began with a 2-0 away win over Hungerford United on September 15, 2018, which was followed by a 7-0 rout of Wessex League side Lymington Town in the FA Cup 2nd qualifying round a week later.
Then came the first real challenge of Johnson’s then brief reign – the visit of league leaders Woking to Plainmoor for a game Johnson himself described as a ‘six-pointer’. Despite trailing 2-0 at half-time, United rallied to draw 2-2 – with Jamie Reid netting a brace for the Gulls.
Under Johnson, Reid was a player transformed as he finished the 2018-19 campaign with 32 goals to his name. He then went onto score a further 21 in the 2019-20 National League season.
Johnson also made good use of his connections with Bristol City, where his son Lee was manager. United had already loaned Jake Andrews and Opi Edwards from the Ashton Gate club, and they would be joined at Plainmoor by Connor Lemonheigh-Evans and Saikou Janneh. He was also joined at Plainmoor by his brother Pete, who became his head of recruitment, and former Gulls defender Aaron Downes, who was appointed as his assistant.
It wasn’t until January 19, 2019 that United tasted defeat for the first time in the league, when they were beaten 3-2 by Bath City at Twerton Park. By this time, the Gulls had set a new record for unbeaten league games of 16. However, Oxford City would find themselves on the receiving end of the backlash of that loss, as United won 7-2 – after leading 5-0 at half-time. It was also a game which saw Jake Andrews score a hat trick from midfield, while Reid and Janneh netted a brace apiece.
The second half of the season also saw United produce a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary which – amongst other things – captured the scenes in the dressing room before and after each game. This included a scene when Johnson tore into his charges, giving them the full ‘hairdryer’ treatment when they trailed 1-0 away to East Thurrock on a Tuesday night in February 2019. However, Johnson’s message had the desired effect as United turned things around to win 2-1, with Ruairi Keating scoring a late winner.
At the end of March 2019, the Gulls beat Chelmsford City 3-1 at Plainmoor which left them with one hand on the title. A 3-3 draw with second placed Woking a week later at the Kingfield Stadium – which was secured with a Ben Wynter volley in stoppage time – effectively ended the Cards’ challenge for top spot. This meant that when United beat Eastbourne Borough 2-0 at Plainmoor in front of a crowd of more than 4,500, with goals from Connor Lemonheigh-Evans and Jake Andrews, which saw them confirmed as National League South champions for 2018-19.
Defeats against Chippenham Town and Hungerford followed – the latter saw the Gulls receive the trophy in front of a National League South record crowd of 5,351 – before United said goodbye to the National League South with a 4-0 win away to St Albans City. It was a game which saw another record fall as Kalvin Kalala – who Johnson brought to Plainmoor from Cheltenham – opened the scoring with the fastest goal in the club’s history after 10 seconds.
Back in the National League, United started the 2019-20 campaign with a 2-1 win over Boreham Wood. It would be a season that would throw up a number of inconsistencies for the Gulls – partly due to injuries – as United recorded 4-2 wins against eventual champions Barrow and play-off winners Harrogate Town. Nevertheless, they would also lose 5-1 to Stockport County at Plainmoor in November 2019 and were thrashed 6-2 to Yeovil Town on Boxing Day 2019. Bizarrely the heavy defeat to Stockport occurred around a month after the Gulls had beaten the Hatters 4-0 at Edgeley Park – making the aggregate score from both fixtures 5-5.
The Covid-19 enforced suspension of the National League saw United end the campaign after 36 matches. The final outcome of the season was decided using PPG (points per game) to calculate the league’s final placings, which saw the Gulls finish in 14th place.
In the extended close season before the start of the delayed 2020-21 campaign, Johnson was busy in the transfer market, as Danny Wright, top scorer in his National League title winning side with Cheltenham, joined as a replacement for the Mansfield Town bound Reid. Other notable new arrivals included Connor Lemonheigh-Evans and Gary Warren, who joined the Gulls permanently following successful loan spells from Bristol City and Exeter City respectively, and experienced left-back Dean Moxey also arrived from Exeter.
United started the campaign with a 1-0 home win over pre-season favourites Stockport, with Lemonheigh-Evans netting a last minute winner, in a match played behind closed doors – due to coronavirus restrictions. The Gulls have established themselves as the division’s pacesetters since then and are currently top of the National League, whilst still going strong in the FA Trophy.
Memorable results of the 2020-21 campaign have included a 5-0 win away to Hartlepool United on October 31, 2019 (which was broadcast live on BT Sport), a 6-5 FA Cup first round exit to Crawley Town, a 6-1 drubbing of Yeovil Town on Boxing Day and a 4-0 away victory over Boreham Wood in the FA Trophy fourth round – which marked Johnson’s 100th game in charge.