Steve Harris – @SteveHarris84
Steve Harris looks back over Torquay United’s play-off history
For over 30 years, the play-offs have been part of the fixtures and fittings of English football, and Torquay United have played their part during this time.
United’s first involvement in the end of season showdown came in the 1987-88 season when – after missing out on automatic promotion from the Fourth Division under the late Cyril Knowles – the Gulls were paired with Scunthorpe United, who they had lost out to on the final day of the campaign.
The first leg went well for Torquay as they won 2-1 with goals from Paul Dobson and Dave Caldwell in what proved to be an ill-tempered affair. Scunthorpe were reduced to ten men in a game that was most notable for Knowles walking away from his dugout to avoid being sent off himself.
There was no quarter given in the contest between Caldwell and the Iron defence – such was the ill-feeling for the return leg – which was also Scunthorpe’s last ever match at their Old Showground prior to their move to Glanford Park – that Caldwell was left on the bench by Knowles and he required a Police escort for the warm-up!
The return leg ended 1-1, which set up a final between United and Swansea City over two legs – Wembley finals for the Play-offs didn’t start until 1990. After losing 2-1 at the Vetch Field, Torquay could only manage a 3-3 draw in the second leg – which saw them miss out on a return to the third tier for the first time since 1972.
United’s second leg against Swansea was also their record 62nd competitive match of the campaign which restored a lot of pride to the club following their Bryn the Police Dog inspired ‘great escape’ of a year earlier.
Three years later in the 1990-91 season, United reached the play-offs again – after flirting with automatic promotion under Dave Smith before he was replaced by youth team coach John Impey. Impey had been a player in Knowles’ 1987-88 play-off side and the Gulls secured a play-off place on the final day with a 2-1 win over York City, which set up a semi-final with Burnley.
Goals from Dean Edwards and Matt Elliott gave Torquay a win over the Clarets at Plainmoor in the first leg, which proved to be enough to seal a return to Wembley for the Gulls – despite Burnley winning the return leg 1-0 at Turf Moor.
United’s win also ended any hopes of an all-Lancashire final, as the Gulls’ opponents at Wembley would be Blackpool. Before the match, a minute’s silence was held in the memory of former Tangerines’ striker Stan Mortensen, who famously scored a hat-trick in the ‘Matthews final’ against Bolton Wanderers in 1953, who had recently passed away.
Blackpool soon had their noses in front through Paul Groves – but the Gulls struck back to equalise as Wes Saunders headed home a cross from Mark Loram. Shortly afterwards we edged ahead when Dean Edwards converted from the penalty spot. An own goal in the second half from Chris Curran levelled matters on the night, and that was how it finished after 90 minutes, and even after 30 minutes extra time as the final head to penalties.
Mark Loram stepped up to take United’s first spot-kick, which was saved by Blackpool keeper Steve McIlhargey. His opposite number Tony Rodwell then stepped up for the Tangerines, but his effort was saved by United keeper Gareth Howells. Mickey Holmes, Saunders, Paul Holmes and Chris Myers then successfully converted their respective penalties for United as the scores remained level after five spot-kicks – as the final went into sudden death.
Then came a moment of history as Howells took United’s sixth spot-kick, which he fired home to become the first goalkeeper both score and save a penalty at Wembley to put Torquay back in front. It was then down to Blackpool’s leading scorer David Bamber to keep them in it. However, Bamber fluffed his lines and missed the target – thus meaning United were returning to the ‘old’ Third Division for the first time in 19 years.
Nevertheless, the Gulls’ stay in the Third tier proved to be a brief one as they came straight back down again, and they then avoided a second straight relegation under the caretaker manager spell of Neil Warnock in the 1992-93 season.
In the following campaign – the 1993-94 season – under Don O’Riordan, Warnock’s successor, the Gulls made the play-offs after finishing sixth in the ‘new’ Third Division – following the formation of the Premier League in the 1992-93 campaign. This time they would be facing also Lancastrian opponent in the form of Preston North End.
Goals from Duane Darby and Darren Moore gave United a 2-0 lead heading into the return leg at Deepdale, which would also the last game played on Preston’s artificial surface.
Although Preston took an early lead, Gregory Goodridge’s kept United firmly in the driving seat before the game turned ten minutes before half-time when some theatrics from Paul Raynor got Darren Moore sent off. Raynor acted as though he had been struck by Moore, but the replays showed that Moore hadn’t made contact with Raynor. The tie then ended up finishing 3-1, forcing the game into extra time. However, just as when it looked as though United had done enough to hold out for a win on away goals, Raynor popped up with the winner – sending Preston through to the final, which they would lose to a Wycombe Wanderers’ side managed by Martin O’Neill.
United’s next foray into the play-offs came in the 1997-98 season when Kevin Hodges successfully made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – just under two years after the Gulls had retained their league status by virtue of Stevenage’s Broadhall Way home not meeting league standards.
A club record winning run of eight matches from January to March 1998 had lifted Torquay towards automatic promotion. Unfortunately, a stuttering run of results which followed left United needing a point from their final day trip to Leyton Orient. Sadly, the Gulls fell to a 2-1 defeat – which also saw goalkeeper Kenny Veysey sent off.
This set up a two-legged play-off semi-final with Scarborough, and a 3-1 win in the first leg at the Seadogs’ McCain Stadium home put United firmly in control of the tie. What followed in the return meeting proved to be one of the most memorable matches ever witnessed at Plainmoor.
Two virtuoso goals from Rodney Jack in the opening ten minutes saw United race into a two-goal lead. Jason Rockett then replied for Scarborough before player-coach Steve McCall displayed the kind of ability that saw him win the UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town in 1981. McCall scored United’s third with a stunning left-footed strike from the edge of the penalty area to restore United’s two-goal cushion on the night. Paul Gibbs later added a fourth in the second half – which proved to be the final nail in Scarborough’s coffin as United headed to Wembley to face Colchester United.
However there was no glory at Wembley this time, a controversial penalty awarded for a ‘handball’ against Jon Gittens condemned the Gulls to a narrow defeat, which proved to be Hodges’ final game in charge before his departure to Plymouth Argyle.
Ten years later, a new look Torquay United under Paul Buckle looking to bounce back to the Football League at the first attempt headed into the Conference play-offs, where local rivals Exeter City lay in wait.
After a 2-1 win in the first leg at St James Park, with Tim Sills and Chris Zebroski finding the target, the footballing gods appeared to be smiling on the Gulls in the return clash at Plainmoor.
Long-serving United midfielder Kevin Hill was recalled to the Torquay side for a match that would see him equal Dennis Lewis’ long-standing club appearance record of 473. When Hill struck from the edge of the penalty area in the 58th minute to put the Gulls 3-1 ahead on aggregate – the stage seemed set for a perfect ending.
However, the Grecians clearly didn’t read the script as they hit back through Ryan Harley, Ben Watson, a penalty from Richard Logan and an injury time effort from Wayne Carlisle, who would join the Gulls in the summer, saw them overturn their two-goal deficit to win 4-1 on the day and 5-3 on aggregate.
Nevertheless, United would have a chance to go one better a year later as they reached the play-offs again – this time Histon were their opponents. A 2-0 win in the first leg with goals from Tim Sills and Nicky Wroe was followed by a 1-0 defeat at Histon’s Glassworld Stadium home and set a final clash with Cambridge United.
United headed into the final with a goalkeeper with a broken jaw in Michael Poke, a centre back in Chris Todd who was still in remission following a diagnosis from Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia earlier in the season and a centre forward in Tim Sills who was nursing a fractured cheekbone, which saw him take to the field in a ‘Zorro’ mask.
On 35 minutes, the Gulls were in front when skipper Chris Hargreaves lashed home a shot from the edge of the penalty area after being teed up by Elliot Benyon. In the second half, Cambridge were reduced to ten men when Phil Bolland was dismissed for a second yellow card in the 70th minute.
Then four minutes later, came the pivotal moment in the match. Following some good build-up play between Nicky Wroe and Benyon, Wayne Carlisle raced down the right hand side and picked out Sills, who headed home United’s second and decisive goal which will be forever immortalised by the commentary of Setanta Sport’s Steve Bower: ‘Carlisle, he checks instead, he’s looking for Benyon…Sills!’
The Gulls’ return to the Football League was complete and two years later, they would be involved in the League Two play-offs, following a seventh place finish during the 2010-11 league campaign.
In the semi-finals, United faced a Shrewsbury Town side who they had beaten 5-0 at Plainmoor a couple of months earlier in which Jake Robinson had netted a brace for the Gulls while on loan from the Shrews. Robinson lined up for United again in the first leg at home, but he wasn’t on target on this occasion as efforts from Chris Zebroski and Eunan O’Kane secured a 2-0 win for United. A goalless draw in the return fixture at the Greenhous Meadow set up a meeting with Stevenage at Old Trafford.
Due to Wembley hosting the 2011 UEFA Champions League between Manchester United and Barcelona, both the League Two final between the Gulls and Stevenage and the League One final between Peterborough United and Huddersfield Town were switched to Old Trafford. 20 years beforehand, Manchester United had beaten Barcelona in the 1991 European Cup Winner’s Cup final and Torquay had beaten Blackpool in the Fourth Division Play-off final – the question was could lightning strike twice?
Sadly, both the United’s of Torquay and Manchester lost their respective finals 1-0 and 3-1 – and the Gulls’ defeat proved to be Paul Buckle’s final game as manager as he departed Plainmoor for Bristol Rovers.
Despite Buckle’s move to the Memorial Stadium, the Gulls regrouped and rebuilt under his successor as they reached the play-offs again in the 2011-12 season, after missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the campaign. However, United fell short in the semi-final with Cheltenham Town as they lost 2-0 at Whaddon Road in the first leg before slipping to a 2-1 defeat in the second leg at Plainmoor, with Taiwo Atieno netting what proved to be a mere consolation goal.