“Let’s stay positive and create a special atmosphere that helps take us to Ashton Gate”
We are almost there! 2 weeks apparently feels like an eternity when you’re waiting for one of the biggest games in your club’s recent history. Is that an exaggeration? I don’t think so. Torquay United dropped out of the Football League seven years ago and have never been close to a return until now. A return would mean everything to the club and it’s supporters, everything. It’s where we belong, but then again look at we are playing – a team that around 30 years ago were mixing it with the likes of Man Utd and Liverpool (and mostly losing to them). None of us have a divine right to being in the 92, you’ve just got to earn it.
Prior to County dropping down into the National League, our last meetings were way back in the 2009-10 season, with the Gulls newly promoted to League Two and looking to grab a foothold in our first season back in the Football League. On 11th October 2009 United travelled to Meadow Lane for a televised game, nothing new for us after the deluge of them in two years in the Conference. Paul Buckle’s team had stuttered at the start of the season, with only 8 points from their first 11 games making everyone slightly nervous that a year of struggles lay ahead.
But this wasn’t a bad Torquay United team, it was one finding their feet and struggling to adapt to the more difficult competition. Despite going two goals down to strikes from Westcarr and Davies in front of a big crowd, the Gulls rolled up their sleeves and responded excellently. It was Mark Ellis who scored first, heading home from 6 yards (seems familiar!) just before half time to give us a confidence boost heading into the second half.
Torquay should have equalised soon after the break with chances for Benyon, Hargreaves and Ellis all missed. Then on 77 minutes a deserved goal finally arrived, as Chris Hargreaves nodded on a Kevin Nicholson free kick and Mr Zorro himself Tim Sills did the rest to beat Kasper Schmeichel (YouTube clip below from a clearly excited Luke Hunter!). Although it look a little longer for United to ease any relegation fears (including the arrival of Guy Branston), the Gulls proved that day they could give any team a run for their money.
Back to the present and the games from 20-21 have thrown up two draws. The first game in January at Meadow Lane was goalless but not without incident and chances. The Gulls trying hard to prise open the County defence but almost conceding to Notts on the counter. It was the arrival of Josh Umerah that is most memorable, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. The striker missing an excellent chance to put United ahead and also getting involved in a spat with defender Richard Brindley; the striker fortunate to stay on the field after putting his head in stupidly on the County player. The draw kept us 9 points clear of Sutton and Hartlepool, but the dropped points were starting to hurt.
The return fixture was far more livelier, with Josh Umerah heavily involved again (and again for the wrong reasons!). It didn’t look good for the Gulls as Dion Kelly-Evans and a certain Mark Ellis put the visitors in front on 49 minutes and give the Gulls a mountain to climb. Initially a loss appeared inevitable but on 75 minutes a Billy Waters cross was brilliantly volleyed home by Connor Lemonheigh-Evans – game on. After that wave after wave of Torquay attacks knocked on the door, but then Josh Umerah was handed two bookings and a red for aerial challenges on Mark Ellis. Down to ten men and game over? Not a bit of it. United kept pushing and after 98 minutes it was Ben Wynter who found space in the penalty area and volleyed home a shot that somehow crawled over the goal-line and sent us crazy on our sofas. Gary-Time!
So what will happen on Saturday? Well you just know that man Mark Ellis will make an impact of some kind. I loved the defender when he was at Plainmoor, he always played with such heart and unbridled enthusiasm for the game of football, it was never dull with him around. Mark also stuck around as a squad player for years and fought his way into the team, which was a tribute to his determination to succeed. Since then he has enjoyed a solid career around the football league and is no doubt desperate for a return. It goes without saying we’ll need to watch him on set pieces. The defender’s movement and aggression is brilliant, and he showed that again last weekend. 6 goals in 20 NL games for centre back is some return – maybe put two on him Gary!
The front two of Ruben Rodrigues and Kyle Wootton also did very well against Chesterfield and the battle between them and our centre backs could be key to the game. Rodrigues certainly has the talent to win the semi-final for County and along with our defence, Asa Hall will be looking to minimise the space he finds between the lines. Kyle Wootton is also dangerous and will look to dart in between Joe Lewis and Sam Sherring, so they’ll need to be on top form. The young defenders have both been terrific this season against the most threatening of opponents, so I’m confident they’ll be up to the task.
TT PLAYER PROFILE – Kyle Wootton
Position – Striker
Date of Birth – 11th October 1996 – 24 years-old
Height – 1.88m
Previous Clubs – Scunthorpe, North Ferriby, Cheltenham, Stevenage, Halifax Town
What do we need to do? United have to take the game to County, we are always better pressing high and forcing the issue in games, biting into tackles and winning possession in the attacking third. Our success this season has been built on that kind of hustle and bustle, outworking the opposition and eventually by hook or crook taking the three points. Without the likes of Whitfield and Nemane the team lack counter attacking speed, so gaining possession in good areas, winning set pieces and putting County’s shaky looking defence under the cosh can bring victory home.
Of course, one key to exploiting defensive vulnerability could be the return of Danny Wright. Danny has been working his back to fitness in recent weeks and I believe took part in a practice match this week. He’ll be lacking match sharpness but Gary Johnson could well take the gamble to throw Wrighty back in from the start. With our season hinging on the game, an hour from the experienced target man could make all the difference, otherwise I would assume Scott Boden will slot back in…unless Kyle Cameron really is our new wildcard target man!
One match-up that really should favour United is Gary Johnson versus Ian Burchnall. 65 years-old versus 38 years-old! The gaffer has been there/done it so many times, and could surely write a book on how to approach play-off fixtures. That knowhow has been an advantage to us ever since GJ took the job and he’ll use all the tricks in his locker to get us over the line. Part of that is getting his lads in the right mindset for the occasion, calming nerves and boosting confidence so there is no repeat of the Barnet performance. Burchnall has the pressure of returning Notts to the Football League on his back and will relish the tussle with GJ, but I hope there is only one victor (and fist pump) from those two.
Another aspect that could make the difference is the Yellow Army. Gary Johnson and the club have been quick to rouse enthusiasm and encourage noise for this Saturday on social media and I hope everybody responds. It may be a reduced capacity but we can push this team over the line. Let’s will these lads on from the first whistle to the last – forget Barnet (H) and forget losing out on the title, it’s all about this game. Plainmoor too often becomes nervy and quiet, with negative comments creeping in at mis-placed passes and shots, let’s stay positive and create a special atmosphere that helps take us all the way to Ashton Gate.
Well done to Connor Lemonheigh-Evans and Adam Randell for winning the player and young player of the year awards. Tough on Asa Hall and Sam Sherring, who also had tremendous seasons, but I’m sure their main concern is winning promotion rather than individual awards. If CLE finds enough space on Saturday he can cause havoc for County. Here’s hoping. Well done also to the club for sending scarfs to all season ticket holders thanking us for our loyalty during 2020-21. A very nice gesture and much appreciated.
See you at Plainmoor on Saturday, a massive game that will make or break our season. Bloody hell. COYY – Dom