Dom Roman – @DomRoman
Squad rebuilds are a common occurrence at Plainmoor, and with a number of players leaving United this summer (by choice or not), Gary Johnson will need to reinforce his troops for another go at the National League. Thankfully this won’t phase GJ a bit and he’ll frankly love the challenge that 2021 brings.
The challenge of 2021 is nothing in comparison to the one that faced new manager Martin Ling in 2011. With the Gulls losing painfully in the play-off final and predictably losing Paul Buckle to Bristol Rovers, it was a worrying time at Plainmoor. A number of our core players from that feisty 2010-11 squad left, with Bucks returning to pilfer Craig Stanley, Scott Bevan and Chris Zebroski, not to mention first team coach Shaun North. Guy Branston decided to leave for a bigger contract at Bradford City and Jake Robinson agreed a deal with Northampton Town. And finally Billy Kee asked for a move early in the season and departed for Burton Albion. The play-off chasing group had been decimated.
With the old Grandstand being demolished as well to be replaced by Bristow’s Bench, and supporters wedged into two stands for 2011-12, change really had swept through Plainmoor. Luckily Martin Ling had some tricks up his sleeve and set about assembling players who could not just make up the League Two numbers, but eclipse their predecessors.
How do you replace the solid Scott Bevan in goal? By bringing in ex-Falkirk goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik. Bobby quickly became one of the best stoppers Torquay United have ever had, even if it was for one season only. A commanding presence in the goal, strikers just couldn’t beat Bobby for weeks on end, his bright orange strip and big physique a fantastic combination! Clean sheet after clean sheet followed and inclusion in the League Two team of the year, just a shame he didn’t stay longer, but we did at least get a decent fee for him…a rarity for Torquay United.
In defence Brian Saah arrived from Cambridge to take over from Guy Branston at centre back. A totally different character to ‘the Pickler’, Saah was unassuming and calm at back, preferring to get on about his job quietly and efficiently. Supporters were unimpressed at first and pined for the Pickler, but credit to Brian he soon changed our minds, scoring a towering header at home to Macclesfield and then becoming an ever-present after Chris Robertson left for Preston North End. His combination with Mark Ellis saw both men at their best, as Mark finally nailed down the first team spot he craved.
Chris Zebroski had come into his own in the 2010-11 season with a series of excellent performances. But in came a certain Rene Howe and Taiwo Atieno to provide the attacking focal points for Lingy. Rene had been released Peterborough, having been loaned out to a number of clubs and only playing 15 league games for them in four years. In Lingy’s words “He’s the type we need – he’s big and strong and can score goals”.
A little bit like Adebayo Akinfenwa in 2004, the size of Rene caused a little concern as the friendlies started. After the fantastic fitness of Zebs could this chap do a job? Thankfully the answer was yes. Howe had the strength to shake/bounce off defenders and a surprisingly delicate goal-scoring touch when the opportunities came his way. Unfortunately fitness did come back to bite us as the season came to it’s end, but Howe had still proven to be an excellent signing. After his departure in 2013, the club struggled to replace him for years.
Taiwo Atieno was never going to have the same impact as Howe, but he did score a memorable goal in the Buckle grudge match, and contributed a few more from his standard substitute role. Unfortunately as Rene Howe suffered an injury in the play-offs, Taiwo was never going to give us the same spark, but to his credit he still scored at Plainmoor in the 2nd leg and didn’t let the team down.
Other signings that season came in the form of Ian Morris and Billy Bodin, Morris arriving from Scunthorpe United and although he made less impact than others, the winger still played a part in our successful season. Bodin arrived on loan from Swindon Town in January 2012, and made the Yellow Army sit up and take notice with some sparkling performances. In the end the winger’s time at Plainmoor was blighted by loss of confidence and injuries, but his signing gave Lingy’s small squad a welcome boost of energy when it needed it most.
In the end the team fell just short, with agony versus Crewe at home taking United out of the automatic spots and after that Lingy’s men never recovered. But If you are looking for proof that rebuilds can be successful in the right hands, then 2011 is as good as any. We all panicked as the Buckle-era ended and key men left the club one by one, but Martin Ling found the right lads to fit alongside the likes of Nicho, Mansell and O’Kane and make the Yellows a force once again.
It didn’t last of course, that’s a story for another day, but there’s no reason why Gary Johnson can’t repeat this trick….just with a different ending please!
COYY – Dom