Like most Torquay supporters I’d been resigned to seeing Ben Whitfield leave at the end of the season, whether we were promoted or not. He’s a league player playing in the Conference, to half-borrow a quote he used about the club when he signed in the summer of 2019.
Having fallen out of favour with then new manager John Askey at Port Vale, Ben upped sticks and left the Potteries for life on the English Riviera. As someone who was born and grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, I have great sympathy with him in this regard. Having spoken to Gary Johnson, the decision to make the move was clear, with Ben remarking that “He knows how to get the best out of players, but more than that, small managers tend to get the best out of small players”.
I think on this score, Whitfield was spot on, and it didn’t take long for him to wow the Plainmoor faithful with his skill, pace and work ethic, in fact it was his debut where he made a superb impact, scoring a header to equalise against Woking away. As the months went on, the performances got better and better, and Ben became one of the most established players on the team sheet. When he got the ball, you knew that something special could happen, with full backs sometimes at a loss to deal with his turn of pace.
After the Covid-enforced curtailing of the 2019/20 season, I think most of the fanbase were hopeful, but realistic, of the possibility that their player of the year would stay for another term. Much to our collective delight, however, he signed on again along with an impressive group of players for the title challenge.
With United storming along in the early part of the season, a particular highlight came in the 0-5 away demolition of Hartlepool. Already two goals behind, the Hartlepool defence compounded their misery when some horrendously lackadaisical passing at the back saw the ball played straight into the path of Whitfield who was alive for such a mistake. He powered forward and calmly powered the ball into the net.
As the season progressed it seemed that teams began to work out how blunt the threat Ben posed, by doubling up on him and affording him no time and space on the ball. Aside from a short stint against Stockport in May, his Whitfield’s season effectively came to and end following a heavy tackle at Boreham Wood. Would we have been promoted had he been fit? Maybe, but it was to the rest of the squad’s credit that we stayed in contention for the title despite long-term injuries to key players like Wright, Nemane, Cameron and Whitfield.
After leaving to join Stockport County, we’re now left waiting for Johnson to work his magic and pull a replacement for Ben out of his hat. I’m confident he can do so, maybe it’ll be announced this week? Maybe an hour before kick-off on the first day of the season?
Dom Roman – @DomRoman
My abiding memory of Whits is that goal he scored against Wrexham last December. After being denied watching games in the flesh we were finally back home and ready to see our heroes in action. The whole team rose to the occasion that day, with Whits scoring a beauty from just outside the box after a typically enthusiastic mazy run. Cue a knee-slide celebration from a man who always loved playing in front of us, and smiles on the faces of the Yellow Army. After a hugely tough year it was a moment to savour.
His loss is a disappointing one for the energetic wing play and fantastic attitude he brought every time he played, and of course because he’d headed to a National League rival. Unfortunately that’s often the way at Torquay United, players don’t normally stay long (especially the good ones), with money and geography mainly counting against us. But we move onwards and trust Gary Johnson to find reinforcements. Nobody is irreplaceable with him in charge.
Meanwhile I do appreciate Ben’s whole hearted efforts in his time at Plainmoor, and on form there’s not many better wingers around at this level. It’ll be interesting to see how he does at Edgeley Park, with the pressure intensified at a club pushing desperately hard for promotion. No doubt they’ll be stories to tell and banter to enjoy when him and Cam return with their clubs, all spices things up nicely doesn’t it!
Now for some lovely incomings please Yellows, make us dream of another title challenge in 2022…