The 27th November 2021 was a day when the inevitable happened. Billy Waters returned to Plainmoor, scored a goal and led his Halifax side to victory. With Torquay previously losing meekly to Barnet and Aldershot we had all expected the worst. The away side had bossed the second half and were leading 3-0 before United mounted a very late comeback. A comeback that was in vein, but 10 minutes that did hint at better things to come. The trouble was that hints were no good as the Gulls wobbled towards the bottom end of mid-table…you know the end that leads to a relegation scrap.
Could this squad low on confidence raise themselves for the harsh winter to come? You better believe it. The following Saturday saw a convivial day of fantastic effort from the players and the Yellow Army at Weymouth. A day when everybody did their best and 3 points were scooped up when Sinclair Armstrong banged in a deserved second half winner. It felt like baby steps at the time, this was only Weymouth after all, but this was the start of a comeback; the start of Torquay United rediscovering what they had been in 2020-21 and the Yellows support were ready to un-lease noise.
The following Saturday was a quick test of United’s resilience, old nemesis Dave Challinor’s Stockport boys rolling into town in excellent form and expecting to swat United away with ease. For a time it felt like County could indeed hammer us as they strode forward with purpose, but United had found backbone and steel, with Joe Lewis impeccable at the back and Sinclair Armstrong a menace in attack. With the game level at 1-1, a debatable challenge on Dean Moxey gave Asa Hall the chance to make it 2-1 from the spot and he obliged. After that wave after wave of County attacks were repelled, and with the Pop as loud as they had been for months, the win and the happy faces were ours. Torquay United were back.
Since then the run of form has continued with only the odd hiccup. 22 points gained from 30 transforming a season destined for mediocrity at best, into something that could/perhaps/might lead to the play-offs. The story has a number of twists and turns to come, but let’s look at some of the main reasons for this welcome turnaround shall we:
Asa Hall’s season had been a stop start affair up until Weymouth (a). Some good, some bad and some suggestions that the midfielder was ready to hang up his boots. He had missed five games through injury and then re-emerged for Halifax (h) looking understandably rusty. But at Weymouth his influence returned, bossing the midfield alongside Tom Lapslie and allowing Armani Little to pull the strings behind the strikers. He then grabbed a valuable penalty winner against Stockport, a header at Plainmoor versus Dagenham and more recently opening goals against Wrexham and Dover. The goal at Crabble was worth the admission fee alone and looped perfectly into the top corner. Whether it’s holding the fort in midfield, getting forward to join the strikers or covering in defence, he’s still vital to Gary Johnson and keeping Asa fit is important (as always).
LEWIS AND MOXEY
Joe Lewis needed a steady partner. Gary Johnson had tried Ali Omar, tried three at the back here or there and tried Harry Perritt, but for various reasons United had kept conceding goals and losing too many games. Enter the Mox! Gary Johnson put his faith in Dean Moxey partnering Lewis, Dan Martin playing left back, and hasn’t looked back since. It’s a combination that hasn’t been impenetrable – there has only been 2 clean sheets during this period – but it’s been generally good enough. Dean Moxey’s experience and decision making have settled nicely alongside Lewis’s strength and dominance, making it very hard for strikers to pass, whilst they have also switched to a three at times comfortably accommodating Ben Wynter or Asa Hall. Two key men as United strive for the top 7.
GOALS FROM AROUND THE SQUAD
When Dan Holman signed on last summer, the hopes were that we’d found a goal-scorer, someone who could chip in 15-20 goals and give us something we’d lacked since Jamie Reid. Well those hopes have been quickly dashed, and our other strikers Lolos and Wright have also struggled to find the target, with 9 in total from all three in 21-22 it’s needed others to hit the back of the net – and much like last season that challenge has been accepted. Joe Lewis has 3 goals in this run of games, Asa Hall 4, Connor Lemonheigh-Evans 2, whilst Armani Little, Stephen Wearne, Duke-McKenna and Ben Wynter have also bagged. It’s a real team effort at Plainmoor.
Where would we be if Shaun MacDonald had started the season in goal? We’ll never know. But the Geordie has been sensational since answering Gary’s call in September. His form in the last 10 games has continued to be very steady, commanding the back four in some battling wins over the likes of Yeovil, Stockport and Wrexham, and keeping United in the game against the dangerous Daggers. Teams rarely achieve anything without a good man between the sticks, fortunately for us we’ve got one.
Torquay United’s squad depth is not great, and with our limited budget this will probably continue to be the case. But credit to the bit part players in recent weeks, they have stepped up and shown bottle when we’ve needed it. Chiori Johnson returned at Yeovil and had a fantastic game at right wing back, Dan Holman scored that memorable winner in the same game, Ali Omar did his hopes no harm with sound performances versus Altrincham and Solihull and Harry Perritt did a job in midfield on short notice against Daggers. With injuries and COVID, the Gulls hopes could have easily have evaporated a long time ago, and these contributions have certainly been appreciated by Gary Johnson.
THE MAGIC OF GARY JOHNSON
Those first five points are all important, but the key is and always has been Gary Johnson. The older statesman refuses to go away, refuses to buckle and refuses to let his team fade into obscurity. Tactically he’s made a number of calls in the last 10 games that have paid off, and he’s also just inspired players to be better. Players like Dan Martin, who looked decidedly National League South early in his Torquay career, players like Armani Little, who is maturing into the fine footballer we’d all hoped for on his arrival from Woking and Joe Lewis, who is becoming one of the best defenders around. It’s been far from easy. Lads dropping out of the squad due to injuries and COVID, playing teams who have bigger budgets and bigger squads, rediscovering a team spirit that had tailed off, tinkering with tactics and pushing for 3 points when the odds were against us. His motivation and determination remains, with GJ in charge you never know.
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