Matty Hayward – @MattyHayward96
Matty discusses the departing Connor Lemonheigh-Evans.
You’re twisting my Lemon man.
If Torquay United were an elite football club, the headlines around Gary Johnson’s 30-minute-long video update would revolve around CONTRACT REBELS, but there’s absolutely nothing rebellious about Connor Lemonheigh-Evans’ departure from Plainmoor. He goes with love, affection, and gratitude. Unless he goes to the wrong club, in which case he’ll be thanking his lucky stars that his name has too many syllables to fit into the Ben Gerring song.
It’s rare in modern football, even rarer in a league that depends on loans and one-year contracts, for a player to appear for the same team in five successive seasons. Rarer still is being witness to the full trajectory of evolution that we’ve seen in Connor Lemonheigh-Evans: he joined as that fish-type creature, whizzed quickly through the ape/Neanderthal phase, and leaves as a fully-formed homo sapien.
The Lemon made his professional debut in Yellow, joining a sinking ship in 2018. His efforts were valiant, middle-of-the-park leg-work valued, and his talent undeniable, but a screamer in a 2-1 win at home to Woking wasn’t enough to keep Gary Owers’ failing Gulls afloat. It was expected that, like so many of the loanees that season whose ability varied so wildly (from Rhys Healey to Tommy O’Sullivan; Aaron Barnes and Conrad Balatoni to Elliot Romain), that we’d never see him again, and he’d either have a career in non-league obscurity or second-flight success.
The arrival of Gary Johnson to the English Riviera, though, was sufficient to pull the Swansea jack back down south for another loan period, where he was met by fellow Bristol City colleagues Saikou Janneh, Jake Andrews and Opi Edwards. Here, his role was far more clearly defined. He soon became the first choice central-midfield partner for Asa Hall, providing the veracity and energy that an engine room with an antique enforcer requires. The Welshman and his fellow loanees joined Kyle Cameron, Shaun MacDonald and Ben Wynter in the core of enthusiastic young players with a point to prove who were so instrumental to our regional football success. Connor scored three times that season, but his most memorable contribution to that unforgettable campaign will be a mis-hit shot on the 6th April, whose deflection fell to fellow-departee Wynter in a packed Woking penalty area. I need not detail the rest.
On the eve of the 2019/20 opener, CLE and Edwards returned again to the Bay, and it was quite widely assumed that we were absolutely nailed on to get promoted again. It was this year – interrupted by Covid – where we began to see the first evolution in Connor’s game. Throughout much of the National League South success, Gary Johnson stressed the importance of the Reid/Janneh striking partnership. He noted that a front two needs a “stretch” player (Our Gambian King), who can run the channels and create space for the “holder/target” (The Prince of Park Lane). With Saikou moving to pastures new, and the signature of Manny Duku bearing no fruit, it was Connor Lemonheigh-Evans who began to be deployed in the “stretching” berth. The season was prematurely terminated, and the experiment wasn’t wholly successful, but this move would pave the way for Connor Lemonheigh-Evans 3.0.
The Summer of 2020 saw Reid leave, Danny Wright take his place, and Connor return on a permanent basis. With matches streamed, it’s probably true that most Torquay fans saw more games that season than ever before, and that coincided with CLE’s best season in Yellow. The addition of the blonde Adonis worked perfectly for Connor, who was able to feed off the flicks from a natural target man, and hone his skills as the team’s “stretcher”. Late goals at home to Stockport, and away to Halifax and Weymouth saw the Lemon add a new zest to his game and put him at the vanguard of a team whose commitment to shithousery was nothing short of admirable. Until then, he’d scored five for the Gulls; 2020-21 saw him notch ten goals, fourteen assists, and firmly instate himself as a natural number 10. Indeed, the only blips in his season came during the regrettable no-striker-experiment of Alty (h), and further attempts to accommodate Armani Little and/or Billy Waters leading to the Lemon’s shunting out of The Hole and into wider areas. The Welsh Messi’s season ended, thanks to Simon Mather, in disappointment, moments after converting a penalty in the shootout. You get the sense that the Lemon Legacy would be all the more different if either of his strike partners, or a fellow fair-haired midfielder, had been able to do the same. His part in our best season in a decade is hard to overestimate.
Connor’s final campaign in Yellow, as an individual, was not dissimilar to the previous one. His eleven goals included a late winner at home to Southend, a joyous equaliser at Wrexham, and a straight-in corner that formed the basis of the Yeovil fightback. But they all pale into insignificance in comparison to his first professional hat-trick at home to Notts County, which stoked the fires of the Yellows’ doomed play-off charge. If he’s remembered for one game, his performance in that Popside-breaking, Cameron-baiting, bounce-around-the-ground-ing mauling of the also-doomed Excel-enthusiasts might well be it. It always seemed like he favoured playing against a back three, where gaps were inevitably left in the channels and his ferret-like rustling runs and dancing feet were afforded room to flourish.
Connor has come of age as a footballer at Torquay United. To paraphrase a Geordie pal of his, he really did join the club as a boy and really has left as a man. In playing terms, certainly, he has matured from box-to-box scamp into fleet-footed, creative craftsman. It is no exaggeration, but nonetheless an enormous compliment, to say that he is comfortably the most accomplished attacking midfielder I’ve seen in a Yellow shirt since Eunan O’Kane. He’s not as gifted as the Irishman, and probably won’t follow in his Premier League footsteps, but he has more than earned his move away from our silly little club, who don’t deserve to hold onto players of his calibre for longer than we already have.
Because he’s leaving at the same time as a number of other talented and historically important Gulls, it’s possible that his departure may go without sufficient fanfare, but I don’t think many players have had such a consistent positive impact on the club in the past half-decade. Perhaps that’s how he’d like it though – he wasn’t much of a chest-beating, badge-kissing, over-celebrating ego-maniac – he got his head, and the ball, down and played his game in an understated, neat, classy way. If we are to mount anything like a decent season in 2022/23, replacing the Lemon’s energy, dribbling and creativity will be one of Gary’s biggest and most difficult challenges.
Go well, Connor, and fly.