Rachel Malloch – @RachelVillavox
Rachel discusses the departing Welshman
When 120 minutes of football and the resulting penalty shoot out was over, Ashton Gate, 20th June, 2021, when the yellow half of the crowd were stunned into an existential silence, dumbstruck in disbelief, caught in some immoveable spell, a voice from somewhere “the ref’s done for you today lass”. I turn to it’s general direction, slow motion, to see one of the 2 lads we’d got chatting to pre-match, neutrals, Halifax Town fans who’d grabbed corporate tickets for the day – “really sorry for you all. didn’t deserve that” – he added with a sympathetic expression.
A mass of Hartlepool fans had descended onto the pitch, gleeful celebrations, some joyful, some gloating, a few throwing objects at the wave of a crestfallen yellow army, then one player, head held high, walking towards our stand, a yellow shirt surrounded by the blue and white masses on the pitch, hand pressed against the Torquay United badge on his shirt, thumping it and gesturing to the crowd, dejected yet an image of defiance. Another thump of the badge, a glance. It may have been fleeting but it felt like an age. A momentary applause. He then turned to walk towards the players tunnel. It was Joe Lewis.
Pre-seasons are like open house training sessions, a chance for managers to give their existing squad a work out whilst giving a variety of youth, trialists, out of contract released players a chance to impress. Many a false impression has been gauged at these games, memories of a convincing 2-1 win over a strong West Brom team and a convincing performance from Uruguayan Ronald Huth in what was a first and last appearance, or more encouragingly an Armani Little display and piledriver goal against Plymouth Argyle. There was a win over Bristol City, comfortably beating a young City side with goals from James Gray and an eye catching performance from young Bristol lad George Dowling, who for all Torquay’s dominance, stood out so much that he was signed on for the season.
More recently there was a young lad recently released from Yeovil who scored a ‘worldy’ for Tiverton and similarly, was signed on the back of some exciting performances. Then there was that friendly at Plainmoor against a Swansea U23 team. A game that saw Torquay race into a 3-0 lead but narrowly came out victors after a 2nd half that saw the youngsters from South Wales bring it back to 3-2 and a young defender playing that half in Joe Lewis.
A promising 19 year old centre half that Steve Cooper had included in his first team trip to Spain and had returned to the U23 fold for game time, including this one. Torquay barely got a sniff at adding to the 3 early goals and it was no coincidence that Joe Lewis had been installed into the backline. So shortly after, local news announced, much to the delight of manager Gary Johnson and fans, Joe Lewis had agreed to sign on a season long loan for the newly promoted NL Torquay United. A lad who had been a part of the Swansea set up since the age of 7, had taken what could be seen as a leap of faith and joined Torquay for guaranteed first team playing time instead of pushing through for a place in the Swans competitive senior XI.
Season 2019/20 was a somewhat stop start season for Gary Johnson’s side, with Joe impressing mainly at full back, an uneven mix of results came to an abrupt end when COVID-19 swept the nation and the restrictions extended to the sporting arena when, on the 14th March, the NL season was postponed and then cancelled. What followed was a summer of uncertainty, strict policies and a state of social limbo. It was a hesitant sigh of relief when season 2020/21 season ticket sales were announced in the hope that football would be reinstated and along with it a series of pre-season friendlies in preparation for the onslaught of the new season.
Torquay made a strong start to the season, a 10 point lead by Christmas but there were niggling injuries, Kyle Cameron particularly. In amongst this, on the back of the impressive displays from the Swansea loanee during the previous season, Gary Johnson secured the return of the Swansea defender on an 18 month deal in January 21. It would prove to be a terrific signing for the club. Joe consistently showed the Torquay supporters the qualities he possessed. Strong on the ball, strength against many a seasoned centre forward and enough pace to cope with any tricky winger, displaying an awareness in defence that belied his young age.
Over his time at the club, whether partnered with Kyle Cameron, or Gary Warren, Sam Sherring, Rob Cundy, Ali Omar, Ben Wynter or Dean Moxey, Joe consistently impressed and it was becoming apparent that this young defender really was something else, sparking conversation and opinion, usually that this lad looked for all the world like a league player in waiting.
There were goals too, every good centre half should have their uses in the box for set pieces, Joe wading in with a healthy share of unstoppable headers, but for all those present at the 5-0 Wealdstone demolition last season, this was the pick of his goals for the club, picking the ball up in his own half, marauding his way through the Stones’ midfield and unleashing a net buster into the far corner from the edge of the area that would earn any player a goal of the season accolade.
At the tail end of 2020-21 Joe was imperious. Torquay United missed out on promotion with a combination of injuries and extraordinary inept refereeing that season. The image of Joe Lewis, a disconsolate figure at Ashton Gate that afternoon, is one that remains in many supporters’ memories one year later.
In 21-22 the Welshman added even more quality to his game, looking stronger, more robust, a maturity that not many attacking forwards got the better of, and while Torquay United finished quietly in mid-table, Joe Lewis was rightly acclaimed as Young Player of the Year for his efforts.
Season 21/22 was yet again a season of rebuild, players pursuing different challenges, and with a small window to recruit, their replacements while eager could not match the cohesion and quality. Joe Lewis continued to perform at the highest standard and instrumental in our strong second half of the season.
Of all the perfunctory farewells that players peddle out while hurriedly chasing up their agents for news on new club bidders, Joe Lewis’ thoughtfully written goodbye read for me as the most genuinely heart felt of all. He really did love his time at TQ1. It comes as no surprise that a recent poll by TorquayTalk saw Joe Lewis come out on top as the player supporters will miss the most.
As for the club he has left behind, once again a regeneration in squad is required, much like last season, and many seasons in Gulls history before that…..and while as has been proved time and time again, no one player is irreplaceable, Joe Lewis is one that could prove to be the exception, if not the rule.