MEMORY LANE – SCARBOROUGH (H) 1998 by Steve Harris


Steve Harris


Steve talks about the memorable play-off semi final, 25 years on


After being spared relegation from the Football League in the summer of 1996, newly appointed Torquay United manager Kevin Hodges was tasked with reviving the fortunes of a club who had experienced a major slump since reaching the Division Three play-offs in 1993-94.

Only the fact that Stevenage’s Broadhall Way stadium had failed to meet Football League criteria prevented the Gulls from being relegated to the Conference in 1995-96.

The 1996-97 season, which was documented in Garry Nelson’s book Left Foot in the Grave, saw Hodges, in tandem with his assistants Nelson and former Plymouth Argyle midfielder Steve McCall, stop the rot.

United ended the campaign in 21st place, but were never seriously threatened by relegation, with skipper Alex Watson and St Vincent international striker Rodney Jack emerging as star players.

Over the summer of 1997, Nelson left Plainmoor for a marketing role with the PFA, leaving Hodges and McCall to face the challenge of building a competitive squad on a limited budget.

Hodges added Jamie Robinson, who would form a back three with Jon Gittens and Watson, and Andy Gurney and Paul Gibbs formed an iconic wing-back pairing. Gary Clayton and Chris Leadbitter were drafted in from Plymouth Argyle to add more experience to midfield and a young midfielder by the name of Kevin Hill was recruited from Western League side Torrington following a successful trial.

After a slow start, the Gulls established themselves as a mid-table side in the first half of the 1997-98 campaign. However, the signing of striker Jason Roberts, the nephew of former England centre forward Cyrille Regis, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers in December 1997 proved to be an inspired one, which helped to lift United onto a different level.

Roberts formed an excellent partnership with Jack as United went on a club record eight-match winning run between January and March 1998 that propelled the Gulls up to second in the table. This sequence included wins over Shrewsbury Town (3-0), Hartlepool United (1-0), Brighton and Hove Albion (4-1), Hull City (5-1), Doncaster Rovers (1-0), Chester City (3-1), Lincoln City (3-2) and Cardiff City (1-0).

Unfortunately, Roberts’ return to Molineux and an injury sustained by Jack saw their challenge falter. Nevertheless, a 3-1 victory over Peterborough United in their final home game of the season set up a last day decider against Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road.

Sadly for the Gulls, a 2-1 defeat in which they were reduced to ten men following the dismissal of goalkeeper Kenny Veysey saw them miss out on automatic promotion and they were left to face Scarborough in the play-offs.

In the first leg, United helped to banish the memory of their final day defeat in East London with a Sunday afternoon 3-1 win over the Sea Dogs at the McCain Stadium with goals from Jack, Andy McFarlane and Jon Gittens.

The second leg saw the Gulls continue in the same vein as they had done in their first encounter, as Jack opened the scoring after six minutes, when he made a run from inside his own half and burst through on goal, rounding Scarborough keeper Tony Elliott before calmly slotting home.

A minute later, Jack struck again to complete his brace for the evening, when he cut inside and fired past Elliott – with an angled effort – to double the Gulls’ lead on aggregate.

The Sea Dogs reduced their arrears on 22 minutes when their long serving defender Jason Rockett headed home a Troy Bennett free-kick from the right hand side.

However, their hopes of a second leg fight back were dealt a massive blow in the 28th minute – when Gareth Williams received a second yellow card for a lunge on Jack.

Torquay made their numerical advantage court when, ten minutes later, Torquay restored their aggregate lead to four goals through Steve McCall.

Earlier in his career, McCall had been a UEFA Cup winner with Ipswich Town – under Bobby Robson in 1981. He showed evidence of the skills that saw him reach those heights when he curled a left-footed effort into the top corner from 25-yards, following a pass from Jack.

In the second half, the Gulls looked to add to their lead as Jack was denied a hat-trick when he had a shot from close range deflected behind for a corner Scarborough substitute Colin Sutherland in the opening period.

A return to Wembley looked to be almost in touching distance for the Gulls, and chants of ‘Que Sera, Sera’ were now being heard from the Popular Side.

United’s fourth of the night, and the seventh on aggregate, eventually came on 55 minutes, when Jack and McCall combined on the right hand side to set up Paul Gibbs for his tenth of the season.

This hammered a final nail into Scarborough’s coffin and rendered the match all but over.

Yet there was to be further misery for the Sea Dogs, as they were reduced to nine men when second half substitute Liam Robinson saw red on 76 minutes- 16 minutes after coming on – for a foul on Gibbs.

Following the three minutes of additional time added on, Plainmoor was a scene of celebration, as the Gulls – who only two years earlier had hit rock bottom – were now looking forward to the prospect of playing at Wembley. Colchester United lay in wait for them in a final that was switched to a Friday night, due to England hosting Saudi Arabia in a friendly on the Saturday.

Regretfully there would be no glorious return to Wembley for United as Colchester won 1-0, courtesy of a David Gregory penalty awarded for a contentious ‘handball’ by Jon Gittens.

Torquay (3-5-2): Veysey; Gittens, Watson, Robinson, Gurney, Clayton, McCall (Hill 73), Leadbitter, Gibbs; Jack (Bedeau 82), McFarlane (Thomas 87)

Scarborough (5-3-2): Elliott; Kay, Rockett, Atkin (Sutherland 46), T Bennett (Mitchell 60), Williams, McElhatton, Brodie, Worrall, Campbell, Tate (Robinson 60),

Attendance: 5,386


Rodney Jack – Photo courtesy of the Herald Express






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