We may be going down to the wire in most of the leagues this website covers to find out who’ll be securing promotion spots, but there’s one thing we can say with certainty. Torquay United have sealed promotion from the National League South at the first time of asking. The achievement marks the first time that the south-coast club has achieved a promotion of any kind in a decade, and the first time they’ve done so by winning a league championship for close to one hundred years. It’s an outstanding accomplishment. Given where they were when the season was young it’s also a somewhat unlikely one.
The first nine games of the 2018-19 season did nothing to suggest that Torquay had recovered from the kind of shocking form which saw them drop from the National League at the end of the previous season. Head Coach Gary Owers shouldered at least some of the blame for the club’s relegation, and so it was a surprise to see him backed by the board, and allowed to stay in situ over the summer. He made all the right noises in terms of statements to the press and commitment to learning from his mistakes, but nothing changed on the pitch. By mid-September, Torquay were already flagging. Nine games had yielded only twelve points, and even more depressingly only five goals. The situation had become untenable, and so Owers – a good man who was simply out of time – found himself out on his ear.
Enter Gary Johnson; a man who had no previous connection to Torquay United, but a fine track record in the non-leagues. Johnson had only been looking for a job for the past month, having been dismissed by Cheltenham Town in what’s looked more and more like a questionable decision as the season has gone on. Johnson had taken an already-relegated Cheltenham Town over in 2015 and returned them to the Football League at the first time of asking, as champions. There was no immediate danger that he was going to take them back down again, and yet he found himself cut adrift and replaced by a man who doesn’t seem to have done any better. Contrast that situation with Torquay’s, though, and the difference is night and day. Cheltenham’s loss has definitely been the Gulls’ gain.
The club’s form under Johnson has been nothing short of mind-blowing. From the day he took the helm, a four-month unbeaten streak began, running past the end of the year and lasting until 19th January 2019, when the Gulls lost a tight 3-2 contest with fellow high-fliers Bath City. The loss didn’t deter them. From there they won ten out of their next thirteen matches. That isn’t just a lucky spell; that’s logging onto slots such as Fluffy Favourites and seeking out the ‘Lucky Spell feature’, putting a stake into it and winning big on ten out of your first thirteen spins. It’s taking your luck, backing it and running it; the strategy that all successful slot game players will tell you works best for them. Johnson didn’t fundamentally alter the make-up of the team; he had neither the time nor the resources. He just arranged what was already there into a different order, and made it pay off for him.
To completely compare him to a gambler is unfair because of the level of skill he’s demonstrated, but Gary Owers was playing with the same players, and couldn’t make them stack up. Either Johnson sees things that others don’t, or he’s blessed with excellent luck. If it were the latter, then it wouldn’t be the first time strange and wonderful things have happened at Torquay. Anybody who’s seen the Netflix series ‘Losers’ will be able to tell you that.
Back in 1987, Torquay was staring relegation from the Football League squarely in the face. They needed a draw to stay up, and they were losing 2-1 at home to Crewe Alexandra. In a tale that’s now become legendary (hence its inclusion in a Netflix series), Paul Dobson scored an equalizing goal during a period of injury time that was only added on to the game because an excitable police dog bit defender Jim McNichol, requiring a pause for treatment. The Gulls stayed up, and five years later they achieved promotion. That period of relative success wasn’t to last, but it serves as a reminder of what magic exists at the club when a man as competent as Gary Johnson is able to exploit it.
Having brought the club back up to the National League after one season, the majority of fans will feel like the next step is to get back into the Football League proper. Gary Johnson has achieved that for two other teams, and a club of Torquay’s stature should be playing at a higher level than they are. Expectations will be raised, and that’s inevitable. The fans may have to learn to be a little patient, though. Getting out of the National League is – as many a former Football League club will tell you – extraordinarily difficult. The division is littered with clubs who were once a much bigger deal than they are now, and some of them are bigger than Torquay.
For a club that’s experienced almost a continual decline for fifteen years, the objective right now should be to achieve stability at their new level. A mid-table finish with a platform to grow from would be a good result in May 2020. A playoff run would be dreamland. Automatic promotion feels like the stuff of fantasy, and may also result in the kind of rapid climb which almost always results in a rapid fall. Torquay in, achieving promotion, have arrested their decline and started to build momentum once again. To over-shoot now and lose control of their climb would be a crying shame.
Johnson is a smart and savvy enough campaigner to know this already, of course. His mind will already have turned to the summer – to who he can keep, who he can let go, and who he can bring in from elsewhere to strengthen the core of the side without ruining its continuity. Torquay have taken baby steps in the right direction. It’s now crucial to let them grow a little more before urging them on any further.