By David Richardson
Gary Johnson had just one criticism of his Torquay United champions – they didn’t know how to celebrate properly!
The Gulls have been faultless since Johnson took over, but only until post-match last Saturday once they had clinched the National League South title.
“There couldn’t have been a lot of players in my team who have had many promotions because they didn’t know how to pop the cork on the champagne bottle!” laughed Johnson as he discussed promotion with The NLP.
“They didn’t know how to spray it, didn’t get their thumb over it or anything, they were absolute novices!
“My first lesson for them now is how to pop a bloody champagne bottle, I’m pleased to say I’m quite experienced in that.”
Celebrating comes naturally to Johnson now, with this his sixth promotion as a manager.
Yet this success came in a different fashion to his others. He arrived at Plainmoor in September with Torquay languishing in 14th just months after suffering relegation from the National League.
Relations between the fans and board were at breaking point while criticism rained down from the terraces at an uninspiring start, which featured home defeats to Hampton & Richmond Borough and Chippenham Town.
Johnson had to change the mood. And fast.
“It was a club for me at the right time,” he said. “I knew the atmosphere had to change and I’ve been ok at doing that over the years.
“The club had to stop the rot at some stage. Promotion feels great because you’re just so happy for the football club because they’ve had such a bad time over the last couple of years. I tried to come in and put my character on it, try and quickly get them to believe in what I was doing.
“And that’s always handy when you’ve got a few promotions behind you because people listen to you. They think, ‘he must know what he’s talking about’. There’s no use going in there as a 63-year-old telling them how to do it and then they say, ‘well how many promotions have you had?’ and you go, ‘well I ain’t had one yet’.
“Then you’ve got to win football matches. We had a very good early run. We had a couple of cup wins where we scored seven in one and four in another. It got us going. The timing was right.
“I thought it would be a great effort if we could get in the play-offs. As we got more successful our aims got higher.”
A nine-game unbeaten run was ended at home in early November by Woking, who would become their title rivals.
The defeat spurred Torquay into ten consecutive league wins, shooting them into title contention.
They failed to score in just one league game under Johnson while producing crucial late winners at East Thurrock and Concord Rangers.
Then, two goals in the final ten minutes at Woking a fortnight ago salvaged a point to put them on the brink of promotion, which was confirmed with a 2-0 win over Eastbourne Borough as Woking lost at Chelmsford.
“It’s a difficult league,” Johnson said. “Not a lot of them, if any, are full-time but when you are a full-time club you’ve got to make that work for you.
“You have to do the right things; other teams can be just as fit as you if you’re not doing it right. We had to make sure we used that as an advantage for us. That is often why we could win games late.”
It’s been five seasons since Torquay were in the Football League and Johnson, who has won the Conference title twice with Yeovil and Cheltenham Town, now has his sights set on further progression.
“We have to get back into the League as quickly as we can,” he added. “I think I know the level, I think I know what I’ve got to bring in, the board of directors have been great and have backed me. Along the way we’ve been jotting down names, who we felt would be our types of players on and off the field. Now we know we’re going up we can start making progress.
“It’s building a family, but a family you can trust. We’ve got a motto of ‘teammates you can rely on’. I’m sure we’ll be competitive next year.”