By John Lyons
Manager Gary Owers has warned his Torquay United troops that they are ‘there to be shot at’ as they prepare for life in Non-League’s second tier.
The Gulls were relegated from the National League last term, finishing third from bottom. It was another hammer blow for the former Football League outfit and means they will step out in the unaccustomed arenas of National League South in the coming campaign.
The good news for long-suffering fans is that Torquay are staying full-time. The downside could be that their divisional rivals see them as a prized scalp and raise their game.
But former Sunderland, Bristol City and Notts County midfielder Owers, who took the reins last September, is determined to ensure his players are fully aware of the size of the task ahead.
“We have to make the most of being full-time,” said the 49-year-old. “We have to use the time to be organised, get fitter and be better prepared. It’s up to me to make sure we use that time wisely.
“We have spoken to everyone we have signed and told them our aim is to win the league and get promotion. That’s what we are going to try to do, but it’s going to be tough with the likes of Hampton & Richmond, Chelmsford, Bath, Billericay and Dartford.
“It’s a vicious start with six or seven games in August, but we know what to expect and have to hit the ground running. We are there to be shot at.
“The playing surface at Plainmoor will be better than anything else in the league and teams will look forward to coming to us. We have to be ready for that and we have to be really strong at home.”
As for his squad, the former Bath City boss is keen to make another four or five signings before the campaign begins.
“I’m happy with the recruitment so far,” he said. “We are a little bit light on numbers, but I’m working on that.
“I’m also happy with the spirit of the group. We had our first game on Tuesday (the Gulls lost 4-1 at home against Forest Green) and we were beaten on the night, but we were training before and they were ahead of us a little bit in terms of preparation.
“We have some really hard pre-season games (Torquay host Plymouth (July 17), Cardiff (July 20) and Bristol City (July 24)) but they will stand us in good stead.”
The warm-up games will also give two new goalkeepers the chance to press their claims for a starting spot in the National League South curtain-raiser at Chelmsford on August 4.
The Gulls have brought in highly-rated keeper Alex Bass, 20, on a season-long loan from League One outfit Portsmouth, while they have also snapped up Shaun MacDonald, 21, from Blyth Spartans.
The signing of Bass in particular appears to be a coup for Torquay. He made his Football League debut in the final game of last season and kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win against Peterborough.
Just before joining the Gulls on loan, he signed a new three-year deal with Portsmouth.
“We are thankful to (Pompey boss) Kenny Jackett for trusting us to look after him,” said Owers. “There was interest from other clubs and I’m just happy we’ve got him. He’s a confident lad and he’s going to have a big influence on our season.”
And Owers is delighted that Bass – who played on loan with Salisbury in 2016-17 – is following in the footsteps of current England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford by stepping down into Non-League to learn his trade.
“It’s always an advantage for young keepers to get senior football under their belt and will help them further down the line,” he said. “It’s not just goalkeepers – I think it’s important for all those U23 players at League clubs.
“It’s very beneficial for them to go in, roll their sleeves up and get their knees dirty. We are always trying to find the ones that want to come. We try to swerve the ones you’ve got to bend their arm up their back.
“It’s easy for them to have their home comforts, where the training grounds and facilities are magnificent. It’s hard to get them away from that, but it will only help them.
“I had (midfielder) Liam Kelly for 16 games at Bath from Reading a couple of years ago. He perhaps wasn’t making the progress he should have done and I’m not saying that spell with us was why he kicked on, but he went from U23 football to playing in the Championship every week.”
This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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