By Gregor Robertson, National League play-off winner turned journalist
A £40 million stadium complex for a club in the National League South. Even before you delve a little deeper into the machinations behind the scenes at Torquay United, that announcement on Wednesday must surely have raised one or two eyebrows. For most Gulls supporters, however, it was met with caution at best and, at worst, downright suspicion.
The recent history of Torquay United, who after a series of ‘Great Escapes’ will this season play in the National League South for the first time in their 119-year history, is a tale of mismanagement, political manoeuvring, and the sense of a football club having become a pawn in a game of Monopoly – all under the stewardship of an owner with questionable motives and a less-than-encouraging background.
It’s true that, had Clark Osborne not taken control of the club back in 2016 – after the former board of directors, a group of well-meaning but shallow pocketed supporters, forfeited repayment of his £140,000 loan –it’s not at all clear what would have become of Torquay United.
But ever since, despite Torquay’s travails on the pitch, and the fact that Plainmoor, their home since 1920, is a stadium easily fit for life in League Two, never mind the National League, where average attendances dipped below 1,800 last season, a new stadium has always appeared to be on Osborne’s radar.
I was, until quite recently, one of only a few to have been granted an interview with Osborne, for an article I was writing about the sad demise of a former Football League stalwart. Indeed, the local MP, Kevin Foster, who has drawn parallels with Coventry City’s fateful move to the Ricoh Arena, had to raise the threat of using Parliamentary privilege to question why he might not be given his time.
On Thursday evening at a Mayor’s forum, however, Osborne outlined his plans for a new stadium along with an academy, events arena, retail units and potentially a housing complex. There was little in the way of detail other than some rather rudimentary sketches, and the reassurance that Plainmoor would remain Torquay’s home until a new stadium was completed.
But Gordon Oliver, the Mayor who last year lost a vote of no-confidence amid concerns over a £5 million budget deficit, gave the plan his backing. Oliver has been the singular voice of confidence in Osborne’s plans among local politicians.
Why? Osborne’s business, Gaming International (GI), formerly registered as the Bristol Stadium PLC, and before that BS Group PLC, states its nature of business at Companies House as “operating sports facilities”, but history shows little success in that regard.
GI owned or operated greyhound and speedway stadia in Reading and Milton Keynes, both of which were closed under their watch, and Stadia UK, a subsidiary company, still operate tracks at Poole and Swindon, where redevelopment plans have dragged on for more than a decade.
Osborne’s previous involvements in football hardly breed confidence either. Bristol Stadium PLC owned and operated Eastville Stadium, home to Bristol Rovers until 1986. When the rent was pushed up Rovers were forced to sell the land and were exiled in Bath for the next decade, while the site was redeveloped and became a retail park.
In 1997, the BS Group and another company, Chelverton Properties, loaned around £1 million to a financially stricken Hereford United whilst acquiring the leasehold to their Edgar Street ground. Their plan was to build a supermarket on the site and construct a new stadium elsewhere. BS sold their loan to Chelverton in 2001, but there are clear parallels to the manner in which Torquay were acquired.
During an hour in Osborne’s company, in April, he offered a range of explanations for the failure of these ventures, from issues with planning authorities, leases and tenants, to market conditions and a change in government attitudes to gambling with regard to a proposed “Racino” in Reading.
I don’t think, as some on message boards and social media would have you believe, that this is an attempted land-grab or a conspiracy. But it would be fair to say that in each of the above ventures the sport on offer was not Osborne’s chief priority. He would not be alone among football chairmen in that regard. But for supporters, to whom football means passion and community, when your team are languishing at the lowest point in their history, it is understandable that they have priorities beyond a new stadium.
It was instructive to hear Osborne explain to me that his family had held a lengthy connection to Bristol Rovers, stretching back to his great grandfather. His father was a director there. Osborne spent his formative years at Eastville as a supporter. And yet the company where he worked – starting as an accountant, then later chief executive, before he bought out the company – was complicit in Rovers’ eventual eviction.
How did that feel? “Unemotional. That’s what they wanted,” he suggested. “In football there’s a lot of emotion, ego and personalities that stretch over what I would call the basic business decisions you would make. One or two of the board took the decision that they wanted to go – they wanted money. They effectively negotiated a reverse premium. They got paid to go.”
Furthermore, he went on to describe how he and a business associate played a role in introducing Pete Winkelman to Wimbledon FC. “Apart from the introduction, I think he’s done a great job,” he said of Winkelman. “What you can’t take away from the guy is he’s built something from nothing.” AFC Wimbledon would have something to say about that of course. “That would be reasonable,” he said, “for them, but I’m not them.”
He is a businessman. “I don’t think I’m cold, but the thing about all sport, is that they are fundamentally about providing something; they have to be promoted, they don’t just happen. They’re promoting a show. It’s leisure. If you took away television from football, where do you think it would be?”
Football existed before television, of course, though Torquay are now a long way away from the bright lights of the TV cameras. It is true that under Osborne Torquay now run a more professional ship. Their academy has been reinstated, although not without its issues. Full-time football has been maintained for the coming season. And Osborne has shown a willingness to start to engage with supporters. But many are yet to be persuaded.