Today we face a trip to Crawley, not usually a venue that bears fruit for the U’s it has to be said. In nine visits we’ve only won once in the league, and once in the League Cup. Of course, we’ll all remember that League Cup victory, indeed many of us were probably there to see us progress through to 5th round and the dream fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford. All of our goal-scorers that night, Luke’s Norris and Gambin, and Cohen Bramall (okay, technically an O.G.), are no longer with us, so let’s hope at the very least that recent departee and subsequent returnee Frank Nouble can bag another like his late equaliser against Mansfield. Steve Ball commented during the week about how tight the league is at the moment, and he’s right that a couple of back to back victories would see us move significantly up the table away from danger – but we’ve got to win them first Steve – something we’ve failed to do since our 1-0 victory at Scunthorpe on December 8th.
Colchester United v Torquay
Saturday 23rd March 1996
Endsleigh League Division 3 (Tier 4)
The random match selector for Letters from Wiltshire #33 goes right back to March 1996, and a home game against Torquay United. Very much like the U’s, Torquay’s football history is predominantly about bouncing back and forth between the third and fourth tier. Unlike the U’s, they’ve never been higher than that, but like the U’s have spent time in the National League – in fact they’re there right now. However, given they are riding high at the top, and look on track to be promoted back into the football league, I’m sure many of us would look on at their current success with a degree of envy.
Lest we get too dewy-eyed about our own Conference campaigns, winning and scoring for fun, brushing opponents aside on the pitch whilst taking over stadiums off the pitch, I really wouldn’t want to find ourselves back in non-league these days. One look at the National League table today shows a division chock full of professional former league sides; Torquay, Notts County, Stockport, Hartlepool, Wrexham, Yeovil, Chesterfield, Barnet and others – to slip back into that particular pond would take a herculean effort to get out again.
The way we were
Going into this particular fixture on March 23rd 1996, the U’s under manager Steve Wignall in his first full season in charge, were going well. We were 8th in the league, comfortably in touch with the play-off spots, even and an outside chance of nicking the 3rd place automatic promotion slot (the top two, Gillingham and Preston, were 10+ points ahead and more than likely already out of reach). Torquay, on the other hand, were having a shocker – 15pts adrift at the foot of the table, and doomed to certain relegation into non-league football, for the first time in their history.
Only they weren’t…
Despite their hopeless situation, they had a very tangible lifeline. In the conference, Stevenage were going great guns at the top, and looked certain to win the title. But not promotion. Their Broadhall Way ground had already been deemed unfit for league football by the FA back in October 1995, so all Torquay had to hope for was that Stevenage didn’t falter, and the Gull’s survival was assured.
Torquay actually hadn’t started the season too badly, but whether or not the Broadhall Way decision had an effect on their performance, they started tanking at the very end of September. By the time we met them at the back end of March, they’d won just three league matches in six months. Possibly more closely associated with their terminal dip in form was the transfer of Paul Buckle to neighbours Exeter City in October. Despite leaving just two months into the season, with four goals before departure, Buckle would still finish as Torquay’s leading goal scorer in 1995/96. Buckle would join the U’s in November 1996, and spend a very successful next three years at Layer Road.
The ground regulations were very clear, by the end of December Stevenage had to have a minimum capacity of 6,000, at least 1,000 of which must be seated. They didn’t, and needless to say Stevenage chairman and the ever-colourful Victor Green was furious:
“It’s completely unfair. We have still not had a satisfactory reason from the Football League for the deadline being December 31st, when we can give a concrete guarantee that our ground will be ready by the start of next season”.
Maybe they just didn’t like you Vic…and can you wonder why? Green was found guilty by the Football Association of telling Torquay they had to cough up a £30k bung, or he’d sell Stevenage’s leading goal-scorer and thus jeopardise their chances of winning the league. If that happened, and nearest challenger Woking had won the league, their ground did pass muster and Torquay would have been relegated. Green was fined £25k by the FA, though it was suspended for two years, should he breach the rules again – I’m not sure if he did eventually have to pay or not.
Is that a fact?
Interesting match stat from our New Years Day game at Plainmoor earlier in the year – I wasn’t there, so am relying on the dubious power of the internet to share real facts – apparently Mark Kinsella opened the scoring after 15 seconds, and Simon Betts scored our third to win 3-2 with 15 seconds to go!
Back to it
So there we have it, the U’s hunting promotion, the Gulls reliant on another team to keep winning, surely all set up for a comfortable victory at Layer Road? We drove over for the weekend, stopping at my Mum’s to catch up with family, and as usual me and my brother-in-law took in the match on the Saturday afternoon, after a couple of beers in the Drury naturally.
There were a couple of changes in Wignall’s line-up compared to the back of the programme, Adam Locke (Locke Locke) was favoured over Tony Dennis and Super Scotty McGleish started ahead of a youthful Karl Duguid – Doogie in his debut season at Layer Road, and this match just two days after his 18th birthday. Not sure if he was nursing a monster hangover, but Doogie was on the bench, alongside Steve Whitton and Tony Dennis.
10..Tony Adcock (Steve Whitton)
11..Paul Gibbs (Karl Duguid)
Although not really significant news at the time, only demanding a footnote on page 6 of the programme, the following short piece is particularly relevant in the context of where we are today:
Torquay were managed at the time by Eddie May, who had taken over in November from caretaker Mick Buxton, after the previous manager Don O’Riordan had been dismissed as they slipped towards oblivion. May had enjoyed a decent playing career, including several seasons at Roots Hall, and a pretty good management CV as well, including as Assistant at both Leicester and Charlton, and in charge at both Newport and Cardiff (twice). U’s connection Paul Buckle had already gone to Exeter, but that did still leave Scott Stamps in their line-up that afternoon. Stamps would go on to play just under two seasons for the U’s from 1997 to 1999, of course including our play-off final against Torquay, with our own Paul Gibbs trading places and appearing for the Gulls.
They also had Rodney Jack in their line-up. Not necessarily a household name outside lower league football, Jack would go on to be quite a tidy goal-scorer at not only Torquay, but Crewe and Rushden & Diamonds as well. He also made nearly fifty appearances for his national side, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, averaging an impressive goal every two games in the process. In the matches I’ve seen him play over the years, Jack had always impressed me as a tricky dangerous player, definitely one to be watched carefully.
Apart from knowing why I was there, who with, and that we were on the Barside, there’s not too much I remember about the actual game itself – other than despite being in a strong challenging position for promotion, it was a surprisingly poor crowd that afternoon, less than 3,000. Mind you, that wasn’t actually unusual that season, with most home games struggling to get over the 3k mark – the notable exception being our Boxing Day match against Leyton Orient, when nearly 5,000 squeezed into Layer Road. Typical U’s, bumper festive crowd, and we ground out a drab 0-0 draw.
Looking at the match stats, it was clearly as comfortable a game as I was expecting. ‘Twiggy’ Fry put the U’s ahead in just the 6th minute, and although this didn’t bode well for beleaguered Torquay, they managed to keep it at just 1-0 right the way through to half-time. Clearly the Gulls struggled to get into matches, because just two minutes into the second half, Scott McGleish made it 2-0, and almost certainly game over as far as Torquay was concerned.
Now it was just a question of not whether we could score any more, but also how many. I can’t remember the reason, certainly there were no red card incidents, but our third duly arrived in the 74th minute with Simon Betts converting from the penalty spot at the Layer Road end. That seemed to be that, and the U’s appeared happy to settle for an easy 3-0 victory. However, finding a spirit they could really have done with more of, Torquay rallied, and in the 86th minute substitute Ellis Laight grabbed a late consolation for the Gulls. Still a comfortable victory for the U’s though, as we moved inexorably closer to the play-offs.
Colchester United 3 (Chris Fry 6’; Scott McGleish 47’; Simon Betts 74’p) Torquay United 1 (Ellis Laight 86’)
Thanks to Paul Gibbs’ fortuitous cross-cum-shot in our final match against Doncaster Rovers, already featured in LfW#23, we did squeeze into the final play-off slot at the end of the season. There we faced Plymouth Argyle in a somewhat bad-tempered and hostile two-legged semi-final. One day the Home Park leg may well feature in these blogs, but I’ll say no more about it now.
Torquay did of course finish rock bottom of the league, without winning another match for the remainder of the season. Remarkably, picking up a few draws, they actually managed to close the gap on 2nd from bottom Scarborough to just 11 points, but a -54 goal difference has got to be some sort of record?
Conversely, Stevenage romped home at the top of the Conference, 8 points clear and with a +57 goal difference…and stayed exactly where they were. Torquay were saved, and after a season of rebuilding in 1996/97, would meet the U’s in the play-off final in May 1998. They were of course unsuccessful, and eventual lost their fight to stay in the Football League in 2007.
Up the U’s