With 2019/20 marking 120 years since Torquay United AFC’s opening campaign, we continue charting the history of the club, following its formation at the Torre Abbey Hotel on Monday 1st May, 1899.
With manager Frank Brown having worked wonders in securing United’s highest Football League finish during the previous campaign, financial restraints would dictate that matching that feat would prove to be a daunting task.
An opening day goalless draw at home to Aldershot gave no warning of what was to follow, with a disappointing 1-3 loss at Brighton followed three days later by a humiliating 2-10 defeat at Luton Town, equalling the record set two years earlier against Swindon. As embarrassing as that reverse was, it did provide something of a kick-start to the side, as they responded by recording three successive victories over Brighton (3-2) and Northampton (3-0) at home, before recording a 1-0 win at Cardiff. Some of the gloss from those performances was lost by the end of September though, as The Magpies were dealt back-to-back defeats at the hands of QPR (away, 0-2) and Newport (home, 1-2).
The first fixture in October saw United back to their best though, as they produced a stunning 2-0 victory at Norwich City. That success was to prove even more impressive by the end of the campaign, as it was the only home match that City would lose that season, on their way to the Third Division (South) title. When Brown’s side backed that up with results at home to Bristol City (2-2) and Bournemouth (1-0), hopes were high that the team could push on, however their defensive frailties were exposed in the four matches that followed, as Torquay emerged from the fixtures against Charlton (away, 0-6), Watford (home, 1-3), Reading (away, 2-5) and Coventry (home, 1-3) pointless.
It was with some relief then that the FA Cup took centre stage in late November, particularly as United were presented with a relatively kind draw at home to non-league Margate. The visitors though, produced a fine display and were rewarded with a replay five days later following a 1-1 draw at Plainmoor. Thankfully Torquay made no mistake at the second opportunity though, with a 2-0 victory enough to ensure they made a safe passage through to Round 2, with a trip to Northampton lying in wait. Preparations for that game initially received a boost as The Magpies put an end to their barren league form with a 2-1 home win over Bristol Rovers, however this particular cup run was promptly ended the following weekend, as their opponents gained revenge for their earlier league defeat, with victory by the same margin (0-3).
The run-up to Christmas would see a win over Gillingham at home (2-1) and a Devon Derby setback at Exeter (0-4), before the festive fixtures against Swindon Town would see history made on two counts. With the two sides meeting each other on successive days, the first clash at Plainmoor was a memorable occasion, with the 2-0 win being United’s first Christmas day triumph since joining the League. 24 hours later, the fortunes were reversed as Town also recorded victory (0-2). That reverse still provided a historic footnote however, as Leslie Lievesley received the dubious distinction of becoming the first Torquay player to be sent off in a Football League match.
Three more defeats against Aldershot (away 0-3), Luton (home, 0-1) and Southend (away 1-3) would Brown’s side enter 1934 with a whimper, before the regained a measure of respectability in February, following a four match unbeaten run. Those matches against Northampton (away, 1-1), Cardiff (home, 3-1), QPR (home, 1-1), and Newport (away 0-0) may have only produced one win, however it did set up the side nicely for their opening match of a new competition midway through the month.
The Third Division (South) Cup had been introduced to provide third-tier clubs with a realistic opportunity to claim silverware, erstwhile not provided by the FA Cup. After being given a first round bye, United were drawn against Charlton Athletic at home in Round 2, and they began their quest for glory in the best possible fashion, as goals from Jack Fowler and George Stabb saw United make it through to the third round in March.
The league campaign resumed with back-to-back defeats against Norwich (home, 1-2) and Bristol City (away, 0-2), before both sides to United’s game were displayed in the matches against Bournemouth (home, 4-3) and Charlton (away, 1-4), to leave Brown’s men in unpredictable form heading into the cup clash away to Aldershot. Torquay were clearly relishing the opportunity presented to them in a second major cup competition though, and produced the goods once again in the shape of a 2-1 win against The Shots, to set up a place in the final four.
With a top-half challenge failing to materialise, there was some evidence to suggest that United may have got slightly carried away with their cup adventures, as the team took just one point from March’s remaining matches against Watford (away, 0-5), Reading (home, 1-1), Clapton Orient (away, 1-4) and Coventry (away, 1-3), as their re-election ballot fears began to grow.
April though, was far kinder as the side began the penultimate month of the season in excellent form. Back-to-back home victories over Clapton Orient (2-1) and Southend (3-0) gave Torquay breathing space at towards the foot of the table, prior to The Magpies heading to Highbury for the semi-final clash with Norwich. Having already beaten The Canaries so impressively on their own patch earlier in the campaign, United once again rose to the occasion, with goals from Fred Flavell (2), Don Welsh and Don Bird sealing a place in the final, courtesy of a 4-1 win.
To make matters even more exciting, Devon neighbours Exeter City also won their semi-final, with the final scheduled for Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park ground on May 2nd, three days before United’s final league fixture, which also happened to be against Exeter! With attentions now firmly fixed on the silverware showdown, the four league matches that preceded it saw Brown’s men do just enough to pull clear of the league’s bottom two places, with the matches against Bristol Rovers (away, 1-2), Crystal Palace (home, 2-1 & away, 1-4) and Gillingham (away, 1-1) producing three vital points in their quest for survival.
With over 6,000 fans in attendance at the Third Divison (South) Cup Final on Wednesday, May 2nd, it made for a fantastic spectacle, as both sets of fans hoped they would witness their team lift the trophy. In a tight encounter, it was City that would ultimately prevail though, as they secured a 1-0 victory in neighbouring Plymouth. The disappointment within the Torquay contingent was palpable, and was made even worse three days later, as The Grecians rubbed salt into United’s wounds by inflicting a 0-2 defeat on Brown’s men at Plainmoor in the final game of the season.
With goal average required to separate The Magpies from three other sides, United came off worst, leaving them in 20th position, perilously close to another re-election ballot.