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.
The 1936/37 season had been one of disappointment, with the club failing to build on the promise of two successive 10th-placed finishes achieved during the previous two campaigns. Frank Brown, whose appointment as Trainer / Manager could initially have been seen as purely a cost-saving exercise, had done well enough during his time in charge to shake off that tag, however with finances remaining tight at Plainmoor, another pre-season of minimal squad investment would see his skills once again tested to the limit.
Things began in a very positive manner, as for the first time since Torquay’s election into the Football League, they took maximum points from their opening game of the season. Also pleasing was the fact that the 1-0 win over Walsall at Plainmoor was witnessed by a crowd of 5,622 – a significant improvement on the 3,062 that attended the last home game of 36/37.
Star striker Ben Morton began exactly where he left off, with a brace apiece in the next two away matches against Cardiff (2-5) and Northampton (3-0), and the fear amongst United’s supporters was that it was only a matter of time before his exploits would be recognised by another club, as finances dictated that any reasonable offer would be very difficult for Torquay’s directors to turn down.
With Plainmoor having been such a fortress for Brown’s men in recent history, it was hoped that three successive home matches would provide the side with the springboard to propel them up the Division 3 (South) table – however it didn’t turn out that way. A 4-1 win over Bristol Rovers was pleasing enough, however the two defeats against Cardiff (0-1) and QPR (0-2) either side of it put extra pressure on The Magpies’ unreliable away form.
A 1-1 draw at Mansfield did at least give United something to build on in the lead-up to the Devon Derby against Exeter City in late September, with The Grecians also becoming accustomed to struggles near the foot of the table. A 2-1 win at Plainmoor saw Torquay gain local bragging rights, and also served as the first instalment of back-to-back home successes, with Clapton Orient beaten 3-1 on October 2nd.
Little went right during the rest of the month though, with an early exit in the Division Three (South) Cup at the hands of Bristol City (away, 0-3) a warning of what was to follow, as The Magpies lost the next four league matches – three of them by heavy margins. Following a comprehensive 1-5 defeat at Southend, United did at least put up a much better fight the following weekend at Swindon (0-1), however worse was on the horizon, with a 1-5 home defeat against Aldershot backed up by a 0-7 drubbing at promotion-chasing Millwall.
That defeat against Aldershot would signal the last appearance, and goal, in United’s colours for Morton, with the player signing for divisional rivals Swindon for a Town record £1,000 shortly after. 37 goals in just 55 appearances had made him one of Brown’s most successful signings, and the void he left in the goalscoring department would prove to be a difficult one for the manager to fill during the remainder of the campaign.
Albert Shelley, a close-season capture from Sheffield Wednesday did his best to fill the gap, and he chose the perfect occasion to break his duck for the club, as his two goals helped secure a morale-boosting 3-2 home win over Reading at the beginning of November. Any optimism gained from that victory quickly evaporated though, as Torquay embarked on a run of nine games that would produce just one win and four goals. League defeats against Crystal Palace (away, 1-4) and Notts County (home, 0-3) preceded another immediate cup exit, as the team went down 1-2 at home to Clapton Orient in the FA Cup.
A return to league action brought another home defeat, against Bristol City (1-3), before a rare win, over fellow strugglers Gillingham (1-0), gave United some breathing space in the last fixture before Christmas. The festive double-header against Bournemouth on the 25th (away) & 27th (home) wouldn’t have lived long in the memories of the supporters who braved the winter conditions to witness them, with neither encounter serving up a single goal to warm them.
With Torquay’s attackers again firing blanks in the away games at Watford (0-4) and Walsall (0-0), the matches against Newport County (2-0 away) and Northampton (1-2 home) were relative goalfests in comparison. Although the rare win at County was certainly a welcome one, particularly given their well-established poor form on the road, their lack of a threat up front was a real concern, and was magnified over the next four weeks, as defeats against Bristol Rovers (away, 0-2), Mansfield (home, 0-1), Exeter and Clapton (both 0-2 away) saw Brown’s team go a month without celebrating a goal.
With the scene at the bottom of the table starting to cause some concern for The Magpies’ fans, it was with some surprise that the sub-3,000 crowd at Plainmoor were treated to a six-goal thriller on February 19th, with the clash against Southend ending all-square at 3-3. Even better, from purely a Torquay point of view, was on the cards seven days later, as new forward Jack Haycox’s strike was enough to seal a much-needed 1-0 home win over Swindon.
With twelve games still to go as the season headed into March, manager Brown would have been hoping for at least a handful of similar wins to help avoid the dreaded re-election ballot, however a failure to register any two-point hauls from their remaining matches left their future hanging in the balance.
No more than two goals were scored in each of the fixtures leading up until the final day, with the matches against Aldershot (away, 0-1), Millwall (home, 1-1) and Reading (away, 1-1) leading up to three successive goalless draws against Crystal Palace (home), Notts County (away) and Newport (home), prior to a deadlock-breaking 1-1 stalemate at Brighton.
A worrying hat-trick of defeats in late April against Bristol City (away, 0-2), Brighton (home, 0-1) and Watford (home, 0-1) meant the trip to Gillingham for Torquay’s penultimate game of the campaign took on added importance, and although the match ended in no more than a 1-1 draw, that result was far more more welcome for United than it was for the hosts, as Gillingham were condemned to finish bottom of the pile.
A final day 3-6 defeat at high-flying QPR did at least provide some joy for one Torquay player, as Shelley’s treble saw him end the campaign on double figures. As it turned out, his decent tally of 10 goals from 28 games went some way to seeing United secure 20th place, replicating their finish 12 months earlier.
Having netted just 39 goals in 44 league and cup matches as a team, resolving that problem with little funds available was to prove one challenge too much for Brown, who duly resigned at the end of the season. His departure followed that of club chairman, Charles Dear, marking a sad end for two important figures from United’s early Football League existence.