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 the 1938/39 season seeing a new manager at the helm, former Manchester United goalkeeper Alf Steward would be the next man charged with juggling tight financial resources, whilst doing his best to produce a winning football team. To assist with the latter task, Steward would have to solve a problem that had proved somewhat beyond his predecessor, Frank Brown, by improving the team’s longstanding poor away form.
Having largely relied upon their superior home form for a number of years, it was therefore quite a concern that The Magpies won none of their opening five games, with their three homes matches resulting in just one point gained. Opportunities to break that duck against Northampton (home, 1-2), Southend (away, 1-1), Notts County (away, 1-5), Swindon (home, 1-3) and Aldershot (home, 1-1) may have passed them by, however forward Jack Haycox appeared to take matters into his own hands in the next fixture at Bristol City, with his hat-trick securing an excellent 3-1 away win.
Having gone ten games without a goal towards the end of the previous campaign, the summer break certainly appeared to have done Haycox the world of good, as he became the focal point of an otherwise floundering United attack. After netting five of his side’s six goals against Crystal Palace (home, 1-2), Watford (away, 0-0), Port Vale (home, 1-0), Exeter (away, 2-1), QPR (home, 2-3), Ipswich (away, 0-1), a 1-1 home draw against Reading at the beginning of November proved to be his final appearance for the club, as the club accepted a cash-plus-player offer from Northampton for their star forward.
Although Torquay’s long-suffering supporters were obviously disappointed in Haycox’s departure, the move signalled good business for the financially-stricken club, with new man Ralph Allen doing an admirable job of filling the void, beginning by notching the winner on his debut in a 1-0 triumph at Bristol Rovers, their third away win of the campaign already. It was now United’s home form that proving most troublesome, highlighted by three successive league encounters at Plainmoor leading into December which produced no points, as the games against Brighton (0-2), Walsall (0-1) and Cardiff (1-3) all ending in defeat.
One bright spot during this difficult spell came between the first two defeats, as 8,425 fans packed into Plainmoor to witness United produce a confident 3-1 victory over Devon rivals Exeter City in the FA Cup 1st Round. Unfortunately that run ended in the next round, as following the aforementioned defeat against Walsall, Ipswich made home advantage count with an emphatic 4-1 win.
Another defeat by the same scoreline, at Northampton on Christmas Eve, left United’s supporters with precious little festive cheer, however Steward’s men responded three days later, with their 2-1 win over Clapton Orient representing only their second home league win of the season. That improvement though, was only temporary , as The Magpies ended 1938 in losing fashion, as Notts County left Plainmoor with both points (0-2).
With plenty of work ahead of them to avoid a re-election ballot, a 1-1 draw at Aldershot in mid-January did at least give the side something to build on, before United embarked on their best run of the season, as they clocked up five wins on the bounce against Bournemouth (away, 5-2), Bristol City (home, 3-1), Crystal Palace (away, 3-1), Watford (home, 2-1) and Port Vale (away, 1-0). A 0-0 home draw against Newport prior to the latter fixture in the Division Three (South) Cup 2nd Round was the only partial blemish during that superb spell, and although a home Devon Derby reverse against Exeter signalled an end to their league winning run, a 3-1 win in the replay at Newport saw Steward’s men make safe passage through in their divisional cup tie.
Back-to-back 1-1 draws at QPR (away) and Ipswich (home), followed by a 0-4 thrashing at Mansfield undid a lot of their earlier good work, however another impressive result on the road against high-flying Reading (5-3) showed what the side was truly capable of. A 2-2 home draw against a Bristol Rovers side destined to finish bottom of the pile was therefore frustrating, however four days later Torquay were once again back to their best, as a 1-0 win at Bristol City sealed their place in the Division Three (South) semi-finals. With that clash only a week away, Steward’s men could possibly have been forgiven for having taken their eye off the ball in a 0-2 defeat at Brighton in the league, before a thrilling 4-2 success over Crystal Palace at Plainmoor saw United seal a place in the final, thanks in part to a superb Albert Shelley hat-trick.
With cup aspirations now on the back-burner, The Magpies set about securing their league status, with a 2-0 home win at the beginning of April providing them with the perfect start to the penultimate month of the season. Away defeats on successive days against Newport (0-1) and Walsall (0-5) left the club looking over their shoulders at the foot of the table, before three vital points from two home matches against Newport (1-1) and Mansfield (3-0) gave United some much-needed breathing space. Two comprehensive defeats at Clapton Orient (0-3) and Cardiff (1-3) could have proved particularly damaging, however their final home match saw Torquay gain the two points they ultimately needed to secure their league status, courtesy of a 2-0 win over Southend.
A 1-3 defeat at the hands of Swindon may have left United in 19th position, however with safety assured, their supporters could at least look ahead to the possibility of the club’s first silverware in many years, as they awaited the outcome of the Port Vale v QPR semi-final replay, knowing that their place in the Division Three (South) Cup Final had already been confirmed.
Initially, the decision was made to hold the remaining semi-final, and subsequent final, in the early stages of the following season. As it transpired though, far more pressing concerns would decree that the cup final, along with the entire 1939/40 season, would be abandoned due to the outbreak of World War II.
The season was only three games old before it became clear football could not continue amid hostilities, with all three of United’s games ending in draws against Exeter (away, 0-0), Walsall (home, 0-0) and Mansfield (home, 2-2). Although some football did take place initially in the form of a South Western Regional Competition, there was little appetite for it, and the club soon chose to close down until the war was over.
As in 1918, following the outbreak of World War I, the Torquay United side that would return to action in 1945 would look very different indeed.