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 former Plymouth Argyle defender John McNeil appointed as the new man in charge at Plainmoor, Torquay United set about following up their creditable 11th placed finish in 1946/47 – their first full campaign after the Second World War.
The home match against Aldershot on August 23rd gave United’s supporters the first opportunity to witness new signing Dennis Lewis in action – a player that would go on to attain legendary status in Plainmoor folklore after making 472 appearances in a Torquay shirt over the next twelve seasons. Lewis made an instant impression with the home fans, as he scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win, with fellow debutant Charlie Hill grabbing the clinching second.
That encouraging start was tempered by back-to back defeats away to Northampton Town (0-1) and Crystal Palace (1-2) in their next two matches, although Town were subsequently put to the sword in the return match soon after, with The Magpies running out 4-2 winners at Plainmoor, with another future Torquay favourite, Ron Shaw, amongst the goalscorers with a brace.
Shaw, destined to finish the season as the club’s top scorer with 18 goals, would hit the net again in their next match, the Devon Derby home defeat against Exeter (1-2), before the team embarked on an unusual run of five successive 1-1 draws against Norwich (away), Swindon (home), Norwich again (home), Port Vale (away) and QPR (home). A sixth draw on the bounce followed – at Watford – although this was at least by a more unique scoreline (2-2), before McNeil’s men registered their first win in eight games with a single goal victory at Newport.
A Jack Conley hat-trick at home to Southend in the very next game (4-1) helped to give a more positive reflection on the team’s recent run of stalemates, and after two more draws against Notts County (0-0, away) and Swansea (1-1, home) stretched their unbeaten sequence to ten games, United had secured a reputation as one of the most resilient teams in Division 3 South.
When defeat did eventually arrive, it came in the most decisive of manners, as Torquay went down 2-6 at promotion chasing Bournemouth in early November. The side instantly bounced back following that disappointment though, and recorded eye-catching wins over Ipswich at home (3-0) and Bristol City away (2-1) to round off the month’s league fixtures in fine style.
The FA Cup then took centre stage in the run-up to Christmas, with United maintaining their interest in the competition into the New Year – the first time they had done so since the early 1930s. After a 1-1 draw at Watford forced a home replay a week later, The Magpies were in top form, as they emerged comprehensive 3-0 winners. Round 2 would follow a similar pattern, with a 1-1 draw at Northampton preceding another confident result in the Plainmoor replay (2-0).
With their third round encounter put on the back burner for the festive period, both matches against Bristol Rovers went the way of the visitors, with United securing a 2-0 win at Eastville on Boxing Day, before going down 1-2 at Plainmoor the day after. A thrilling 3-3 draw at home to Crystal Palace ushered in the New Year on January 3rd, before all roads led to Stockport County for the club’s first FA Cup 3rd Round tie in 17 years. Unfortunately, McNeil’s men were unable to break new ground in the competition, as they slipped to a 0-3 defeat.
United’s fans were given the best possible consolation prize seven days later though, as Torquay avenged their earlier Derby defeat with a 2-0 victory over Exeter at St. James Park. A period of inconsistency followed during the remainder of January and February, however six points taken from the fixtures against Leyton Orient (0-1, home), Swindon (2-2, away), Port Vale (5-0, home), QPR (3-3, away), Watford (0-1, away) and Newport (4-1, home) left them eyeing up another top-half finish.
Then, without warning, the team’s form disintegrated completely. Over the course of the next eleven matches between the start of March and late April, United failed to win a single game, with the last eight all ending in defeat. Those results against Southend (0-1, away), Notts County (2-2, home), Swansea (1-1, away), Brighton (1-2, away), Bournemouth (0-1, home), Brighton (1-2, home), Ipswich (1-2, away), Bristol City (2-3, home), Walsall (0-1, away), Reading (0-2, away) and Aldershot (0-1, away) saw United slip alarmingly down the league table, and it took a 3-2 win over Walsall in their penultimate home match of the season to eventually steer the side away from re-election trouble.
With both of Torquay’s final matches ending in defeat, against Reading (home, 1-2) and Leyton Orient (away, 1-4), McNeil’s first term ended with an 18th place finish. Although the season had promised so much more only a couple of months previously, it was with some relief that the campaign had drawn to a close, with United finishing just one point above last-placed Brighton.