A brief History of Torquay United Football Club
The history of Torquay United begins with the merging of Ellacombe, Babbacombe and Torquay Town. The elevation of Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle to the Southern League at the end of World War I prompted the emergence of a new Torquay United in 1921.
We immediately joined the Western League and finished sixth in that first season. In 1925, we reached the first round proper of the FA Cup, only losing out to Reading after two replays.
Two years later, we were crowned champions of the Western League and the club successfully applied for full membership to the Football League. Our first game was a 1-1 draw with Exeter at Plainmoor, with the players now changed from the early light and dark blue ensemble to a black and white kit similar to the famous Newcastle United strip.
Now referred to as the Magpies, United’s first ever league goal was a penalty from Herbert Turner, but that credible early draw was swiftly followed by a painful 9-1 defeat at Millwall. Our first league campaign ended with United finishing bottom of Division Three (South).
Fortunately, our re-election to the league was immediately confirmed and the 1930s was a decade of quiet consolidation, with the club never finishing higher than tenth place.
When the Football League resumed after World War II, United found a goalscoring hero in the form of Sammy Collins, who helped us finally break the top-ten duck in 1949. Collins would go on to become the club’s record scorer with 219 goals from 379 games.
The famous Yellow and Blue shirts we all love today became a reality in the 1954-55 season and the new-look kit played its role in a fabulous run to the fourth round of the FA Cup. After humbling the mighty Leeds United 4-0, a record 21,908 crammed into Plainmoor for a narrow loss to Huddersfield, and that remains our highest ever attendance.
The new era of manager Eric Webber saw United come within goal difference of winning promotion to Division Two for the first time ever but we were pipped by Alf Ramsay’s Ipswich Town on the final day of the 1956-57 season.
A change to the league structure and abolition of the regionalised system placed United in the newly-formed Division Four and the date of April 27, 1960 would finally see the club win promotion from the bottom league.
Players like Don Mills and the Northcott brothers of Tommy and George were the heroes of the day and we survived our first season in Division Three before dropping down the following year.
The emergence of young goalscorer Robin Stubbs kept us near the top of Division Four and 1965 paired us with the mighty Tottenham Hotspur in the third round of the FA Cup. Just over 20,000 people witnessed a stunning 3-3 draw, courtesy of a brace from Stubbs. Although the replay at White Hart Lane was a heavy loss, the episode was a fitting end to 15 years of Webber management.
Frank O’Farrell swept in as his replacement and guided the Gulls back to Division Three in 1966 and we were only denied a place in Division Two by a poor finish to the 1967-68 season. We were eventually relegated back to Division Four in 1972 and it would be 19 years before the club graced the third tier again.
The 1970s was something of a non-event but Bruce Rioch’s arrival as boss coincided with another run to the fourth round of the FA Cup, where we lost out in a 3-2 thriller with Sheffield Wednesday.
We then hit rock-bottom in 1985, finishing at the foot of Division Four for the first time in 57 years. That campaign of misery was immediately followed by another two disastrous seasons and we were extremely fortunate to earn re-election to the Football League.
The introduction of a relegation system to the Conference was obviously a concern in the 1986-87 season and we only escaped the drop by holding Crewe to a 2-2 draw on the final day, in a match that was held up by defender Jim McNichol being bitten by a police dog named Bryn. Paul Dobson would go on to equalise for the Gulls in the time subsequently added on.
Cyril Knowles assumed the helm for the following season and steered United to the newly-created play-offs, but we lost out to Swansea 5-4 on aggregate. Among those helping the Gulls to battle away at the right end of the table was teenage winger Lee Sharpe, who was sold to Manchester United at the end of the campaign.
The Sherpa Van Trophy became familiar to the Yellow Army when Dean Edwards scored twice over a two-legged semi-final against his hometown club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and took United to Wembley, but Bolton were too strong in the Final.
A wonderful start to the 1990-91 season took us clear at the top before Christmas but a lull in form saw John Impey introduced as manager. A finish of seventh place booked a place in the play-offs and Burnley were defeated in the semi-final.
Wembley once again beckoned and Blackpool were the opposition. Edwards and Wes Saunders scored in a 2-2 draw and goalkeeper Gareth Howells would score in the penalty shoot-out before Dave Bamber missed for the Tangerines.
A managerial merry-go-round resulted in Neil Warnock briefly taking the reins to rescue the plummeting Gulls from a double relegation out of the Football League. Unfortunately, the pattern was set and United finished bottom in 1996, only escaping relegation because Conference Champions Stevenage Borough failed to meet League ground regulations.
The Kevin Hodges era briefly stabilised the club and we even flirted with promotion after a record-breaking run of eight straight wins but a late stutter thwarted automatic promotion. Another play-off campaign beckoned but Colchester triumphed at Wembley to deny United.
Wes Saunders came in as boss and certainly boosted the financial coffers, selling star striker Rodney to Crewe for half-a-million. On the pitch, we just missed out on the play-offs in Saunders’ second season but a dip in form led to Colin Lee taking over.
The struggle continued, however, and we eventually needed a desperate last-day win at Barnet to avoid relegation. Next into the hot-seat was Leroy Rosenior and he would guide a talented young side to promotion in a thrilling 2004-05 season.
Sadly, the return to English football’s third tier was brief and a period of decline for the club resulted in a disastrous campaign that saw us relegated out of the Football League in 2007, the first time in 80 years we had been a Conference outfit.
A major revamp behind the scenes rescued the club from the brink of extinction and a new consortium containing lottery winner Paul Bristow helped to stabilise a financial crisis at Plainmoor.
On the pitch, the Gulls were left disappointed at Wembley again, this time losing the FA Trophy Final to Ebbsfleet. The pain was heightened by a play-off semi-final loss to bitter rivals Exeter City, but the following year was one to savour.
Former midfielder Paul Buckle was in charge and he steered the Gulls to the fourth round of the FA Cup and a play-off final win over Cambridge. The Yellows were back in the Football League and a season of consolidation was followed by two thrilling campaigns.
The final year under Paul Buckle ended with United reaching the League 2 play-off final at Old Trafford but Stevenage proved too strong. The 2011-12 season, the first under Martin Ling, the new manager brilliantly rebuilt his squad and only missed automatic promotion on the final day before losing to Cheltenham in the play-offs.
Sadly, Martin Ling fell ill midway through last season and Alan Knill took over on a temporary basis, steering the Gulls away from relegation on the final day of a traumatic campaign. The club then parted company with Ling and installed Knill as permanent boss.
The Alan Knill era proved unsuccessful and a poor start to his permanent tenure ended with the club sacking their manager in December 2014. Chris Hargreaves was appointed boss in the January but the mountain was too much to climb, and United suffered relegation to the Conference.
Having finished the 2014/15 campaign in mid-table, the club faced a challenging summer as our very existence hung in the balance at one stage. In the end, a consortium of local business people, fronted by chairman David Phillips took over and began the task of building some solid foundations for future growth.
Manager Chris Hargreaves was placed on gardening leave and ex-Eastwood and Mansfield manager Paul Cox was put in charge of 1st team duties with a reduced playing budget for the coming season.
United started the season with a 1-0 win over Macclesfield but further wins were hard to come by and Cox resigned from his post in September 2015.
The Board of Directors appointed former player Kevin Nicholson to turn the season around and save the club from relegation.
At one point United were twelve points from safety but with the addition of some canny signings, Kevin Nicholson and his squad were able to avoid relegation from the National League. ‘The Great Escape’ was celebrated with a 2-0 win away to Bromley.
The next season proved to be equally as difficult as the team found it difficult to turn the result their way. Many games were lost by just one goal.
Just like the season before, Kevin Nicholson and his coaching team were able to turn the season around and stay in the National League.
The summer of 2016/17 was a season of change at the Club. Kevin Nicholson signed fourteen new players to revamp the playing squad.
After three defeats in the first four games, Kevin Nicholson and the Club parted ways. Assistant manager Robbie Herrera took the reins and led the team for the next six games picking up two points.
After an extensive search for a new management team, the Club appointed Bath City manager Gary Owers as Head Coach, and former Reading U23 coach Martin Kuhl as his Assistant on September 13th 2017.
Despite strengthening United’s squad with a number of signings, Owers was unable to lift United out of the relegation places, and despite a brief upturn in results and performances, United’s fate was sealed following a 1-1 draw away to Hartlepool, as the club was relegated to National League South.
United’s board and management insisted that their stay in the sixth tier would be a brief one, and Owers was immediately given the funds to put together a side capable of bouncing back at the first attempt.
Johnson revives United’s fortunes
Eleven new faces were named in the Gulls squad that opened up with a 0-0 draw against Chelmsford, and this was followed up with successive wins over Bath City and Hemel Hempstead. However, one win in the next six games, culminating in a 1-0 home defeat by Chippenham, signalled the departure of Owers, and within 24 hours, former Yeovil Town and Bristol City manager Gary Johnson was announced as his replacement.
Their was surprise and delight in equal measure amongst United’s fan base at the appointment, and Johnson’s impact was immediate. Three wins and three draws preceded a record-breaking ten match winning streak, which lifted the club up from 14th into 1st place. What seemed like a season-long battle for top spot ensued, with United, aided by the goals of reinvigorated striker Jamie Reid, fighting it out with Woking for pole position on a weekly basis. As the season entered it’s final stages though, it was Johnson’s men who held their nerve as Woking faltered. A late equaliser in the match between the two sides looked to be vital, and sure enough, a 2-0 victory over Eastbourne the following weekend secured the club’s first championship title since 1927, and with it, promotion back to the National League at the first attempt.
Two years later, despite playing almost the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign behind closed doors, Johnson’s men went agonisingly close to securing a return to the Football League with a 2nd-placed-finish, before a memorable 4-2 Play-Off Semi-Final over Notts County at a raucous Plainmoor set the stage for a Promotion Final against Hartlepool United at Ashton Gate.
Once again, The Gulls’ never-say-die spirit was on full display in front of a national TV audience, as goalkeeper Lucas Covolan’s last-gasp header sealed a 1-1 draw, to send the match into extra time. Sadly, penalty kicks would eventually deny United of the victory many felt they deserved.
With the club now in better shape than it has been for many years on and off the field though, Torquay United’s total band of supporters can finally look ahead to the future with optimism once again.