The Gulls are back at Wembley!
Today Torquay United (and all their supporters) visit the new Wembley Stadium in London to face Cambridge United at 16:00 BST. The winner of this Conference (aka Blue Square Premier League) Playoff Final will be promoted to the English Football League. They will be a fully professional level club again, amongst the 92 top teams in England, albeit in the bottom tier.
Come on Torquay!
I became a fan (long distance fan) of Torquay United Football Club (TUFC) in the summer of 1996. After watching the Euro Championship held in England that year, I decided that I needed to adopt a lower division English club to tap into some of that passion I saw on display during that tournament. It was easy to back one of the big clubs in England (I already was a fan of Newcastle) but the fans of the smaller teams seemed to be more in touch with the ups and downs, particularly the downs, of supporting a club through thick or thin. There was very little glamour involved in their match day experiences. It was all about trudging into small grounds with small crowds, hoping for one magical season or one magical match. Quite often it was more about the club’s survival rather than the club’s glory. There were very few if any plastic supporters.
I was vacationing in northern Michigan and one of my tasks on the beach that week was to find a small club to support. I was studying a season preview edition of a football magazine, trying to decide which club I should support out of the 24 clubs in England’s lowest division of professional football. The internet (and live broadcasts via internet radio) made following these smaller clubs a great deal easier than ever before. It also made it easier to connect with local supporters who followed the clubs each week. So, after years of reading three day old copies of English newspapers, tuning into the World Service at 505, and catching the odd highlight show on television, cable broadcasts and the internet gave me almost instant access to nearly any club in England. Now it was just a matter of choosing the right small club for me.
I completed my study of the bottom 24 when the decision was made for me. It quite literally came down from the sky. At that instant, the largest gull I had ever seen came down from the sky and stood not more than five yards from me. It just stared at me for two minutes and then took off. I realized that the Torquay mascot was a Gull and so I figured this was most definitely a sign. The Great Gull from the Sky wanted me to follow Torquay United. So I did.
When I returned home I started to research a bit about the club. First off, they had been in England’s professional leagues since 1927. Most of that time was spent in the bottom division of English football’s pyramid system. They had won promotion to a higher division a few times only to be relegated back to the lowest division after a season or two.
Torquay had even survived relegation from League football (to amateur football status) a few times. After two successive seasons of finishing last in the lowest division, Torquay kept their spot by applying for re-election to the League (1984-85 and 1985-86). The next season, the Football League decided that relegation would be automatic so Torquay had to win its place with on the field effort.
And so they did in typical bizarre Torquay fashion. The final match of the 1986-87 season saw Torquay hanging on by the narrowest of margins. They needed one point from a draw to stay up but things looked bleak as Torquay was trailing 2-1 with only seven minutes left to play (see extended video below). A loss doomed Torquay to non professional (Conference) football for the next season. Just then, fate interceded in the form of a police dog.
As the end of the match approached, police started to surround the field to prevent a pitch invasion. Amongst the police that day was a dog handler and his charge, Bryn the Police Dog. The police turned their backs to the match to watch the crowd. Bryn was very protective of his master so he watched forward and backward. When he saw somebody running quickly toward his master's back, Bryn went into action & bit that intruder. Trouble was the intruder was already on the pitch as he was Jim Mc Nichol, who had scored the first goal for Torquay that match.
Play was stopped as McNichol was treated – he would eventually require 12 stitches. Due to the delay, five minutes of injury time was added to the end of the match. During the last minute of injury time, Torquay’s Paul Dobson scored to equalize at 2-2. This gave the Gulls the point they needed to escape relegation. Would they have had enough time to score were it not for the dog bite? Torquay supporters didn’t know for sure but to this day Bryn the Police Dog has an exalted place in Torquay United’s folklore.
More escapes and good bits too - to be continued …