Vikki Orvice – a tribute by Jacqui Oatley

Jacqui Oatley, the broadcaster, was brought on to the FWA’s National Committee by Vikki Orvice, who passed away today at the age of 56.  Here is Jacqui’s tribute to her friend and our dear colleague.



There was only one Vikki Orvice. That’s clear from the many tributes which have poured in from journalists and senior sporting figures alike following the desperately sad news of our beloved colleague’s passing. Taken from us by cancer at the age of 56, but not before she’d squeezed every drop out of life and found humour in even the darkest of days.

This funny, strong Yorkshirewoman and fiercely loyal friend was unrivalled in her experience, yet did everything in her power to draw others alongside her.

Vikki had been a member of the Football Writers’ Association since the mid-1990s, joining the national committee in 2015 and becoming vice-chair two years ago. Holding the belief that change must come from within, she was also a committee member of the Sports Journalists’ Association. Vikki had so much to offer so, when she heard about our new Women in Football campaign group, she wanted to get involved. WiF was set up in 2007 by Anna Kessel and Shelley Alexander with a plan to champion our peers, challenge discrimination and create opportunities for other women. Vikki saw this as another avenue to make a difference in a heavily male-dominated industry so became a founding board member.

Vikki had been a staff writer for The Sun since 1995 and could easily have chosen to focus on the considerable demands of such a role on a national newspaper. She could have kept a low profile to focus on simply keeping her job. But no, Vikki’s political beliefs stimulated her determination to stand up for the vulnerable, those who lacked confidence and needed a guiding hand. She was in a perfect position to mentor others. Nobody else has equivalent experience so every word she uttered to wide-eyed students and aspiring journalists was absorbed and digested. She would always make the effort to attend our WiF events over the past 12 years – only extreme ill health or being in another country would keep her away. Such was her dedication and commitment.

Just a fortnight ago, Vikki attended the FWA tribute dinner to Gareth Southgate at The Savoy Hotel. She was in a wheelchair and so frail, her body ravaged by cancer and the drugs required to fight it. Most would have taken the easy and sensible option to stay at home to rest but not Vikki. She had to be there alongside her husband, the renowned sports writer, Ian Ridley. Spirited and resolute to the end. Naturally, she was still smiling.

Vikki achieved so much in her relatively short but action-packed time on the planet. Far too much for one article to detail, so here’s a brief overview: she was the first female staff football writer on a tabloid, athletics correspondent at The Sun, charity campaigner and fundraiser, patient governor at the Royal Marsden Hospital, diversity campaigner, board member and despite the effects of intensive treatment, she even found time to chair her local book festival in Hertfordshire. Her inspirational story will be told in full in due course.

Vikki’s passing is devastating to all who knew her. I have cried a steady stream since taking the call from my WiF colleague, Jo Tongue, at breakfast time. Too soon, just too soon to lose this special person. But Vikki was such a force for positive change that her friends and colleagues will turn our grief into her legacy. Plans for a sports writing bursary in her name are just the start.

Rest in peace, dear Vikki. There was nobody quite like you but your warmth, wit and spirit will live on. We will do everything in our power to ensure the sporting press rooms and press boxes of the future are a more welcoming and equal environment. On behalf of all female sports journalists: thank you.

Pictures courtesy of News Group Newspapers

Vanarama National League column – Danny Rowe

By Glenn Moore

Football is brutally ageist. Once a player passes his mid-twenties, unless he is already a success, his chances of career progression decline rapidly. Clubs, with an eye to sell-on fees, are generally reluctant to pay high prices for anyone who would be nearing 30 when their contract ends. Even the poster boy for late developers, Jamie Vardy, was only 25 when Leicester City paid £1m to take him out of non-League. He was a gamble, but the likelihood was he would continue to improve, although few expected Vardy to be such a success.

Add a few more years, however, and players are thought to be, if not quite over-the-hill, certainly nearing the brow. And yet, in an era of conditioning coaches, nutritionists and all-round enhanced professionalism it seems rash to write off a player who could have another five years in him.

Consider Danny Rowe, briefly a team-mate of Vardy at Fleetwood Town. Rowe is the most prolific scorer in the Vanarama League having scored more than 150 goals for AFC Fylde in the past five seasons. This has been noticed. Oldham bid £50,000 for him in summer 2017. Cheltenham bid £175,000 in summer 2018. On both occasions Fylde, only a dozen years out of the West Lancashire League, turned the bids down. Though Rowe is keen to play in the Football League he accepted the decisions and kept on scoring. The dream of both player and club is to go up together.

At the weekend Rowe scored goals number 20 and 21 this season as Fylde won 2-1 at promotion rivals Solihull Moors. That followed the 48 goals in Vanarama National League North in 2016-17, which propelled the Coasters to promotion, and 28 goals last season as Fylde reached the play-offs.

If Rowe seems in as much a hurry as his club it is with good reason. Time is not on his side. On January 29 Rowe enjoyed his 30th birthday, a questionable landmark in an industry which confers veteran status on 30-somethings.

However, in playing terms he is not so ancient. A prodigious scorer as a boy, so much so he joined Manchester United at 11, Rowe quit the game at 16, released by United after falling out of love with the grind. He took up a joinery course and played for fun, at amateur level. Soon the goals began to flow again. Fleetwood signed him, but while he did OK on loan to Droylsden and Stockport he failed to score for Fleetwood. They preferred Vardy, though Rowe occasionally played alongside the future England international in 2012. 

It wasn’t until Rowe arrived at Fylde, in August 2014, that it clicked. “He’s found a place where he is comfortable and his goalscoring record over the last for or five years has been outstanding,” said Fylde boss Dave Challinor after Saturday’s win. “He has ice in his veins. His calmness in and around the box is amazing. He is not bothered if he misses a chance and rarely celebrates when he scores – he just sees it as what he is there to do.”

If Rowe and Fylde win promotion to the Football League, it will be just reward.

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Hugh McIlvanney, OBE

We at the FWA are sad to report the passing of Hugh McIlvanney, one of the greatest sportswriters of the past fifty years and a much-loved colleague.
Hughie passed away on Thursday, aged 84, after a battle with cancer, but he left behind a legacy of prize-winning sportswriting and a reputation as one of the true greats.
The majority of his career was spent writing for the Observer and Sunday Times before he retired three years ago, and he was the first journalist inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame two years ago.
Below is a tribute from his friend and former colleague Pat Collins, himself a giant of sportswriting.

“One winter evening in the eighties, a group of sports writers boarded the London-bound train at Manchester Piccadilly station. We started to speak of the match we had covered that afternoon, and of United’s decisive goal. Somebody praised Bryan Robson’s pass which had created the goal, and we all muttered our agreement. All except Hugh McIlvanney.

“’It wasn’t Robson, it was Frank Stapleton’, he insisted. The ensuing argument lasted until Crewe, by which time Hugh conceded that he might be mistaken. He got up, swore loudly and yanked his typewriter from the overhead rack. “I’ll have to speak to the office’, he said. We told him it was the last train, that he’d be marooned until Sunday morning and that, anyway, nobody would notice the error. “But I would’, growled Hugh. We were still pleading with him through the carriage window when the train pulled away.

“When his countless admirers speak of Hugh’s writing, they recall the rolling phrases, the astute insights, the dramatic sense of occasion. But those who worked with him — and especially the heroic subs who placed paragraph marks on his copy — will tell of the tireless perfectionist, the man whose Sunday would be spoiled by a misplaced comma or a wayward colon.

“His passing, at 84, has provoked torrent of tributes; glowing and utterly merited. His influence on British sports writing is profound, and he has long since secured his place alongside Ian Wooldridge and Frank Keating in the trinity of our greatest sports writers.

“Setting out on the Kilmarnock Standard, McIlvanney moved to The Scotsman, to The Observer from 1972 to 1993 — with a two – year spell at the Daily Express — before joining the Sunday Times until his retirement in 2016. The honours came pouring in: he was Sports Journalist of the Year on six occasions and he is the only sports writer to be named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

”But the honours only hint at the talent, far better to consider his sporting heroes. There were the towering football men from the West of Scotland: Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and – most notably – Sir Alex Ferguson. Hugh spent countless hours in their company, and he painted some imperishable pictures in his columns. But if he admired those fine managers, we knew that he actually loved George Best. It was Best whom he described as having “feet as sensitive as a pickpocket’s hands’. It was Best who gave him some of his most revealing interviews. And it was Best of whom he wrote: “He appeared to regard gravity as an impertinent con – trick, unworthy of being taken seriously, gracefully riding tackles that looked capable of derailing a locomotive’.

“Sure, Hugh was anxious to celebrate the great sporting figures, yet he had an unforgiving eye for mere pretenders. Of Vinnie Jones, he wrote: “Plenty of hod carriers made it in football in the past, but they had to learn to play first’. While I remember wincing when I read his one – line demolition of the British heavyweight boxer Joe Bugner: “The physique of a Greek God, but with fewer moves’.

“Boxing was his prime passion. He recognised its hazardous cruelty, but he saw courage and genuine nobility in the nature of so many fighters. Again, his heroes came from the top drawer: Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis and – way above the rest – Muhammad Ali. Hugh enjoyed extraordinary access to Ali, and his interview on the banks of the Zaire River in the wake of the astonishing fight with George Foreman remains one of the most memorable pieces he ever wrote: “We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it’.

“His boxing writing made his reputation in America, and for a while he moved home to upstate New York to spread his talents more widely. But the pull of the British sporting scene proved too great. “I missed it for all kinds of reasons’, he said. “Especially Cheltenham’. He loved the races. He loved the air of rascality, the guile of the jockeys, the wisdom of the trainers, the sense that there was a killing to be made if only he could hold his nerve. He was, to put it kindly, an optimistic gambler, but he shrugged off his losses and cherished his occasional coups.

“He also wrote this stunning intro one winter’s day at the races: “The tarpaulin they threw over the remains of Lanzarote on Thursday afternoon was a winding – sheet for our enjoyment of this year’s Cheltenham Festival’.

“His contribution to our rackety old trade was prodigious, but I shall remember Hugh McIlvanney for other reasons; for the late nights and the laughter, for the unpredictable explosions and the brooding remorse, for all the songs that were sung and all the tales that were told.

“A final memory: some thirty – five years ago, we covered a world middleweight title fight at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. The fight took place on a Friday evening, which allowed us to watch the event, speak to the “connections’, attend the Press Conference and return to our hotel rooms to work through the night before dictating our pieces to our Sunday papers.

“I finished around three or four in the morning, after which I slept for a few hours before knocking at Hugh’s room at mid – day. The place was in some disarray, the floor strew with discarded sheets of copy paper, empty coffee cups and the remains of breakfast. The air was thick with the purple fug of cigars: “He would spend more on Cuban cigars than the rest of us would spend on our children for Christmas’, as David Walsh once wrote. Hugh sat amid this chaos with a sheaf of copy in one hand and a smouldering cigar in the other. He was staring, distrustfully, at his report. “I’m not sure this works’, he said. Boldly, I said: “Would you mind if I read it?’. He handed me the copy. It was a long piece and I took my time. As I had expected, the piece was brilliant. I handed it back. He lifted an eyebrow and then, almost as if he valued my opinion, he said. “Well’, what do you think?’. “Honestly?’, I said. “It’s rubbish. Total rubbish. I wouldn’t bother sending it if I were you’. He jumped to his feet, bellowed a stream of insults and hurled the copy at me as I dived through the door.

“Then I heard him laugh as I walked back down the corridor. I remember his laughter. I think I always will.”

Hugh McIlvanney, 1934 – 2019

Hugh McIlvanney of The Observer (left), and Ian Wooldridge of the Daily Mail (right), who shared the Best Sports Journalist award at the 1976 AstroTurf British Sports Journalism Awards in London. Minister for Sport Denis Howell (centre) presented them each with a set of cut glass and a £250 cheque.

Gareth Southgate honoured by the FWA

Gareth Southgate became the latest recipient of the FWA Tribute Award at a star-studded ceremony in London’s Savoy Hotel on Sunday January 20.

The England manager was honoured for leading the Three Lions to the World Cup final last summer, and importantly for helping to reconnect the national team to their fans and the media.

Southgate gave a superb speech, thanking the FWA and talking about the work England have yet to do, starting with this summers Nation’s League finals in Portugal. He also presented Charlie Sale, who is retiring from the Daily Mail, with the infamous dartboard on which England’s players took on the media during the World Cup in Russia.

Gary Lineker spoke with great humour and wit about what it is like to be an England captain at a World Cup, carrying the nation’s hopes, and he was foillowed by Ben Williams, the former Royal Marines Commando who led England’s players and manager through a three-day bootcamp last year.

Finally FWA Chairman Patrick Barclay paid tribute to Southgate and introduced a tribute film put together by Gabriel Clarke and Sean Martin of ITV Sport.

For more on what was a memorable night, please visit the FWA’s social media feeds and YouTube channel to see video and photos from the event.

Vanarama National League column – York City

York City – by Glenn Moore

Steve Watson was never one to shirk a challenge as a player, but few were as daunting as the one he has just signed on for as a manager. The former Newcastle United and England defender has become York City’s third manager this season.

Watson, 44, had been at Gateshead, whom he had steered to the fringe of the play-offs in the Vanarama National League despite a tight budget and youthful squad. York City are 17th in Vanarama National League North, their lowest position in at least 90 years, and arguably in the club’s history (Prior to joining the Football League in 1929 City had been in the old Midland League, then an established feeder into the Football League).

Leaving a club in contention for promotion to the Football League for one in danger of relegation to the Evo-Stik [Northern] Premier League is not an obvious move, but Watson was looking at potential. Despite their poor form York are averaging nearly 2,500, almost three times Gateshead, and crowds will surely increase further when their much-delayed, long-awaited new ground opens next season.

“It was a tough decision to leave Gateshead but an easy one to join York City,” he said. “I had a great 15 months at Gateshead but I couldn’t see the progression. With the new stadium, the size of York City – there are probably only two clubs in this league that you’d call ‘a League club’ and York is obviously one of them. There is huge potential here and my job is to realise that.”

Watson faces a tough start. Though he has technically overseen one match, a quarter-final against Redcar in the North Riding Senior Cup which was won 6-1 by a relatively experienced XI, the real thing begins Saturday. York travel to what is presumably the division’s other ‘League club’ Watson referred to, third-placed Stockport County. That is followed by a home debut against leaders Chorley.

The first priority is to change the mood around a club that has become accustomed to failure averaging one win in every four matches over the last four seasons. Then York need to climb clear of relegation trouble; City are six points from the drop. Next is an assault on the play-offs – nine points distant. Watson’s ultimate aim, regaining a place in the Football League, won’t be easy. The Vanarama North alone has nine former Football League clubs.

York are in danger of becoming one of those established Football League clubs that drops out and never returns – as the likes of Southport and Bradford Park Avenue seem to be. They have spent 11 of the last 15 years in non-League having been relegated from the league in both 2004 and 2016. Exacerbating the woe for supporters is that they have been overtaken by nearby Harrogate Town, a club traditionally well below the Minstermen but now challenging for promotion to the Football League.

Desperate to regain their former status City have remained full-time despite dropping into the sixth tier. This should provide a healthy advantage but also brings added pressure and expectation – Watson is the seventh manager in five seasons.

Watson is happy to face up to that expectation. “This season is far from over,” he said. “They seem to have lost their way a bit, but the ability here far exceeds where they are in the league. There are 17 games left, can we put enough wins together to have a real dash at it?”

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Vanrama Column – Attendances

The Vanarama column – Attendances, by Glenn Moore

It was the crowd for Truro City’s ‘home match’ against Torquay United that caught the BBC’s attention. Not many matches in the Vanarama National League South attract 2,760 ‘away’ fans – or 62 ‘home’ ones.  The reason was not hard to discern. Truro have been playing in exile in Devon with their Treyew Road ground, 100 miles to the west across the Tamar, earmarked for redevelopment. Those plans have been put on ice, so Truro will soon return to their real home, but in the meantime they groundshare with Torquay whom they ‘hosted’ on New Year’s Day. Thus the huge imbalance between what was technically the home and away support.

Less notice, however, was paid to the remarkable attendance for the Boxing Day match between the teams, 3,863. There was another 3,000+ attendance on December 29 when the Gulls beat Gloucester City. Indeed, since  Gary Johnson took over at Plainmoor in September Torquay have averaged 2,430, comfortably their highest gates since dropping out of the Football League in 2014.

Obviously it helps that the Gulls lead Vanarama National League South after a club record nine successive victories, but they are by no means the only club in the sixth tier division packing in the crowds. Woking, two points behind, drew a combined 4,540 for their brace of Holiday fixtures while Dulwich Hamlet, celebrating their return to Champion Hill, pulled in 5,900 for their pair of matches.

In Vanarama National League North eight of the 11 matches on both Boxing Day and December 30 drew four-figure gates with Stockport County’s two games bringing in 8,333 combined and Altrincham, Hereford and York City registering 3,000-plus gates over the Christmas/New Year period.

There were even bigger crowds in the fifth tier Vanarama National League. Wrexham drew 8,283 for their Boxing Day match with Salford, and more than 4,000 attended the return. Leaders Leyton Orient pulled in 6,000-plus against Dagenham & Redbridge – and 4,755 for the visit of Chesterfield on the traditionally poorly-attended weekend before Christmas. Chesterfield fans, despite their hugely disappointing season, posted holiday programme attendances above 4,700, Hartlepool and Maidstone, two other teams struggling to meet expectations, drew nearly 3,000-plus and string of clubs either with no Football League heritage to draw on, or one in the dim-and-distant past, pulled in more than 2,000 fans: Barrow, Dover, Sutton, Harrogate, Gateshead and Fylde.

Accepted this was a holiday programme and most matches were relatively local derbies, but these figures underline one of the unique elements of English club football. Arguably the most remarkable aspect of the nation’s devotion to football is not the global reach of the Premier League powerhouse at the apex but the depth of support further down the pyramid. Nowhere else in Europe do teams at the fifth and sixth tier attract such attendances. To take a random weekend in Spain earlier this season, the regional third tier Segunda B had a 26-match programme. Half of those failed to attract 1,000 fans and only three exceeded 2,000. Meanwhile, in England, on the last Saturday of 2018, more than 50,000 fans paid an estimated half-a-million pounds plus to watch Vanarama League football.

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Vanarama National League column – Managers

Who’d be a manager?  by Glenn Moore

There was major news on the managerial merry-go-round on Tuesday as one of the leading clubs made a change. Wrexham, arguably the Vanarama National League’s biggest name (though Leyton Orient and Chesterfield might disagree) appointed Graham Barrow, former manager of Wigan, Chester and Bury.

The decision went under the radar – another managerial move that day, in Manchester, absorbed the media’s attention – but it meant seven of the 24 Vanarama National League clubs now have a different boss to the one they began the season with. If speculation linking Aldershot’s Gary Waddock to Bristol Rovers proves correct it will be a third of the division. Indeed, add in the summer changes and already less than half the clubs retain the manager they ended last season with. Not so much a merry-go-round as a set of fast-revolving doors.

The spotlight may be smaller in non-League, but the expectation can be big. The Vanarama National League is like the Championship; the promotion prize is so great clubs are desperate to succeed, sometimes over-reach, and tend to react quickly. The vacancy at Wrexham arose because Sam Ricketts quit to join Shrewsbury, similarly Andy Hessenthaler left Eastleigh in October to take over at Dover Athletic, but the other five managers were pushed rather than jumped.

Hartlepool, anxious to regain their league status, are now on their third manager since being relegated in 2017, Richard Money this month replacing Matthew Bates who took over from Craig Harrison last season. The other four clubs making a change have never played in the Football League, but are ambitious to do so: Ebbsfleet, Dover, Braintree and Maidstone (whose namesake predecessors briefly played in the league before folding in 1992). Progress has slowed so, albeit with heavy hearts, each parted company with the men who had taken them into the top flight, Daryl McMahon, Chris Kinnear, Brad Quinton and Jay Saunders respectively.

However, there is a coterie of Vanarama National League managers who are part of the furniture. Paul Doswell has chalked up a decade at Sutton United, a feat Harrogate’s Simon Weaver will match at the end of the season. At Fylde Dave Challinor has been in place since late 2011 while Havant & Waterlooville, having seen off interest in Lee Bradbury from Hartlepool, have just completed six years with him at the helm. In each case longevity has bred prosperity.

So far Hessenthaler has had the most dramatic impact of the new men. Dover were bottom when he arrived and while they remain in the relegation zone the trajectory is upwards.  Going full-time has helped, though that is a tricky change to implement mid-season and has meant a turnaround of personnel.

Ebbsfleet’s results have also picked up, those of Braintree and Maidstone less so. Chairmen will wonder whether they were right to make a change so soon in the season, or whether they should have acted earlier. They will never know. While many would argue managers need time there are many factors involved and, when even hiring a multiple-Champions League-winning manager fails, no guarantees.

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Vanarama Column – Salford

Vanarama Column December 6th – Salford City, by Glenn Moore

Since automatic promotion was introduced 31 years ago no club has won back-to-back promotions into the Football League. Even meteors such as Fleetwood and AFC Wimbledon required a season acclimatising to the fifth tier before climbing out of non-League. This season Salford aim to break the mould.

Since being taken over by the five former Manchester United players from the ‘Class of 92’, as their youth team generation has become known, Salford City have raced from the eighth to fifth tier. As the busy Christmas programme approaches in the Vanarama National League they sit a point and a place off the summit and the promotion spot it brings. This after a slow start in which they took eight points from their opening six matches leaving them in the bottom half of the table.

“We are delighted with where we are,” said Gary Neville, co-owner and in many respects the driving force behind the project. “At present we’re maybe slightly ahead of expectations. We expected a tough start but with the investment we have made, and the managerial appointment [former Scunthorpe manager and Scotland international Graham Alexander] we thought we would be up there challenging.  Our approach has always been to be in contention going into the New Year. We have a tough run of fixtures coming up and if we’re in touching distance in mid-January we’re on course.”

Neville added: “We are well ahead of our initial plans. We have won three promotions in four years, we thought it would be one every two years. The initial aspiration was to get into the Football League because the original idea was to have an academy, to give young players a chance. We realised we needed a team for them to move into, and to have a proper academy you need to be a Football League club.”

Thus the rush, which has provoked resentment from less well-funded clubs. Besides Neville, his brother Phil, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes Salford are also owned by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim. Neville points out “until this season we’ve matched Peter 50-50, we’ve put millions into the club. We could have used that money to buy houses, or cars, or leave it in the bank, we didn’t need to do it. We chose to come into Salford. We could have gone into a League One or League Two club, but we wanted to stay close to our roots. I find it hard to understand the negativity about ex-footballers using their own money to invest in a football club.”

Salford have formed an academy, a women’s team and are developing community and education programmes. Moor Lane has been transformed into a covered 5,000-capacity venue. Crowds have gone from 220 to 2,000+ with an emphasis on making it an affordable fun day out – Neville said his family recently chose  a match at the Peninsula Stadium rather than Old Trafford.

The former England international added: “We have retained the original people who ran the club, who made sacrifices and subsidised it. We have the cheapest tickets [£10] and season-tickets, we bring interest to the league and to games, we’re respectful of opponents. How is that ruining non-League?”

Sir Alex Ferguson unveils a plaque to commemorate the announcement that Salford City’s new stadium is named The Peninsula Stadium with Payl Scholes (left), Gary Neville (2nd left) Ryan Giggs (3rd left) and Peter Done (right) Pic PA images.

Arsenal legend Alan Smith joins FWA

The FWA is delighted to welcome Alan Smith, the former Leicester City, Arsenal and England striker, as a member.  In his hugely successful playing career Alan won two League Championship titles with Arsenal, the FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994, when he scored the only goal in the final against Parma.  He also won 13 England caps and played in the 1992 European Championship finals.

Since retiring soon afterwards, he started as a journalist with the Telegraph, covering matches, writing features and interviewing football personalities. He is a well-known voice as a co-commentator for Sky Sports and since 2012, for EA Sports’ FIFA games.

Now he writes a regular column in the Evening Standard, and has recently released his autobiography “Heads Up” 

Alan has always been a good friend of the FWA and attended many of our events, and is a welcome addition to the association.  You can see his thoughts on Arsenal’s prospects this season here:


Vanarama column – Torquay

Vanarama column:  Torquay United, By Glenn Moore

Gary Johnson’s wife was still pondering where they could take a rare holiday following the veteran manager’s departure from Cheltenham Town when his phone rang. Torquay United, slumbering in the sixth tier of English football, were on the line. Would Johnson, who had not worked that far down the pyramid since managing Newmarket Town 30 years ago, be interested in taking over at Plainmoor?

Johnson figured he had nothing to lose by meeting the club’s owner, Clarke Osborne, and business partner George Edwards. “Their outlook was positive, it seemed exciting,” he said. “They are a big fish in a small pond. I have done a lot of firefighting over the years, been at clubs that were not expected to be successful, this was a nice project.

“I haven’t got to manage Manchester United any more, if you see what I mean. So I looked at the players they had and thought, ‘they are only a couple of wins from the play-offs and not a million miles away from being promoted’.

“The supporters’ response had been ‘we won’t get him’, not ‘we don’t want him’, which was positive. It’s a nice stadium. It looked a good future if they could turn the results around. I thought I could go in there and use my experience to pick it up. I just tried to put my personality and philosophy on everything, help the players gain confidence. It helped we won the first match at Hungerford and we’ve been on a good run.”

They have indeed. Torquay were 14th with 12 points and five goals from nine games when Johnson arrived. They are unbeaten in his eight Vanarama National League South matches taking 18 points, scoring 23 goals. The Gulls have soared into the play-off places and lie fourth, four points behind leaders Woking.

Johnson has won five promotions as a manager, taking Yeovil from the Conference to the Championship (over two spells), Bristol City from League One to the Premier League play-off final, and, two years ago, Cheltenham back into the Football League. This matches Torquay’s record since joining the Football League in 1928 with four promotions from the fourth tier and one from the Conference following their first relegation in 2007. They bounced back then within two years but recovering from relegation in 2014 has proved harder with further relegation last May.

Aided by loan signings from Bristol City where his son Lee is manager – “everyone has someone they can call on, a mate in the game, in my case it’s my son” – Johnson is now aiming for automatic promotion. The club are still full-time which helps attract hungry players to this football outpost. “We pay OK. Players might get more [elsewhere] if they have a job and are part-time, but my players are young and want a full-time pro career, they want to improve. Being full time we can work with them on the training field and do extra things off it like video analysis, psychology and evaluation.”

So everyone’s happy, but what about that lost holiday? “Torquay’s a holiday place,” said Johnson. “I’ve taken my wife to the English Riviera instead of the French one.”