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.”