Torquay United, nicknamed the Gulls, is currently, at the time of writing, one of three professional football clubs based in Devon; the other two are Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City. Based in the seaside resort of Torquay, it is one of the few English lower league clubs that did not fall into massive debt following the collapse of ITV Digital. Some consider this to be good financial management, while others say this is because of a lack of ambition to push upwards. The club's current chairman is Chris Roberts, who became chairman after Mike Bateson stepped down in October, 2006. Bateson had helped keep the club above water since he became chairman in 1990, investing money that helped the club in many ways, such as making some major changes to the stadium, although there was a feeling among some fans that it was time for him to move on. Torquay have never won a major trophy, unless you consider the Devon Bowl a major trophy, and have never played above the third tier of English football (England's current third tier league is the Coca-Cola League One).
Torquay United's history involves three clubs. Torquay United were first formed in 1899 by a group of school-leavers and joined the East Devon league a year later. After winning their first honour in the Torquay and District League title in 1909, they merged with local rivals Ellecombe and became Torquay Town.
The new Torquay team then moved to their current ground Plainmoor, which they shared with another club, Babbacombe. In 1921, Babbacombe agreed to a merger. Thus the club became professional and once again became Torquay United.
The new Torquay United first entered the Western League, and then the Southern League. In 1926 - 27 Torquay won the Southern League, and even better they were elected into the Football League. They were placed in the Third Division South. However, they struggled because of financial problems throughout the 30s; indeed they suffered their worst ever defeat to date in this decade, 2-10 in 1931 at the hands of Fulham. They also had to replace the roof of their stadium when it was blown off in 1930. They never finished higher than tenth position.
After the War
After the war, Torquay's woes did not cease, finishing 19th in the 1946 - 47 season. In 1955, they changed their team colours from black and white stripes (similar to those that sport Newcastle United's team kit), to what they are now: gold and blue. In their first season in their new colours, they finished second in the Third Division South, missing out promotion on goal difference, despite the efforts of club record goal-scorer Sammy Collins, who scored 40 goals during this season1. However, the good fortune did not last. When the Third Division South and North were changed to the Third Division and Fourth Division, they were one of the unlucky ones who were placed in the Fourth Division. They gained promotion during their first season in there, but were relegated back down to the Fourth Division two seasons later.
In 1963, Torquay signed Robin Stubbs for £6,000, then a club record fee. Stubbs, recently voted by fans as their best player ever, starred in Torquay's famous 3-3 draw against Tottenham in the FA Cup Third Round in 1964-65, scoring two late goals to level up after going 3-1 behind2. In the 1965 - 66 season, Frank O'Farrell took over as manager and in his first season in charge, Torquay gained promotion to the Third Division3. In the 1967 - 68 season they achieved their best ever placing (to date), fourth in the Third Division, just missing out on promotion. However, they were relegated once again in the 1971 - 72 season. The rest of the 1970s was pretty uneventful, with Torquay getting mostly mid-table finishings. One notable Torquay player during this time was Colin Lee, signed from Bristol City in the 1977 - 78. He netted 14 goals in 35 games before being sold to Tottenham for £60,000, a club record at the time.
The 80s and beyond
The 1983 - 84 season saw the start of some of the more woeful years in Torquay's history. The 1984 - 85 season saw them finish bottom of the Fourth Division. They had to apply for re-election, but luckily were successful. Things were getting worse though, culminating in a fire in May, 1985 which destroyed half of the stadium's grandstand, leaving Plainmoor with a capacity of just 4,999. The next season saw Torquay finish bottom again and having to apply once more for re-election; again, they succeeded.
The 1986 - 87 season saw the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Fourth Division and the Nationwide Conference, which meant that the team finishing bottom of the Fourth Division was relegated to the Conference. Towards the end of the season, Torquay were second from bottom. The last game of the season saw them play Crewe Alexandra. At half-time, Crewe were 2-0 up and although Torquay pulled one back after the restart, they could not draw level. Seven minutes from time, football folklore was made when a police dog seemed to think that Torquay defender Jim McNichol was going to attack his handler, and went for Jim's thigh. Four minutes of injury time was added on as a result, during which Paul Dobson scored a crucial goal for Torquay to level the match. It ended and Torquay lived to fight another day.
The 1987 - 88 season saw a change in fortunes when Cyril Knowles, who became the inspiration for the song 'Nice one Cyril', was appointed manager. During his first season in charge, Torquay just missed out on automatic promotion and gained a play-off spot, but lost the final to Swansea City. During this season they beat Tottenham 1-0 in the League Cup, the winning goal scored by Derek 'The Dude' Dawkins. Lee Sharpe also had his start in football during this season. After only 16 games for the Gulls, Manchester United noted his potential and signed him for nearly £200,000, one of the biggest transfers in Torquay's history. In 1989, Torquay reached the finals of the Sherpa Van Trophy4 but lost to Bolton.
The 1990 - 91 season saw Torquay promoted once more when they beat Blackpool on penalties in the play-off final. This was this season that Mike Batson first became chairman of the club. Their stay up didn't last long though despite the signing of Justin Fashanu5. They were relegated, but because the Premiership was formed the following season, they were relegated from Division Three...to Division Three.
The 1993 - 94 season saw Torquay make the play-off spots once more, but they lost the semi-final to Preston. The 1995 - 96 season was disastrous though; Torquay finished bottom of the Third Division. They were saved from relegation because Stevenage's stadium was deemed unfit for league football. Torquay made a play-off spot once more in the 1997 - 98 season. They beat Scarborough 7-2 on aggregate in the semi-final; four of those goals were scored by star player Rodney Jack. However, they once again fell short in the final, losing to Colchester United. Rodney Jack was sold afterwards to Crewe Alexandra for £500,000, the highest amount of money Torquay have ever received from a transfer to date. Torquay's fortunes fell afterwards.
The 2000 - 01 season saw Torquay narrowly avoid relegation by beating bottom side Barnet on the last day of the season. Things looked up for Torquay afterwards, striker David Graham played a key role in turning Torquay's fortunes around. They achieved automatic promotion in the 2003 - 04 season against all the odds6. At the end of that season, David Graham was sold to Wigan Athletic for £215,000. Torquay however, were relegated the following season, being edged out by Milton Keynes Dons when they lost to Colchester United on the final day of the season, and they went down on goal difference. The 2005 - 06 season was a bad one, though they did pull off a 0-0 result against Birmingham in the FA Cup Third round. As it happened, Torquay fought their way out of the relegation zone to finish three points from the drop. In October, 2006, Mike Bateson stepped down as chairman and was replaced by Chris Roberts.