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History of Torquay United FC

Torquay United squad 1927
The Torquay United squad in 1927 - the year they joined the Football League

By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Torquay United Football Club was formed following a meeting at the Torre Abbey Hotel in Belgrave Road on 1 May 1899.

Players at the town's college decided they needed a team to play in after they left the college, so they established Torquay United.

The first ground was in Teignmouth Road, and in United's very first game, in September 1899, they beat Upton Cricket Club 5-0.

United then moved to the Recreation Ground, but their stay was short-lived because Torquay Athletic Rugby Club took over the ground in 1904, forcing United to yet another new home - in Barton Road.

The ground wasn't up the required standards of the East Devon League - in which United played - so they had to withdraw for the 1904-5 season.

Torquay found a new pitch near the Barton Road ground - but at this stage, the team wasn't as strong as two other clubs in the town - Ellacombe and Babbacombe.

United and Ellacombe joined together to form Torquay Town in 1910, as the two sides wanted to respond to Exeter City's decision to turn professional.

In 1910, Torquay Town moved into a new base at Plainmoor - a ground they shared with Babbacombe. Both sides were playing in the same league - the Plymouth and District League, which Torquay Town won in 1911-12.

The two Torquay clubs didn't get on at all, until matters finally came to a head in 1921. Torquay Town FC was desperate to join Exeter and Plymouth as a professional club.

United turn professional - and go up!

Babbacombe at last agreed to a merger in 1921, enabling the new club to become professional - and so Torquay United was born.

Their first year as a pro outfit in 1921-22 was in the Western League, where United finished 5th. They then entered the Southern League, where they finished a creditable 6th in 1922-23.

One of the best years in United's history was 1926-27 when they won the Southern League and gained entry to the Football League.

United had the same number of points as Bristol City Reserves, but their 3-1 win on the final day of the season helped them to win the league on goal difference.

They gained entry into the Football League at the expense of Aberdare, who dropped out.

In those days, United wore black and white stripe shirts and were known as The Magpies - just like Newcastle United.

United played in Division Three South, and their first match on 27 August 1927 was against Exeter City at Plainmoor. A crowd of 11,625 watched a 1-1 draw.

United finished bottom of the league and had to apply for re-election - which they succeeded in doing.

In the pre-war years, United had several notable players, including Dartmouth-born winger Ralph Birkett, who went on to play for Arsenal and England.

United's post-war stars

Sammy Collins and Harold Dobbie
Sammy Collins fires in another shot in a game in 1952, with Harold Dobbie watching on.

The years after the war saw the arrival of some of United's best ever players: record goalscorer Sammy Collins (219 goals), wing wizard Ron Shaw, and playmaker Don Mills among them.

Torquay changed their strip to gold and blue in 1954, to reflect the resort's sun, sand and sea image.

That season, United had a great run in the FA Cup, beating Leeds in the third round to set up a fourth round clash against Huddersfield at Plainmoor.

Some 21,908 fans squeezed into Plainmoor on 29 January 1955 - but United lost 1-0. It's the club's record attendance.

After 30 years in Division Three South, United almost finally won promotion in 1956-57. Under the management of Eric Webber, United went to the top of the league.

On the last day of the season, they needed to win at Crystal Palace. The could only manage a 1-1 draw, and Alf Ramsey's Ipswich Town sneaked top spot on goal difference.

Up...and down

The re-jig in the leagues in 1958-59 meant United played that year in Division Four.

And at last...in 1959-60, United finally made it out of the basement league. They finished third in Division Four, to clinch promotion.

Key players that season were Don Mills, defender Colin Bettany, winger Ernie Pym, and Torquay brothers George and Tommy Northcott - whose goals proved crucial.

But United's stay in Division Three was short-lived - they were relegated at the end of the 1961-2 season.

The swinging sixties...

In 1963, manager Eric Webber signed striker Robin Stubbs for a club record fee of £6,000 from Birmingham City. In a poll of Torquay fans recently, Stubbs was voted the club's best ever player.

It was Stubbs who starred in United's amazing 3-3 draw against Tottenham in the third round of the FA Cup in 1964-5. The game at Plainmoor was watched by over 20,000 - and what a game it was.

United took the lead through a Billy Atkinson penalty, before Spurs went into a 3-1 lead. But two late strikes by Stubbs set up a replay in front of 55,000 people at White Hart Lane - Spurs won 5-1.

The Frank O'Farrell era

Robin Stubbs, 1966
Torquay's star striker of the 1960s, Robin Stubbs

Webber was sacked at the end of that season, after 15 years in charge. The new man was Frank O'Farrell - and he led United to promotion in his very first season, 1965-66.

United finished 3rd in the league, and were back in Division Three. Stubbs scored 17 goals in that promotion campaign, but Tommy Spratt did even better, with 18 goals.

United's best ever season was 1967-68, when they just missed out on promotion to Division Two. They finished fourth, with only the top three going up.

The O'Farrell era ended in 1968-69, when he left to manage First Division Leicester City. He later went on to manage the mighty Manchester United.

Unfortunately, his departure sparked some dire years for United. They finished next to bottom of Division Three in 1971-2, so were relegated to Division Four.

And there they stayed for a very long time. Eventually, after several disappointing seasons, Frank O'Farrell was brought back in 1976 on a caretaker basis. In the 1978-79 season, local boy Colin Lee was sold to Spurs for £60,000 - a club record at that time.

Frank O'Farrell had a third spell at Plainmoor in the early 80s, before former Scotland international Bruce Rioch took over.

He left in February 1984, and the man brought in to replace him was former Chelsea star, Dave Webb.

Rock bottom

In Webb's first full season in charge - 1984-85, he took United to the bottom of the Football League. They had to apply for re-election for the first time since their inaugural year in the league.

Webb decided to concentrate all his efforts on being the club's first ever managing director in 1985, so he appointed a new manager - Stuart Morgan.

At the start of the 1985-86 season, the main stand burnt down in the early hours of the morning - just days after the Bradford City disaster.

Torquay again finished bottom in 1985-86 and for the second year running had to rely on the goodwill of league club chairmen to vote in their favour. After two terrible years, Webb left Plainmoor.

The Great Escape

Those who thought the same thing couldn't happen three years in a row had a shock: on the last day of the 1986-7 season, United were next to bottom, one point above Burnley, and one point below Lincoln.

There'd be no re-election this time - whoever finished bottom would go down automatically under the league's new rules.

That final game - at home to Crewe in May 1987 - has entered Torquay folklore. A win would guarantee league safety, a draw or even a defeat might do.

Disastrously, United went 2-0 down in the first half. Jim McNichol pulled a goal back just after half-time, but despite all-out attack, United couldn't get the second goal they needed.

Then, with just a few minutes left, a police dog called Bryn - who with his handler was patrolling the touchline - bit McNichol on the leg.

It took four minutes to patch up the wound, and it was in the fourth minute of injury time that Gulls striker Paul Dobson turned and hit a low shot into the corner of the Crewe net. 2-2!

Burnley won their game, but luckily for United, Lincoln lost at Swansea, so the Gulls stayed up on goal difference, with Lincoln going down.

Cyril Knowles took over as manager and in his first season - 1987-8, led United to the play-off final, where they lost against Swansea.

Making his debut in this season was 16-year-old trainee Lee Sharpe - who went on to join Manchester United for £180,000.

Wembley, here we come!

The following season, Torquay made their first appearance at Wembley, in the Sherpa Van Trophy Final against Bolton.

In the May 1989 final, United took the lead through Dean Edwards, but lost 4-1.

United were back at Wembley two years later - this time, for the Fourth Division Play-Off final against Blackpool. Wes Saunders and Dean Edwards (pen) scored for United as the end-to-end game finished 2-2. There were no goals in extra time, so it went to penalties.

The penalty score was 4-4 after five spot kicks, so it was down to sudden death. Up stepped Gulls goalkeeper Gareth Howells to calmly make it 5-4 on penalties. Blackpool's top scorer Dave Bamber then shot wide - and United were promoted to Division Three.

United, however, were unable to stay in Division Three - despite signing Justin Fashanu and enlisting the coaching assistance of Ivan Golac. Because of the change in the leagues, United were relegated from the old Division Three to the new Division Three.

The Gulls have reached the play-offs twice since then - losing controversially in the semi-final against Preston North End in 1995 and then 1-0 in the final at Wembley against Colchester in 1998.

One of United's best players that season was Rodney Jack, and he moved to Crewe for a club record £500,000.

In between their play-off appearances, United finished bottom of the league in 1996 - but stayed up because Conference winners Stevenage hadn't upgraded their ground to the required standards.

1999 was United's centenary year. It had been an eventful 100 years to say the least, with a lot of the action crammed into the last 15 years! And there was more to come...

Another last day escape

In May 2001, United went into the last day of the season in next to bottom place, and with an away trip to bottom club Barnet. A draw would be enough for United - a defeat, and they were down.

Thousands of fans were locked outside the tiny Underhill ground as amazingly, United stormed to a 3-0 lead, with goals from Kevin Hill, Jason Rees, and David Graham.

Barnet fought back to 3-2, but United held on for the win to condemn Barnet to the Conference - while the Gulls lived to fight another day.

Roy McFarland came and went as manager and new coach Leroy Rosenior was appointed.

Automatic promotion at last!

In 2003-4, he led the Gulls to automatic promotion from Division Three. Needing a win on the last day of the season, United went to Southend and won 2-1.

Luckily, their rivals for third spot - Huddersfield - also needed to win but could only draw at Cheltenham.

It meant United had secured automatic promotion for the first time since 1966. Star men that year were Alex Russell, Steve Woods and leading scorer David Graham.

As a result of the re-organisation of the leagues, United started the 2004-5 season not in Division Two, but in Coca Cola League One.

Unfortunately, United were relegated back to the bottom division, League Two, after just one season in the higher league. They went into the last game of the 2004-5 season needing just a point at Colchester, but lost 2-1. United finished fourth from bottom, and went down on goal difference.

Down and Out

Crestfallen fans
Crestfallen fans on the day United were relegated out of the Football League

Things went from bad to worse, and on 5 May 2007, United were relegated again - bringing an end to 80 years in the Football League.

The Gulls finished bottom of League Two by a whopping 11 points, and were sent crashing out of the Football League.

Changes in club ownership and management during 2006-7 cost the club dearly. Mike Bateson stepped down after 17 years as chairman, and the new owners - a consortium led by Chris Roberts - was disastrous. The consortium didn't last long.

For the start of United's first season in the Blue Square Premier League, 2007-8, former player Colin Lee was back as chief executive, Alex Rowe became chairman and ex-Gulls player Paul Buckle was team manager.

United made it into the play-offs in their first year in the Blue Square Premier League, but lost out to Exeter City in the two-legged semi-final.

They did reach a Wembley final that season though - the FA Trophy final in May 2008. Unfortunately, they went down 1-0 to Ebbsfleet United.

Back in the Football League

Then, in May 2009, Torquay made a return visit to Wembley for the Blue Square Premiership play-off final, where goals from Chris Hargreaves and Tim Sills earned them a 2-0 win over Cambridge United.

So after a gap of two seasons, United were back in the Football League.




SEE ALSO
History of Plymouth Argyle FC
14 Oct 09 |  History
History of Exeter City FC
14 Oct 09 |  History
A-Z of Devon history
08 Oct 09 |  History

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