League Two Playoff Special: Torquay United

Playoff History: Division Four final winners 1991, Conference semi-finalists 2008, Conference final winners 2009, League Two finalists 2011

Player of the Year: Lee Mansell

Top Scorer: Rene Howe (14)

The Playoff series continues today with Torquay United coming under the spotlight. After defeat in the final last season, the Gulls will be desperate to go that one step further this time around and come through on top. With a new man in charge and a team that were fighting for the last automatic promotion spot right up until the last minutes of the season, Torquay represent a serious challenge once again.

After Paul Buckle’s defection to Bristol Rovers last summer, Torquay were looking for a man with past experience in getting out of League Two and turned to former Leyton Orient and Cambridge United boss Martin Ling. Ling guided Orient to promotion in 2006 and was aiming to do the same with his new charges, though few neutrals would have gone out of their way to place his side in the running for promotion.

But Ling made a positive start to his reign and seven points were collected from his first three league games in charge. A couple of defeats brought the Gulls back down to earth at the end of August but they would only be beaten once in the next six games with three draws keeping them in safe mid-table during September.

It would be two heavy defeats that would, ironically, spark the club into life though as they were beaten 5-2 at home by Gillingham and 4-1 at Southend before going on a superb run of five straight wins in all competitions that included a 3-1 win at League One Chesterfield in the FA Cup. By the end of November and following a 0-0 draw at Port Vale, United were back up in tenth place and really pushing the upper echelons of the division.

Gulls boss Martin Ling

Exit from the FA Cup followed but after a mixed Christmas period, the Gulls were flying again and put together a sequence of seven successive wins, all by a slender margin, to start 2012 with a bang. The first defeat of the calendar year didn’t come until February 18th against Bradford but even that and another reverse the following week at Gillingham couldn’t keep them from the top seven as things really had begun to click.

March began with back-to-back wins and yet again they were by the odd goal as United proved to be one of the toughest and most organised in the league. They would pick up four more victories in March and after winning 1-0 at Barnet they stood just a point off the top of the table with six games to play. Ling also collected the Manager of the Month award for March to match the one received just two months earlier for his team’s efforts in January. Also celebrating in those months were Mark Ellis (January) and Lee Mansell (March) who picked up the league’s Player of the Month for those respective months.

April, though, proved to be the month that cruelly turned out to be the club’s downfall in terms of going for automatic promotion. A 1-0 win over Accrington on Good Friday would be their last of the league season with just three points taken from the last five games, including a dramatic 3-2 defeat at Hereford on the final day.

Ling is concerned about fatigue creeping into his troops after a demanding season but you get the feeling that the hunger should still be around the club from last season’s final defeat at the hands of Stevenage. As his club prepares to meet Cheltenham Town in the playoffs this time around, Ben Mayhew (@greenwichgull) of top Gulls blog Greenwich Gull gives his thoughts…

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

In all honesty, no. We’d lost our manager and several key players so I’d have been happy with mid-table. Our Board publicly stated that survival was the only criterion for a successful year and I expected that new boss Martin Ling would need some time to adapt. While he did take a few months to get the best out of the team, the way we’ve played since has more than merited our final league position.

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

The key moment in a lot of our games has been half time! So often this season we’ve played turgidly for the opening 45, only to re-emerge with almost frightening purpose after the break after a presumably inspirational team talk or deft tactical tweak from Mr Ling. From a timeline perspective, our season pivoted on a dark spell in October where we suffered 3 embarrassing losses in a row. The first was a narrow defeat to 10-man Bradford, followed by a 2-5 hiding at home to Gillingham and then a 4-1 reverse at Southend. That dire sequence obviously triggered something because we went on to lose just 1 of our next 16 league games and have been formidable ever since.

Who have been the key men?

Clichés aside, it really has been a team performance this year, but there are a few whose contributions have been consistently excellent. First of all, Bobby Olejnik has proven himself to be probably the best goalkeeper below the Championship – a genuine hero on countless occasions without whom we’d never have made the play-offs. Another man who at times has single-handedly turned a game is our captain, Lee Mansell, who has added a prodigious amount of goals to his tireless midfield dynamism in a season where our attack has been frustratingly profligate.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

I’d rather avoid Southend as they’ve caused us more problems this season and are the only top 7 side we haven’t beaten. We’ve only taken a point from them, including the aforementioned 1-4 defeat, compared with four points from Crewe who we beat by the same margin at their own ground.

Finally, will you be promoted?!

I know I’m supposed to answer this with a resounding, confident “yes”, but the way we’ve stumbled over the line suggests that our thin, battered squad might not have enough left in the tank to prevail over three more massive games. Our physio has done an excellent job of keeping the players on the pitch, but several have been nursing injuries for a while and the manager has recently aired his concerns around fatigue. However, we’ve got plenty of recent play-off experience compared to the other 3 challengers which could just about give us the edge.

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