Head coach Gary Owers has hinted strongly that more Torquay United players might be going out on loan, now that the whole of the Gulls’ squad is almost back to full fitness.
The injuries which hampered former boss Kevin Nicholson so badly at the start of the season have all but cleared up, with Sam Chaney, Jake Gosling, Yan Klukowski and Myles Anderson all returning to full training over the past week.
And, of course, AFC Bournemouth loanee Jordan Lee, 21, is also back at the club after recovering from the heart-scare which grounded him for more than two months.
There was a doubt about loan striker Rhys Murphy for yesterday’s home game against Hartlepool United, but the only other casualty at the moment is fellow forward Jon-Paul Pittman, and he should be back soon as well.
Even without Pittman, it adds up to a squad of 23 players, including six loanees after Jamie Reid’s permanent move from Exeter City, and Owers has always said that’s too many.
Striker James Gray and rookie goalkeeper Neal Osborn have already gone out on loan to York City and Barnstaple Town respectively, and Owers believes that others would benefit from similar moves – especially as United have no game for the next fortnight.
Their Emirates FA Cup defeat at Aldershot Town means they don’t play again until Maidstone United come to Plainmoor on Saturday, November 11.
“If I was a player and I wasn’t in the team, I know how I would be thinking,” said Owers.
“They can’t play for another two weeks anyway, so they may as well go somewhere else – it will only benefit them. James Gray jumped at the chance.”
Of the returning players, Owers added: “I want as many players as fully fit as possible, but they have to prove to me that they can get into the team. No one is going to walk in.”
At the top of that list must be Lee, who is unlikely to be going anywhere else in the near future.
After a less-than-impressive start, Lee finished last season on a high on the right of midfield, and most United fans were delighted when Nicholson brought him back on an extended loan deal.
The chest pains he suffered in the second week of the season prompted exhaustive tests and a frustratingly long lay-off, and he must feel that he’s almost back to where he was when he struggled to get into Nicholson’s team nine months ago.
Owers sympathises, saying: “He’s not had any game-time, so that’s a difficult situation for him, and there are others who think they should be playing ahead of him.
“I’ve listened to people around the club talking about when he played here at the end of last season, but he has to do it in training to catch my eye.
“That’s been difficult when you’ve got two games in a week and the main focus is on setting up for the next match.”
Lee battled hard during a tough spell before forcing his way into the United side last season and, under a new management team which values effort and perseverance highly, you wouldn’t bet against him doing it again.
Considering the wretched fortunes which the club has endured for nearly five years now, the level of support which Torquay United still enjoys is remarkable, none more than away from home.
The Gulls headed for FC Halifax Town last Saturday bottom of the National League table and on the back of two more defeats, including a first-hurdle FA Cup exit at Aldershot. Yet nearly 150 fans turned up at The Shay to cheer a 1-1 draw.
Three days later, bolstered by exiled supporters in the South East, even more were at Stonebridge Road to celebrate when Jamie Reid scored again to earn the Gulls’ first away win of the season against Ebbsfleet United (1-0).
“The support the other night was incredible really,” said head coach Gary Owers.
“It’s great for the lads, and I’ve told them that they need to use that and harness it.
“The fans are coming to see us win, they want us to do well, and I hope we use it to our advantage.”
For very different reasons, older Torquay United fans have good cause to remember Andy Donnelly and Dave Caldwell fondly, and the two Scots, whose careers were separated by 20 years, will be honoured at the Gulls’ next home game against Maidstone United.
Following yesterday’s guest appearance by late-1950s winger Ken Brown, at 85 one of the club’s oldest surviving players, goalkeeper Donnelly and centre-forward Caldwell will be returning to Plainmoor on Saturday, November 11.
Lanarkshire-born Donnelly – he was no more than five-foot-ten – followed Frank O’Farrell from Weymouth in 1967, a year after promotion, and became a popular fixture in the teams which did so well in what’s now League One over the next few seasons.
Under both O’Farrell and Allan Brown, Donnelly – United fans affectionately nicknamed him ‘Handy Andy’ – played 178 games before leaving in 1971 for a new life and a highly successful career in South Africa, notably at Cape Town City.
When Caldwell, originally from Aberdeen, arrived at Plainmoor from Chesterfield almost exactly 30 years ago, he was under a considerable cloud – a succession of managers had given up on him because of his disciplinary record, on and off the pitch.
United’s manager, the late Cyril Knowles, said: “He’ll either be a disaster or the talk of the town.”
Caldwell continued to upset opponents and referees alike, but his impact was as spectacular as it was immediate.
Gulls fans had seldom seen a centre-forward with Caldwell’s mix of aggression and quality, and they have never seen anyone quite like him since.
He was a key man in the side which, only a year after a last-day relegation escape, took United on the longest season (1987-88) in their history. They played 62 league and cup matches, enjoying runs in all three cup competitions before losing to Swansea City 5-4 on aggregate in the Play-Off Final.
Caldwell ended up scoring 13 goals in 52 appearances, not a long stay by any standards, but few who were around at the time will forget him.