Torquay United: Fans fear for future under Clarke Osborne leadership

Torquay United defenders Josh Gowling and Sean McGinty
Deflated faces have been a common sight at Torquay United - the club have won just five of their 34 matches this season

The life of a Torquay United fan is far from easy right now.

Seven points from safety towards the bottom of the National League, a once proud English Football League side are staring into the very real possibility of relegation to the second tier of non-league football.

But many Gulls fans are more concerned with goings on in the boardroom than they are on the pitch.

Scepticism is growing about owner and chairman Clarke Osborne - the businessman who took over the club at the end of 2016.

Since then he has stated aims to build a new stadium, adopt a locally-based board of directors and establish a long-term plan for the future of the club.

As yet, little detail on any of those proposals has been published.

Clarke Osborne - 'mystery' man

"One of the main problems is the lack of clarity about the future plan that Mr Osborne might have," says Michel Thomas, the chairman of the Torquay United Supporter' Trust (TUST).

"Not just the five-year plan and the new stadium that he proposes to build, but what is the plan if we're relegated, what is the plan if we remain in this division?

"What is his plan B if he fails to realise the new stadium?

"There is a lot of mystery surrounding what he intends to do, and this mystery and lack of knowledge is only working towards increasing supporter disillusionment, concern, suspicion and even anger."

Kevin Foster (left) meets Clark Osborne
Torbay MP Kevin Foster (left) says Clarke Osborne (right) only agreed to meet him after saying he would "discuss his refusal to meet with me under parliamentary privilege"

While nobody doubts that Mr Osborne has saved the Gulls from what seemed an almost certain path to administration, he is conspicuous by his absence at Plainmoor.

He acquired the club from the previous owners - a well-meaning but ultimately inexperienced and under-funded group of supporters - just before a £125,000 loan to the club from his firm was due to be paid back.

He has never conducted a broadcast interview or held a press conference, instead issuing statements at key times, such as when he acquired the club and when he sacked Kevin Nicholson as manager after just four games this season.

But it is not just the media that finds him difficult to get hold of - even the local MP Kevin Foster found it tough to organise a meeting with the majority shareholder of the only professional sports team in his constituency.

"He wasn't required to meet with me," Foster told BBC Sport. "However, it did take a number of letters, a number of cancelled appointments and ultimately an implied threat that I would discuss his refusal to meet with me under parliamentary privilege before the meeting was arranged."

Torquay's results since Clarke Osborne's takeover

Fans, too, have their concerns over an owner who wrote in a recent letter to TUST "when anonymity is available it sends some people to the dark side of the debate and discussion".

"That's very rich for him to say when he's been barely seen at the ground," Gulls fan and contributor to the TorquayTalk blog Luke Hunter told BBC Sport.

"It's ridiculous that somebody should be so hidden when he's the owner of a football club.

"There needs to be some accountability for how he's proceeding with it and the path that he's planning on going down for the next five years."

Mr Osborne declined repeated requests to be interviewed by BBC Sport, with the club putting forward general manager Geoff Harrop instead.

"Clarke's got nothing to hide at all," Harrop, whose previous football experience has been running youth teams at various clubs including Torquay, told BBC Sport.

"He's a very genuine man, over the next few months he'll build relationships with the various media."

Stadium sceptics

One of Osborne's most controversial plans is to move Torquay away from their home at Plainmoor to a new stadium by 2020.

His bid to buy the freehold of Plainmoor - currently owned by Torbay Council - has so far been blocked, much to the relief of fans who are unsure about his ability to construct a new arena.

Osborne was chairman of a consortium which hoped to build a 30,000 capacity stadium for Bristol's two football clubs at the turn of the millennium - a plan which never materialised.

He was also a director of the firm which bought Bristol Rovers' old Eastville Stadium and sold it to furniture firm IKEA and his company currently owns the Abbey Stadium in Swindon.

It is home to the Wiltshire town's greyhound track and speedway team and, searching through the archives, Mr Osborne is first quoted about redeveloping the stadium as far back as June 1998, but plans to begin work on that arena were only submitted in January this year - the best part of a 20-year wait.

Geoff Harrop, the man put in place to oversee the club on Mr Osborne's behalf, was unable to answer questions on the chairman's ability to build a stadium.

Bristow's Bench stand at Plainmoor
Torquay United have called Plainmoor home since 1921

"I don't know and don't think it's right that I make comments on what he's done in his past," said Harrop.

"I think a new stadium is vital for the progress of this football club, due to the commercial aspects of the new club.

"Whatever has happened in the past, I can only repeat that nothing will happen at Plainmoor until a new stadium is built, that has been said from day one."

Foster added: "I am sceptical about whether a genuine business plan can be put together for a new stadium, although I'm always prepared to listen.

"The council's priority must be to ensure there is always a stadium suitable for League football within Torbay - that means ensuring Plainmoor is protected by retaining ownership of its freehold until there's clearly another stadium literally under construction to replace it."

Wigan-born Hunter, who fell in love with the Gulls during family holidays to Torquay as a youngster and does an eight-hour round trip to go to home games, feels a new stadium is the least of the club's worries with the threat of relegation such a real possibility.

"If someone with the right intentions came in and argued about some of the problems that Plainmoor poses as a ground - the footprint isn't enormous, stuff like that - I would say supporters would be quite open to it," he said.

"There's an acceptance in the fanbase that, fair enough, once we we're back in the English Football League then there is a bit of potential for a new ground to be the next step, but I can't see how that can possibly be a priority at the minute."

Local board of directors

In July 2017 Osborne stated that he would establish a local board of directors by September 2017.

Five months after the deadline it has yet to happen and he is still the sole director, owning over 90% of the shares in the club.

"The fact that there isn't one as yet indicates some sort of suspicion or confusion about what actually Mr Osborne is working on doing," said Thomas.

"If the board of directors was eventually appointed then I think the supporters would be very keen to have supporter representation on that board.

"What we are really working towards, and have been for the past few months, is providing a platform for supporter engagement in whatever decision and direction the governance of the club takes."

Torquay players and fans celebrate a goal
Goal celebrations have been rare for Torquay fans - the club has scored just 28 times in the league this season and drawn a blank in 16 matches

So why the five-month delay?

"Results on the pitch have dictated that there's other things that have become more important than getting the board," said Harrop.

"I can assure you that it's something we're talking to people very regularly about so we will have the right people to run the football club.

"It is something that is in the pipeline and something that we wanted a couple of months ago, but these things take time and we're not going to rush."

Fears for the future

Torquay had 73 seasons in the English Football League between 1926 and 2007, when they were relegated to the Conference.

After two campaigns in non-league football they won the Conference play-off final at Wembley to return to League Two and in May 2011 were 90 minutes away from League One when they lost the play-off final to Stevenage at Old Trafford.

But three years later they were relegated from the Football League and are currently seven points from safety - their first win in more than two months on Saturday against Barrow lifted them off the bottom of the table.

"The way Torquay United is, and the loyalty the supporters have for it, we'd take it if we got relegated a few leagues but there was a core value running through it and it was guaranteed to exist the following season and the next 100 years," said Hunter.

Torquay fans at the 2011 League One play-off final
Happier times - Torquay United reached two play-off finals between 2009 and 2011

"But you can't say that with any certainty at the minute, there's very little solidity in the future, it's very disconcerting really."

Having diced with relegation for the past two seasons, many fans think this time around it will be the club's turn to drop to National League South - so do Torquay have a plan should they go down?

"I'd be not being truthful if I said I haven't thought about it," said Harrop.

"But until that happens I'm staying positive and making sure the staff, management, players and everyone associated with this football club stays positive."

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