FOOTBALL: Plain speaking; means Plainmoor does not fear the fall...

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The Independent Online
If Torquay United do bid farewell to the Football League this season, many of their long-suffering supporters will probably look back at Saturday's goalless draw with Hartlepool United and say: "That was the day I knew it was over."

The result could have been worse: Torquay lost 8-1 to Scunthorpe earlier in the season, which prompted the departure of Don O'Riordan as manager. But Torquay's abject failure to break down a team of fellow strugglers playing with only nine men for nearly an hour may have a devastating effect on morale.

As the second half wore on, frustration on the terraces gave way to jeers, followed by hysteria. Five minutes from time, Hartlepool's Tony Canham shot high over the bar from a free- kick. "Do you wanna join us?" someone shouted.

The jokes were flying thick and fast in the boardroom, too. "I hope you don't mind, but I've put your name forward for the Swansea job," said the chairman, Mike Bateson, as his beleaguered manager, Eddie May, walked in.

Farcically, after Shane Reddish and Steve Howard had been sent off, both for two bookable offences, it was Hartlepool who came nearest to scoring when Chris Lynch hit the bar.

Bateson, it seems, has been preparing for life in the Vauxhall Conference: "The new road map will go up in the office in a couple of weeks, with the new place names circled: Stevenage; Bath; Dover; Hednesford." The Torquay chairman is not the maudlin type.

"I know what's going to happen if and when we take the drop," he said. "There'll be no tears shed by me. It may seem a bit horrifying now, but it's a challenge, another avenue to explore, and if it comes, it comes. I can't do any more."

The majority opinion is that without Bateson, Torquay would have sunk beneath the waves years ago. He presides over a thriving sports and social club, with a four-rink indoor bowling green, the busy Boots & Laces pub and a new stand inside Plainmoor itself, complete with executive boxes. Shame about the football.

The impression gained from Bateson is one of a genuine football fan wrestling with the conscience of a successful businessman. After injecting more than pounds 1m into the club, the businessman has finally taken over and the message is that, with crowds of 2,000 to 3,000, there is to be no more good money thrown after bad. The Vauxhall Conference has to be regarded as a viable alternative rather than a total disaster.

Unless the Bosman case eventually dictates otherwise, Bateson is committed to a full-time playing staff if they do go down, at least to begin with.

"Everything would be geared towards winning the championship in the first season.

"What happens in the second season I don't know. If our crowds stay with us, we might have a chance. But if they desert us then we will adjust accordingly, and you may never seen Torquay United in the Football League again.

"The Conference does seem like the final drop. You've got clubs like Halifax, who have never come back. But there are also clubs, like Colchester and Lincoln, who have prospered. Both their chairmen have said to me: 'Don't be frightened of the drop. It does happen, and you'll deal with it,' which has been a bit of a comfort..."

Torquay United (4-4-2): Newland; Winter, Watson, Barrow, Stamps; Preston (Kelly, 67), Ramsey, Oatway, Hathaway (Hancox, 67); Baker, Garner. Substitute not used: Bayes (gk).

Hartlepool United (4-4-2): Horne; Reddish, Henderson, McGuckin (Lee, 33), McCauley; Canham, Oliver, Howard, Lynch; Allon (Conlon, 90), Houchen. Substitute not used: Jones (gk).

Referee: M Bailey (Cambridge).

Bookings: Hartlepool: Reddish, Howard, Houchen.

Sent off: Hartlepool: Reddish, Howard.

Man of the match: Preston. Attendance: 2,580.