Glenn Moore: Torquay begin to reap the benefits of clinging on to Buckle

We'll never know how many more defeats he could have suffered before being sacked
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The Independent Football

They are goals that have gone down in legend: Mark Robins' winner at Nottingham Forest in 1990; Adrian Heath's equaliser at Oxford six years earlier. History has it that these goals kept Sir Alex Ferguson and Howard Kendall in work, and Manchester United and Everton respectively reaped the rewards.

The chairmen concerned, Martin Edwards and Sir Philip Carter, always said they would have stayed the axe regardless. Maybe, but those goals certainly changed moods, and probably altered destinies.

In Devon, Mustapha Carayol's 89th-minute equaliser for Torquay United at Cheltenham last February may come to assume the same mythic significance. Defeat would have left the Gulls with three points from 30 and a shrinking four-point advantage over Grimsby, immediately below them in a relegation zone. With an instant return to the Conference looming, the knives were out for manager Paul Buckle.

Instead, Torquay drew that game, won the next, and gained enough confidence to end the season with eight straight clean sheets and 20 points from 24. This season they maintained that form with a quartet of wins before suffering a narrow 2-1 defeat at Southend on Saturday, Chris Zebroski's reply insufficient reward for a strong second-half showing. That leaves them second in League Two, a point behind leaders Shrewsbury. Not bad for a team that began the season 20-1 for the title, 10-1 for relegation.

As with Ferguson and Kendall, we will never know how many more defeats Buckle could have suffered before the patience of Simon Baker, the Gulls' chairman, was exhausted. Maybe Carayol saved him, maybe not. Baker had already kept faith in Buckle longer than many a chairman in similar circumstances. What we do know is that Buckle's prospects were bleak had he been sacked. His CV may have boasted Torquay's 2009 promotion from the Conference, but young managers without a famous name find it very hard to get a second job when the first goes awry. Research by the League Managers' Association and Warwick Business School reveals around half of first-time appointees never get a second chance.

Buckle has already bucked the trend by lasting more than three years – the average is less than two. He was nevertheless shocked to be informed that he is the division's third longest-serving manager (after Accrington's John Coleman and Morecambe 's Sammy McIlroy). "It is a precarious job," he said, "everyone knows that clubs do chop and change."

Did he fear for his job earlier this year? "I like to think my record at the club had been good, and the club knew where we were when I took over. We had no players, no staff. We've now a good young side with some experienced players too, and a good staff.

"We were promoted a bit ahead of time and the plan last year was always just to stay up. This year it is to do better than last year. We've had three phenomenal years since losing League status, but it takes time to build a club."

Buckle, 39, played for Torquay early in a career that took in nine League and non-League clubs. He began coaching at Exeter and moved the 16 miles south in July 2007, after Torquay had been relegated from the League.

The obvious comparison, for non-Devonians, is Exeter, who have also climbed out of the Conference, in 2008 (beating Buckle's team in the play-offs) and are now in League One. Buckle disagrees. "People say that but Exeter but is a vibrant city [pop: 111,000] while we are a small seaside town [pop: 63,000]. We do not get the gates other teams get [last season's average: 2,855], we have limited finances to work with."

It is not just cash which is the problem when recruiting. Torbay is a lovely area, but isolated in football terms. "It is so difficult to bring players in," said Buckle. "How many players with families are prepared to have their kids change schools, their wife give up her job, for a three-year contract? I know if I am going for someone and they are also being chased by a club like Stevenage or Oxford, which are centrally placed geographically, I won't get them. That's why a lot of the players we bring in are 18, 19, 20; young lads who can come by themselves."

Buckle aims to attract players who have been released by bigger clubs by promising to develop their game to equip them for another shot at the top. An example is Mark Ellis, a 21-year-old defender let go by Bolton, but the subject of a (rejected) bid from a bigger club before the transfer window shut.

"I don't want players here who are not ambitious," said Buckle. "I want to manage at a higher level myself. That hunger can carry you a long way." So far it has carried Torquay, who have only played above the bottom tier for 10 seasons in their history, into promotion contention. "We're punching above our weight," said Buckle. "No one in the division expected it from us, now we just want to keep it going."