Life goes on at rock bottom

Survival is the goal at Torquay, holding up the League, and in the home of Fawlty Towers a sense of humour is important as well, says Clive White

Rooted at the bottom of the Football League six points adrift, Torquay United is to the town's sporting endeavour what Fawlty Towers is to its hotel industry. Apparently, the local council regard the club as a bit of comedy, too, which probably ill-befits its smart English Riviera image.

While Torquay Athletic Rugby Club sits resplendent beside the bay next to the Grand Hotel, poor old Plainmoor is tucked away like Cinderella in a corner of the town largely unloved, save for one notable exception, and practically forgotten. Not that you could blame Mike Bateson for that. If the team were half as good footballers as the chairman is a publicist they would be top of the league.

Bateson, a self-made millionaire, has tried just about every ruse imaginable to bring the club more success/bigger crowds, from signing Justin Fashanu to painting the visitors' dressing room a sleepy pink (or was that Fashanu's dressing room?). All to no avail.

Likewise the visit he recently made the players take to the opticians when results didn't bear scrutiny any more. "It wasn't intended as a dig at the players, although the later one was when I suggested they ought to have brain scans." Didn't they object? "They didn't understand it," he said.

Judging by United's fortunes this season they couldn't have done much worse if Basil was running the team. An 8-1 home defeat - their biggest in the league for 62 years - precipitated the departure of Don O'Riordan and the arrival of Eddie May from Cardiff. Since when results have improved - marginally. Now they lose 8-4, as at Walsall after extra time in an FA Cup replay, having hit both posts with one shot in the 91st minute when the score was 3-3. At least it made a change from being eliminated by non-League sides.

"Steady Eddie", who follows in a line of some distinguished managers at Plainmoor including Frank O'Farrell and Bruce Rioch, has an extensive knowledge of the Third Division as both a player and manager and appears to have stemmed the rot.

It wasn't always like this. In Bateson's first year as chairman five seasons ago they gained promotion in the play-offs by beating Blackpool, his home town club. "I thought, `this is a piece of cake'," he said. "In four or five seasons at most we'll be promoted to the First Division. Of course, we weren't. In fact we were relegated the very next season.

"At the start I thought a couple of hundred thousand injected into it could help it a lot. Silly me. There comes a time, however, at most football clubs when the head starts to take over from the heart. Reality takes a hold when you're physically writing out cheques for fifty and a hundred thousand pounds. Of course, by then you've gone a certain way down the road and you have to ask yourself do you run away from it and let the whole thing crumble around your ears or do you put a little bit more in and try to turn it into a business, which is what I did."

His "injections" almost turned into a complete blood transfusion, reaching almost pounds 1.5m before he called a halt. He expects the club to make a profit for the third consecutive year thanks to the sale of Gregory Goodyear to Queen's Park Rangers for pounds 350,000. The Bosman business, of course, threatens to put a stop to such nice little earners, in fact the very existence of this club and many more like it. Torquay make a heavier investment than most in youth devlopment with a dedicated officer and a purpose-built lodge. Bateson reckons they need to net about pounds 150,000 a year in transfer fees to balance the cash flow.

Relegation would cost the club about pounds 300-350,000 a year. He said they would try to run with a tight but full professional squad for the first season in the hope of bouncing straight back. Admission prices, only pounds 6 and pounds 3 as it is, would have to be further reduced in what he describes as "this cold bed of football". He tried offering under 11-year-olds a pounds 10 season ticket and set aside 500 places. They closed the offer after three months, having sold 150.

"Football clubs are a very strange business," he said, "unlike any other. Most businesses know where they'll be in six or 12 months barring a recession or whatever. Who knows how our finances would have changed had that shot in injury time at Walsall gone in or if a recent inquiry from a Premier League club for one of our players comes to fruition. Actually, if somebody like Newcastle would care to give me a ring I'll take pounds 1m off them for any of my players. In fact I'll take pounds 1m off them for all of our players."

Someone once described him as looking like a lean version of the comedian Mike Reid, but Bateson's got a much better sense of humour. He's needed it. "In the back of my mind I still can't help thinking there's something rather ridiculous about men dressed in shorts chasing a ball around a field - a little bit Pythonesque," he said.

Don't mention the Dead Parrot sketch, though. Bateson, who is president of the local RSPCA, has about 40 of them in an aviary at his home - "they talk a lot of sense". His grandfather was the curator at Blackpool Zoo so he was brought up with a healthy appreciation of animals. It probably explains why he vetoed the commercial department's ferret racing day.

He remains optimistic that Torquay's uneventful League history will see out its 69th year. As the late Peter Cook once said of his home town club: "They've had more close calls than a silent movie star tied to a railway track." Appropriately, founder members of the Fourth Division, even their election was reputed to be the result of a dubiously contested second ballot with Aberdare.

"Barring suicide, I can see myself being here for quite a few years, but I'd rather not be," he said, acknowledging that the club with its thriving pub-cum-restaurant-cum-night club - "it's like the black hole of Calcutta on Friday and Saturday nights"- would be ideal for asset- stripping. "It would have to be someone with the same spirit. If anybody has a yearning to run a south Devon football club I could make it happen for them. An offer which would allow me anything approaching financial dignity and I'd be gone like a rocket."

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