The day Torquay began their climb to the top

We now know the Gulls as European champions, of course, but it all started in August 1996. Jonathan Rendall tells the story
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The Independent Online
We were sitting in the glass-fronted restaurant they have at the top of the San Siro; Kevin Hodges, the Torquay manager, still cradling the European Cup a good two hours after the final whistle.

The nationals had been shut out for a change; on Hodges' orders, only the local papers were allowed to stay in - that was me and Simon Mills from the Western News. It was a strange feeling, being a so-called "local" in what has become an international phenomenon like Torquay. Simon and I exchanged looks as if to say, how long will this last? Not even into next season's Champions' League, our eyes decided, but who could really blame the Gulls.

Looking out at the starry night sky over Milan, Hodges stroked the cup and said: "Unbelievable. Five years ago we were bottom of the League, and now this. It makes you think."

Behind Hodges and I, at the San Siro's flamingo-crystalled bar, the Torquay chairman, Mike Bateson, stood his players a round of beers. Hodges waved them over. We were joined also by Dave, Torquay's long-suffering fan from the old days and now the team's talisman on European trips. He was wearing his trademark Ronnie Kray specs. "How you managed it with a crap ref like that, I don't know," Dave said with mock ruefulness. "No, I'm pleased for you, Kevin. I really am, mate."

One by one the players touched the cup, among them Norbert Lenk, the ex- Fortuna Dusseldorf and Roma striker, heir to Klinsmann, who had been Hodges' club-record buy the previous close season. Yet the presence of Lenk was misleading.

Torquay's five-season rise from the spectre of the Conference to the Premiership title and, now, the Champions' League, has of course been well documented. But it is still startling to recall that the nucleus of the present team were all there during those far-off Third Division days at Plainmoor.

The remaining players - Ray Newland, Jon Gittens and Rodney Jack - touched the cup gingerly, as if it might still be an illusion and suddenly they would be transported back to the Nationwide League. But they needn't have worried. Their credentials are now known world-wide: Newland, England goalie and saviour of the night in Milan; Jack, scorer of the winner and now the most highly rated player in Europe, mobbed for autographs even by the Milan fans; and Gittens . . .

For Gittens, it is a bitter-sweet moment. He knows that next year he will be wearing the colours of Inter, the team he has just conquered.

"It's amazing," Bateson said. "I remember back in '96 all the talk was why didn't we get a sell-on fee when Lee Sharpe went from Man U to Leeds. Now it seems like, well, total peanuts, to be honest."

I asked Hodges what the turning point had been. Without hesitation, he answered: "Plainmoor, Saturday 17 August 1996." Almost in unison, Gittens and Jack murmured "Lincoln City", with far-away looks in their eyes. Although Newland said, "D'you have to bring that up?" Hodges would not be swayed from his theme.

"That was the one," he said. "The key. Remember we'd only stayed in the League because Stevenage's ground wasn't up to scratch."

"I remember," Bateson interjected with an amused shrug.

"And don't forget Lincoln had beaten us 5-1 the season before," Hodges went on. "So it was crucial." He paused enigmatically before adding: "Absolutely crucial."

We thought back to that day, our remembrances coming out. The European Cup lay on one of the chairs between us. Even the Milanese waiters were crowding round listening, and at the end Norbert Lenk said to Hodges: "You know, boss, I really wish I had been there."

Plainmoor was very different in those days, of course. There was a kiddies' playground where the Paul Baker Stand and Conference Centre is now, and you could find a parking space within 200 yards of the ticket office. Not that there were any tickets. This was one of the old "no-ticket" games, to save on the printing.

I walked up from town to Plainmoor with some of the Lincoln fans, who were famously hard to impress. The Imps had just played host to Newcastle and their then-record buy Alan Shearer in a pre-season game, and the Imps fans hadn't been impressed at all.

"It's Andy Cole all over again," one said. "And he was worth about as much as a bag of coal."

"Forget the Toon Army, loony tunes is what it is," said another, with what turned out to be oracle-like accuracy, given Newcastle's relegation that term.

Our English Riviera didn't impress them, either, and it was clear that only a repeat of the 5-1 thrashing would compensate them for the long journey. "I can't wait to get home to Lincoln," one Imp fan confided. "I feel like I've been here years already."

Indeed, in public even Hodges was cautious about his players' chances before the match. "Most of them know what to expect and the most important thing is for them to concentrate throughout the whole game," he shrewdly told Simon Mills in that morning's News.

I joined the super-fan Dave to watch the teams warming up. He was wearing the Ronnie Krays even then, but, unsurprisingly, his features lacked the serene quality that they have since attained. Lincoln played a brutal long-ball game that required tremendous fitness, and we watched with some foreboding as the Imps players performed a series of sprints, despite the almost Mediterranean heat.

"Obviously, you get bitter when you're bottom of the League," Dave said. "But you've got to remember that if it wasn't for Mike Bateson coming in, this club probably wouldn't exist. And if Dean Whitehouse hadn't missed two open goals when he was on loan from Wimbledon, we might have turned things around."

It is sobering to recall that Dave then fondly invoked the, to him, crowning moment in Gulls history up to that point: 1990, the Leyland DAF Trucks Trophy at Wembley, and the 4-1 defeat by Bolton. "We took 20,000 to Wembley for that one," Dave said wistfully.

"And where are they now?" I observed, surveying a Plainmoor crowd that I estimated at around 2,645.

"If we knew that we wouldn't be in all the trouble we're in," Dave said.

Ripples of concern were felt among the Gulls faithful as Ray Newland, deputising for the now unfairly forgotten Rhys Wilmot, fumbled a practice corner. An aghast Newland then let a dribbling shot from the No 3 keeper Matthew Gregg slip through his hands into the net, when the ball had approached at a mere 3-5 mph. "It doesn't look good, does it?" Dave said.

This was no slight on Newland's prodigious talent, but as another Gulls fan remarked at the time: "The only player who can beat Ray Newland is Ray Newland himself." For back then Newland, unthinkable though it seems now, used to have his occasional off days. As he kicked the ball back to Gregg, despite his exterior jocularity, it was clear that Newland was wrestling with his inner demons, but thankfully the Imps were too busy doing more sprints to notice. On such crazy paving stones of fate are golden futures laid. In the first quarter the aerial bombardment from the Lincoln midfield was unrelenting. Three times in the first 20 minutes the ball went over the West stand from Gulls clearances.

Worse, the referee had already booked two key Torquay men, not only Gittens but also Baker himself, after an innocuous challenge which sent an Imps defender down as if shot. "He's obviously been training at Old Trafford," a Gulls fan quipped as the Lincoln No 3 made a miraculous recovery and trotted back.

Incredibly, the northerner Baker, his 33-year-old blond crop glistening in the sun, was not even a definite Gulls player that day. "He's having to commute," Dave said. "He's got to find a house for his wife, and it's not easy. Where he comes from 40 grand virtually buys you a mansion. Travel is our worst enemy."

So incensed were the Gulls supporters by the card-happy ref that they failed to notice the helping hand he had in the first Torquay goal. As the Gulls prepared to take a free-kick by the opposing corner flag, referee D'Urso pointed out that the said infraction had actually taken place some five yards nearer goal, on the edge of the Imps' box.

From the newly placed kick, Gittens slotted home with a sweet side-foot. "There's only one Johnny Gittens," sang the crowd. But failure, as they say, breeds the expectation of it, and the mood was far from crowing at half-time as we queued for our then-traditional portion of chips: crisp on the outside, creamy in the middle and grease almost non-existent in the old handy cardboard cones - still the best chips I have experienced in domestic or indeed international stadiums. "I hope you're going to put the crapness of the ref in your report," Dave said rather unfairly as we re-took our places.

The rest is history. Newland's nerves were suddenly exposed when, going to tip over a speculative punt forward, he instead missed the ball and collided with the rear stanchion. This time the Imps did not miss their cue. High ball after high ball was curled in, their burly rearguard massing in the the Gulls' box. Another missed cross and . . . it was 1-1.

At this point, most in the crowd would have settled for the draw. The whistles were going up from as early as the 76th minute. But Hodges still had his dream. And at that precise moment he executed the masterstroke that would realise it. Off came the stalwart Garry Nelson, and on came Rodney Jack.

Of course, Jack was only a kid back then. No one knew quite what to expect as he jogged on with his dreadlocks bouncing in the summer air. "Nice haircut," one Gulls regular observed. "But has the kid got the legs?"

We did not have that long to find out - 14 minutes and 32 seconds, by my reckoning. It was the first minute of injury time. A languid back- pass from the resigned Imps seemed safe enough as it trickled back to their underrated keeper Barry Richardson. Suddenly, from nowhere, Jack appeared on the ball. Two defenders had galloped back. Jack dummied one, then shimmied past the other and shot.

The game Richardson got a foot to it, but this was just a passing caress as the ball kissed the back of the net. Ref D'Urso blew for time. Hodges leapt from the dug-out. The crowd erupted. It seemed like a lot of people back then. And the Gulls faithful linked arms three-abreast and went out past the playground singing "Rodney Jack, Rodney Jack, Rodney Jack . . ."

Of course, those singing lads are now mere specks in the sea of faces you see at the new Plainmoor. But as Hodges and I ambled out of the San Siro with Bateson, Dave, Gittens, Newland, Jack and Lenk, the Gulls manager paused and confided: "You know, talking about those days, the funny thing is you almost want to go back to them."

"Really, Kevin?'' I said.

"Nah," Kevin chuckled, and then, quite understandably rejecting my request for a lift, sped off in the limo towards the airport.