My Irish cousin used to tell a joke about his usual position in football writes Paul Breen
Left back, he always claimed, in the dressing room. Even on the field, those who play at left back don’t find themselves in the limelight as often as those in more central positions. Yet they play a crucial role in both defence and attack, pulling the strings and running the show at times without any great fanfare.
It’s a role that requires strong awareness of both defence and attack alongside a great deal of discipline and the need to invest considerable energy into every performance.
Perhaps it is surprising then that there are not more of these good solid professionals who make the step up into football management.
Stuart Pearce is perhaps the most famous example that comes to mind, having managed at both domestic and international level in England. Chris Powell is another example of someone who has done so, managing Charlton and Huddersfield before his recent appointment as No 2 at Derby County.
Further down the country we can find another example of left backs stepping up from the playing field to the manager’s office.
Though the lights have just gone out on the last season (and literally so in the Accrington v Wimbledon play off) Torquay United are busy preparing for the next under the leadership of not one but two former left backs.
Kevin Nicholson and his assistant Robbie Herrera stepped into the south coast hot seat last autumn at a time when the Gulls were in freefall, seemingly destined to crash into the National League South.
But then as spring came Torquay built up a head of steam that saw them secure safety at Bromley with a game to spare. Kevin Nicholson earned himself the name of ‘Ranieri of the Riviera’ as he oversaw the team’s greatest of all escapes.
His hope now is that they can build on this momentum and prepare for an assault on the other end of the table in the coming season.
That after all would truly be a source of comparison with Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri if Torquay could go from relegation candidates one season to championship challengers, and maybe even title winners, the next.
With the club under new ownership and also talk of a forthcoming National League shake up, these are exciting times for Torquay. Since the season has ended the management has been busy ensuring that they keep the core of the team that engineered last season’s great escape, having been twelve points adrift at one time and seemingly doomed to relegation.
The fact that they survived according to Kevin Nicholson is testament to “the strength and character of the players”, and “almost unbelievable” in the words of his assistant Robbie Herrera.
This was what they told me when I managed to catch up with the players and their management team at the last match of the season up in Guiseley.
There, I found a great sense of hunger on the part of all involved to show what they were truly capable of. It was as if they felt that the season had only started at the point when they began to build momentum and the table reflected in no way what they were capable of as individuals and as a team.
I spoke to Robbie, Kevin, and several of the players including Dan Lavercombe, the promising young goalkeeper who has now moved to Wigan Athletic.
Though stepping up a couple of levels in his career, Dan was full of praise for the quality on show in the National League and in the Torquay team, saying that there are “fine margins” between the different levels of the football pyramid.
Dan also suggested that Kevin and Robbie were the ones to thank for the turnaround in fortunes because of getting the players organised as a team and giving them belief.
Durrell Berry, who has been retained in the Torquay squad for next season, echoed this by suggesting that there was no magic formula for the success of the team. He said that they “just worked hard together” and got the luck they deserved, which meant that in the end “the results started to come.”
Durrell too believes that this Torquay squad will “definitely be pushing for promotion next season”, even though he will miss the start through injury. Hopefully, for his and the team’s sake, he won’t be out of action for too long.
Like Kevin and Robbie, his preferred role on the pitch is at the back and it was no surprise that Torquay suffered a slight blip in results when he got injured towards the end of the last season.
But, as has been typical of their style, the management team found a way of restructuring the side so that they made it over the last few hurdles of their great escape.
Interestingly though, for a couple of left backs, Kevin and Robbie have balanced the side very well across the entire pitch, with strength apparent in all areas of the field towards the end of last season.
Again too, in preparing for the next, they have been astute in getting players signed up into key positions – such as captain Angus McDonald at centre half, Luke Young at the centre of midfield, and Nathan Blissett(pictured above right) up front who has found a new lease of life in the Torquay forward line.
The structures are in place then and the momentum of last season’s finish can hopefully act as a springboard for a promotion drive engineered by this unique management pairing of left backs. It won’t be easy in the National League next season though.
Forest Green have money and ambition behind them, and must start the year as favourites whilst other former ‘league’ clubs such as Lincoln, Tranmere and Wrexham will have ambitions of their own.
York City and Dagenham will be looking to make an immediate return as well, and it would be foolish to write off the likes of Dover Athletic and Braintree who may never have been in The Football League but have ambitions to emulate clubs such as Wycombe and Crawley, and rise through the divisions.
But Torquay fans will be hoping all the rest are left back in the season ahead as their management team builds momentum in the fight for promotion. As I have said it won’t be easy but it’s going to be something to watch out for once the lights go on again for the domestic football season. Exciting times, and we even have the European Championships to keep us entertained till then!