Johnson will welcome experience back into youthful United squad
TORQUAY United fans have rightly enjoyed seeing young talents like Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, Jake Andrews, Saikou Janneh, Opi Edwards, Kalvin Lumbombo Kalala and even leading scorer Jamie Reid – he is almost a ‘veteran’ at 24! – pushing the Gulls up the National League South table in recent weeks.
Even the sight of local boy Olaf Koszela becoming, at 16, the fifth youngest player to make his senior debut for the club has cheered supporters and sent out all the right messages.
But, as good and as promising all those players are, nobody will be happier to see Asa Hall and Ryan Dickson back in action, hopefully at Dulwich Hamlet this weekend, than manager Gary Johnson.
Midfielders Hall and Dickson, both 31 and both signed during the summer by former boss Gary Owers, have more than that in common.
They have both played under Johnson before, Hall at Cheltenham Town and Dickson at Yeovil Town, and both retain his trust and confidence.
Hall is poised to return after a knee ligament injury and Dickson from a concussion ‘protocol‘, both sustained in training.
In recent weeks some of us regular watchers have had to remind ourselves just how young the teams which Johnson has been sending out really are.
Here goes: Shaun MacDonald 22, Ben Wynter 20, Jean-Yves Koue Niate 25, Kyle Cameron (captain at 21), Liam Davis 31, Ruairi Keating 23, Lemonheigh-Evans 21, Andrews 21, Kalala 20, Janneh 20, Reid 24, Edwards 19.
In other words, left-back Davis has been the only player over 30 and, even at 25, Koue Niate is relatively inexperienced in terms of senior football in England.
Take out Davis and the average age of that lot is less than 22. Throw in Koszela and
Gulls midfielder Asa Hall in action against Lymington Town in the FA Cup you’re down to 20.9.
Of course, some of those lads are already mature beyond their years.
For instance, in the absence of Brett Williams, Hall or Dickson, Cameron may already be skipper at 21, and if Andrews isn’t somebody’s future captain, then something will have gone seriously wrong,
The cultured Andrews is already a firm and calming influence in midfield and his partnership with Lemonheigh-Evans – they are also good friends off the pitch – has been a major plus in recent weeks.
Don’t worry, we’re not heading down Alan Hansen’s old ‘You’ll Win Nothing With Kids’ road here, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, on a bobbly pitch and against eager, nothing-to-lose opponents, United struggled to subdue Basingstoke Town in the FA Trophy last weekend.
When they can get the ball down, pass it or run at opponents, United are almost certainly as good as anyone in the National League South and better than most. Especially on the carpet which Plainmoor has been until sheer pressure of matches and a bit of winter weather have taken their toll of late. But, like all lower divisions, the NL South is bound to become a bit of a slog in the coming months.
Physical strength, discipline on and off the ball and the know-how which players like Hall and Dickson bring to the party will be increasingly important.
It’s also why Johnson and his brother Peter, United’s chief scout, are on the lookout for a couple more experienced players to add to the current squad.
The youngsters who have contributed so much so far still have much to give, and they are learning precious career lessons all the time, but United will be that much stronger with Hall and Dickson back…
MILES ON THE CLOCK
The Gulls’ FA Trophy First Round Proper draw away to Boreham Wood should shine a light on how close they are to having a side that could cope in the National League – if they win promotion next season.
Wood, who have beaten Torquay five times in their last six meetings, are currently tenth in the NL table and continuing to punch above their weight under highly-rated young manager Luke Garrard.
Only promotion-chasing Harrogate Town have beaten them in ten league games at their Meadow Park ground so far this season.
“It will be good to see, for future reference if you like, how the players handle a good ‘Conference’ team,” said Johnson.
“I’m not taking anything for granted, but that’s where we hope to be next season, and I will learn a lot more about the players in that game than I will in quite a few at our level.”
The tie in North London on December 15 means a fifth away game in six matches for United between now and Christmas.
After Basingstoke away in the Trophy last Saturday, they travel to Dulwich Hamlet in the NL South on Saturday, Dartford for a rearranged game next Tuesday night, take on Welling United at Plainmoor (December 8), Boreham Wood (December 15) and then Hampton & Richmond away on December 22.
“It’s a shame for our supporters,” said Johnson.
“I just feel sorry for them at the minute, with the amount of travelling they’re having to do.
“I suppose we could have four home games on the trot over Christmas and the New Year, but I hope we can give them something to make their journeys worthwhile before then.
The First Round draw is the last to be regionalised, although it is heavily tilted towards the South region – 19 ties here to 13 in the North.
The picks of the Northern draw will see derbies between Harrogate Town and York City and, in Greater Manchester, Altrincham and Stockport County.
In the South, Hereford – they actually play in the NL North! – will meet promotion-chasing Billericay Town at Edgar Street, Bath City will travel to Barnet, there will be an all-Westcountry affair between Truro City and Weston-super-Mare at Plainmoor, while Dorchester Town will travel to Eastbourne Borough or Dartford.
The Gulls had a job keeping young Basingstoke forward Sam Smart in check last Saturday, so it was no surprise to learn that he’s been tipped for bigger things.
Smart, 20, had a trial at Championship club Sheffield Wednesday after scoring 20 goals for Town last season and, after proving a handful against Torquay, he headed off to try and win a contract at Sunderland.
United have a busy programme of pre-Christmas events at Plainmoor’s No 10s restaurant – a ‘Xmas With The First Team’ next Thursday (December 6), a ‘Children’s Xmas Party’ on December 13 and a ‘Xmas Party Night’ on December 19.
Tickets are available through commercial manager Sharon Cox at the club.
STRANGE BUT TRUE
The Gulls have continued to score plenty of goals, but they haven’t kept a ‘clean sheet’ for six matches and seven of the ten they have kept this season have been away from home.