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Friday, August 20, 2010

Something to Torq About

With Torquay riding high at the top of League Two, Nobes looks at the miserly defence helping the Gulls upset the odds.

Plenty to celebrate: Torquay are enjoying a fine start to the season

It's not the kind of thing a professional footballer wishes to be reminded of. Putting the ball into your own net can be embarrassing at best and, at worst, very costly to your team.

Pity poor Chris Zebroski, then, who holds the unfortunate tag of being the last man to score a league goal against his own team - Torquay United.

Particularly unfortunate given the goal came all the way back on April 3 last season. Thankfully, on that occasion, it wasn't to prove costly, with United beating Shrewsbury 2-1.

Since then though, the Devon club haven't conceded in 871 minutes. A run of nine clean sheets on the trot - with seven victories in those matches.

Number nine came in Saturday's 2-0 victory at Lincoln. It was a result which saw the Gulls maintain the top spot in League Two they gained after an opening day 3-0 success over Northampton - the team their clean sheet run began against.

A 0-0 draw against the Cobblers was followed by a remarkable 5-0 crushing of soon-to-be-promoted Rochdale before Aldershot, Grimsby, Macclesfield, and Bury were comfortably seen off without reply.

A final day goalless draw against free-scoring Champions Notts County was further proof of the mettle of Paul Buckle's men. It has not been a run built on the good fortune of the fixture list.

Nor has it been a backs to the wall job with United sitting men behind the ball. The impressive way they demolished Dale before hitting three past both Grimsby and play off chasing Bury evidence of their attacking intent.

Indeed, the hard work and tireless running of their forward men - Zebroski and the free-scoring Elliott Benyon - has been key to a team who put into practice the idea of defending from the very front.

Benyon, in particular, has thrived with the confidence surging through the Torquay team - with three goals to his name already, including both in their weekend success at Sincil Bank.

It's form which has seen links of a move to Championship side Swansea renewed. Although he is out of the contract at the end of the season, manager Paul Buckle will be keen to retain his services a little longer at Plainmoor.

That's because Torquay's solid defence has given the Devon club, in their second season back in the Football League, a chance to compete for a top seven spot - something most fans would have felt was beyond them just a couple of weeks ago.

After consolidating in mid table last season following winning the Conference Play Off Final in 2009, Buckle's side seem to be one moving in the right direction.

Torquay boss Paul Buckle is the architect of their impressive defence

Twelve months ago they struggled on their return to the big time. Having decided that some of the players who helped them to promotion needed to be moved on though, the manager re-structured his team in the January transfer window.

Their improvement has not gone unnoticed either, with the boss himself linked to the vacant post at Colchester last term. However, he was expressed his desire to continue his work in the South West.

Much credit must rightly go to the manager. Organising a solid defence is no mean task. It requires time and patience spent on the training ground. It needs time spent drilling into players team shape, keeping a tight line, and defending balls into the box properly.

Not only has his work on the training pitch paid off, but his efforts in the transfer market also seem to be paying off.

The capture of experienced centre half Guy Branston on loan from Burton last term
may have risen some eyebrows, but it proved to be the catalyst behind shoring up the United defence.

A typically uncompromising lower league defender, the 31-year-old's organisational and leadership qualities have been central to helping younger players like Chris Robertson and Kevin Nicholson improve their defensive game.

Now signed permanently, his partnership in the middle with Mark Ellis has also given the Gulls a dominant presence in the air against the many high balls lofted in their direction by League Two opponents.

Torquay's impressive defensive run is made even more remarkable, though, by the fact the Gulls have, for one reason or another, been forced to field three different goalkeepers during their long shutout.

Scott Bevan began the run before injury saw loanee Michael Poke take over responsibility.

Even an injury to Poke and the emergency drafting in of Bristol City's Steve Collis for the final game of last term didn't disturb United's defensive solidity though.

Now with Bevan back in goal behind a settled back four, and with a striking force proving ruthlessly efficient, Buckle will hope further clean sheets will be the basis for an assault at the right end of the table.

Not only that, but Torquay's form has seen Millwall's 85-year old record of 11 consecutive clean sheets firmly enter their sights.

Shut outs in their next two games against Bradford and Port Vale would ensure this Gulls team enter the record books. You'd think even Zebroski won't mind if that happens.

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