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Downes returns as Torquay face first clash in Devon's mini-league

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 08, 2012

Aaron Downes returns today for Torquay United after his sending-off against Rochdale PICTURE: Phil Mingo/Pinnacle

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Armed with the fans' first player of the month award, Aaron Downes will step back into Torquay United's side in the only change that manager Martin Ling is likely to make when Plymouth Argyle go to Plainmoor today (3pm) for the first match in League Two's Devon mini league.

It is the first time in 11 years that Torquay, Plymouth and Exeter City have had the chance to conduct their own private three-cornered argument and, if Ling is right, it could turn into a right old set-to.

"If we end up above Exeter and Plymouth, I believe we'll be in the top seven at least. I think all three of us can finish in the top half of the table," said Ling.

With all due respect to young Kyrtis McKenzie, who deputised for him at Port Vale last weekend, the importance of Downes' return should not be underestimated.

The experienced Aussie centre-back has cut an imposing figure, as well as scoring twice, so far this season and Gulls supporters, who were concerned about the gap that Crewe-bound Mark Ellis might leave, have already taken to him.

Even if Danny Stevens has emerged unscathed from two days of training with the rest of the squad, Ling may well stick with 18-year-old Niall Thompson on the wing.

Ling values continuity, Stevens has not kicked a ball in anger for more than a month and Thompson's pace and youthful enthusiasm could pose just as big a threat to Argyle's defence as it did to Rochdale in United's 4-2 home win a fortnight ago.

Craig Easton has an outside chance of recovering from a groin strain, but Ling has already hinted that 20-year-old former Everton starlet Nathan Craig looks like holding the place he won for the first time at Port Vale.

The fact that this season will offer six Devon derbies means one of them was bound to fall pretty early in the campaign.

United completed their first league "double" over Argyle for more than 40 years last season and Ling said: "I played in Devon derbies for Exeter from 1982-86 – they were big then and they are big now.

"When you think where the three clubs have been since then – Exeter and Torquay into the Conference and back, Plymouth into the Championship, pushing for the Premier League for a while, and now all three are together again.

"This is a real chance for Torquay to finish top of the pile. We have always been deemed to be the smallest of the Devon clubs, and that hasn't really changed. But this is a club on the up."

There will be few better chances to prove that point than under the extra public attention that goes with a derby game.

Argyle may still be very much a work in progress under Carl Fletcher, but to come from behind to beat Northampton 3-2 last Saturday should have given them a huge lift. Back-to-back wins might set them off on the sort of run that even many of their diehard fans thought unlikely at this stage.

Today's game will be refereed by new Premier League official Roger East from Wiltshire. Mr East had a trying PL debut last weekend, sending off Swansea's Chico Flores in the 1-1 draw with Sunderland at the Liberty Stadium, and he'd better have his wits about him this afternoon.

Torquay United (from): Poke, Rice; Oastler, Saah, Downes, Nicholson, Mansell, Craig, Morris, Thompson, Howe, Bodin, Jarvis, Cruise, Stevens, Leadbitter, Yeoman, McKenzie, Easton, Sullivan, Hutchings.

Unavailable: Lathrope (knee), Macklin (hamstring), Halpin (ankle), Baker (suspended).

Even if Billy Bodin scores a hat-trick, Torquay United's £70,000 winger fears he may have to make his excuses and leave before giving any interviews at Plainmoor today.

Bodin has been given special permission by the Welsh FA to play against Plymouth Argyle and then dash up the motorway to join his country's Under-21 squad at Heathrow at 10pm for a night flight to the Czech Republic. "I've got to get away straight after the game, or I'll never make it," he said.

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