They may have lost new loan striker Jayden Stockley to injury, but Torquay United welcome back Billy Bodin, a player with the ability to win any game, for the visit of third-placed Southend United to Plainmoor on Saturday.
The Welsh Under-21 winger has been out for seven weeks with a cartilage problem, which did not need surgery but took time to heal, and he could hardly return at a more important time for the Gulls.
Whether he will start or not – he was not risked in this week’s Devon St Luke’s Challenge Cup defeat at South West Peninsula League club Witheridge – is a question which manager Alan Knill will not answer until he hands his team-sheet in on Saturday afternoon.
If Bodin, who has had to carry the weight of that £70,000 transfer fee from Swindon Town 18 months ago, does start, it will be no surprise. But if he takes no part, it will probably mean that United have stood the form-book on its head and pulled off the sort of result that everyone at Plainmoor desperately needs.
Knill’s squad has won once in eleven games – 12 if you include the FA Cup exit to Rochdale – and taken only six League Two points out of those possible 33. That run has dumped them to the bottom of the table, and the pressure is growing weekly.
United have not exactly been scoring for fun, but it is their goals-against record which has been hurting them so badly.
They have kept only two clean-sheets all season, only one since the end of August, and have conceded 29 goals in their last 14 games.
No wonder Knill said: “You have to stay in games to give yourselves a chance. Conceding once, you can cope with, but two is not OK, and we’ve done that too often.”
They did just that in recent defeats at home to Chesterfield and away to Scunthorpe United, making the sort of individual mistakes that render hours of group practice on the training ground irrelevant. With his board still supportive and a series of opposing managers saying kind things about his squad, Knill is sure he can turn things around. “I am sick of people telling me: ‘You’re a good side – you’re this, you’re that’, when we’re not winning,” he said. “I would rather have someone say: ‘You’re horrible to play against’.
“I believe in the players, and I believe in what we are trying to do. But there is no point believing it, if you don’t put it on the pitch. We all know collectively that we are not achieving. We are not doing what we are getting paid for.
“Morale is good. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t keep everybody happy, but the players are fully committed in training, and that’s the first thing you look for.”
Stockley’s training ground calf injury is a blow, for the tall AFC Bournemouth forward must have stood a good chance of making his home debut without that setback. But the extension of loans for defender Anthony O’Connor (Blackburn Rovers) and midfielder Jak McCourt (Leicester City) has boosted Knill, especially the news that O’Connor will remain until at least the New Year. The young Irishman has been admirably consistent and, just as important, has shown the sort of spirit and determination that United need if they are to haul themselves out of trouble.
Phil Brown’s Shrimpers are unbeaten in seven games, winning six of them and Knill watched their 3-1 FA Cup victory at Chesterfield last weekend. “They were really good value for their win last Saturday,” he said.
Torquay United (from): Rice, Poke; Tonge, O’Connor, Downes, Cruise, Chapell, Mansell, Mozika, Craig, Benyon, Marquis, Pearce, Hawley, Bodin, Nicholson, McCourt, Sullivan, Cameron, Hutchings.
Unavailable: Harding (foot), Stockley (calf), Lathrope, N Thompson, Yeoman, McKenzie (all out on loan).