BY GARY THACKER
Many pub landlords have stories to tell. They’ve heard thousands and retold them all in any number of different ways. Some are barely believable, some are unbelievable, others should not in any circumstances whatsoever be believed. But, back in 2009, the landlord of ‘The Exeter Inn’ in West Street, Ashburton in rural Devon recalled a tale that may fit in either of those three categories. It was about the day that an unfortunate coming together between himself and a dog with a Welsh name saved a club from relegation.
The landlord in question was Jim McNichol, a Scottish ex-professional footballer and defender who had retired from the game some seventeen years or so previously. He had enjoyed an itinerant career plying his trade around a number of lower league clubs. His reminiscences, recorded in the The Guardian as part of the ‘On This Day’ feature, recall the events of May 9th, 1987, when McNichol’s team, Torquay United, were playing the last league game of a troubled season, and facing the unwanted distinction of becoming the first club to be automatically relegated from the Football League after the abolition of the ‘re-election’ system.
To say that Torquay had endured a poor season would be erring on the side of generosity. They’d been nailed to the bottom rung of the league ladder for almost the entire league programme, but with the last game being a home fixture against a Crewe Alexandra side with little to play for, a win would probably be sufficient to see them survive, and even a draw might do it. In real terms, it was a shootout between Burnley, Lincoln City and Torquay. The Lancashire club would win their final game to guarantee safety, but for Lincoln – who had been relegated from Division Three the previous season, and Torquay, who had needed to seek re-election for the last two seasons – the denouement would be awaited until almost the last kick of the game at Plainmoor, and due to that canine intervention, that proverbial ‘last kick’ would be quite a while after the other games had been completed.
With just the final fixtures to complete, Torquay had wriggled from the bottom position. Ahead of the last day drama, they had given themselves a fighting chance of beating the drop. Successive wins against Cardiff City and Rochdale had garnered six precious points, but a 3-2 defeat at Orient had then pushed them back onto the edge of the precipice. As it stood before a ball was kicked on that last day, Burnley were propping up the rest of the league on 46 points, Torquay had 47 and Lincoln had 48, although the Devon club’s goal difference was superior. Burnley’s win would surely take them clear. An outcome that was confirmed when Lincoln lost 2-0 at Swansea and as the Imps’ players stood in the away dressing room in South Wales, awaiting their fate, Torquay were losing. It looked like they may be safe, but the game was not done yet.
In Devon, it was now last orders in the Last Chance Saloon and 3,655 fans filed into Plainmoor to see if the Gulls could fly to safety. An outcome that hardly looked likely as Crewe eased to a 0-2 lead. First, a free-kick on the edge of the home box was tapped to the right, for a scuffed shot to apologetically find its way into the net. The goal brought about some scuffles in the crowd, and police with dogs were deployed to keep order as the Crewe fans celebrated and Torquay’s despondent fans railed against their apparent inevitable fate. Still inside the first 45 minutes, a long through ball evaded the Torquay centre-backs and future England captain David Platt capitalised to steer the ball home. As the police, including some dog-handlers, stood behind the home goal to maintain order, the fans looked dejected more than threatening.
When the whistle went for the break there seemed little prospect of any comeback and after escaping in successive seasons via the antiquated re-election ‘old boys network’ process, the trapdoor to non-league football seemed to be yawning open.
Just after play resumed however, Torquay got a lucky break. Another free-kick just outside the box was tapped to McNichol and his drive on goal was deflected past the unlucky goalkeeper to prise open the escape hatch ever so slightly. For the next half-hour or so, Torquay pushed and probed to try and get the equaliser that would at give them a draw, and at least a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. Entering the last ten minutes, they were still losing when Stuart Morgan played his only card from the bench, sending on his substitute. It was all or nothing now.
A few minutes later, with the ball running out towards the Crewe goal line, McNichol launched himself into a forlorn chase to retrieve possession. He was headed towards the corner where the earlier affray had required the presence of police, some with dogs. As the defender reached the touchline with the ball escaping his attention, police dog-handler John Harris was watching the crowd as per his remit. On the other end of the leash though, Bryn, his German Shepherd, had his eye on the man in yellow rushing towards his handler. Understandably defining the onrushing McNichol as a threat to Harris, Bryn reacted as he had been trained to do, and protected his handler by assailing the apparent aggressor to deter any attack, and biting him on the leg
Understandably, McNichol went down and, after the dog was cleared away, the medical staff came on. Players crowded around and St John’s Ambulance staff ran on with a stretcher. It took the assorted medical staff around five minutes to administer the required first aid. More attention would be needed in the dressing room later, but physio Alan Morris bandaged up the wound and, eschewing calls to return to the dressing-room, teak-tough McNichol insisted on playing on, especially given the situation at the time. McNichol conceded that he may not be able to contribute much to his team. “I was just hobbling around – we'd already used our one substitute so I wasn't going to go off but I wasn't much use by that stage.” Little did he know though that he had already given a major contribution; in fact, he had given blood for the cause. Indirectly, McNichol’s injury would be a massively significant event in the game.
Accounts differ as to how long the player was down for. Some say three minutes, others say five. The real significance of the issue though would be played out in the very last of those debated minutes. With the last of those sixty seconds ticking away, a piece of clumsy control on the edge of the Crewe penalty area saw the ball drift on to Paul Dobson, who swivelled to drive home the goal that would mean Torquay escaped relegation on goal difference.
With the delay meaning other games had been completed, the significance of the strike was immediately clear. “Of course, it was so late by then that we knew the results of all the other games, so we knew exactly what we needed,” McNichol recalled. ”When the goal went in that was it, we knew we were staying up.” In a South Wales dressing room, Lincoln players heard news of the late strike come through, knowing that it signalled their doom.
Would the game have taken a different cause without the intervention of Bryn’s canine intervention? Of course it would. And who can say how things would have turned out, but given Torquay’s forlorn pursuit of a goal for much of the second half, there’s not much to suggest that a breakthrough was imminent. The hold up in play though, and perhaps the unsettling nature of seeing a player suffering with a dog bite, may have unsettled a few players and the added time was certainly significant.
After the game, McNichol was noticeably absent as the other Torquay players celebrated their escape. “I didn't see any of the celebrations. I was off getting all sorts of injections and I had all the tetanus checks and tests,” he recalled. “Our club doctor, Dr Foster, a bit of a comedian – he was saying he had to check the dog for Aids and everything. Then I went home and went to bed. By the time I saw anybody the party was finished.” Seventeen stitches were surely enough to put anyone off the idea of parties anyway.
Sometime later, a local newspaper invited McNichol to meet Bryn and John Harris. Pictures of the player shaking hands with and stroking the calm dog, back up McNichol’s assertion that, “I don't have any grudges, it was nobody's fault.” It certainly didn’t seem to create any kind of lasting distaste for dogs either. “I'm not a dog owner myself,” he related. “I don't dislike them particularly. They're allowed in my pub.” He may not be serving them a pint though.
So, if you do happen to walk into ‘The Exeter Inn’ in Ashburton and the man behind the bar starts telling of the time when a dog bite saved a team from relegation, don’t just write it off as a tall tale.