Torbay Gents enjoy five-star luxury as guests of British Army

Maurice Travis, left, and Derek Aplin in the bath, after one of the matches, drinking cold lager from regimental tankards!

Maurice Travis, left, and Derek Aplin in the bath, after one of the matches, drinking cold lager from regimental tankards! - Credit: Roger Mann

In 1972, after many years of playing local soccer, I formed the football club of my dreams. To be a member of The Torbay Gentlemen, you would need to be over-30, and enjoy the comradeship and skills of the game. You would be fed up with training, but still enjoy the physicality of the game, as long as it came with a smile.  

Early on Sunday, January 26, 1974, I answered the phone to my father, who lived in Budleigh Salterton.

I remember the date well because, two days earlier, I had just returned from The Torbay Gentlemen’s first foreign tour to Spain.  

The team that played the Officers' Eleven - back, from left, Paul Hellyer, Maurice Travis, Derek Aplin, Pete Walsh, Johnny...

The team that played the Officers' Eleven - back, from left, Paul Hellyer, Maurice Travis, Derek Aplin, Pete Walsh, Johnny Heard and Roy Clarke. Front, from left:, Alan Parker, Ray Spencer, Brian Slocombe, Roger Mann and Eric McCargow - Credit: Roger Mann

Dad invited my wife and me to make a foursome for a church service, followed by lunch, so we left home almost immediately.

When we met outside the church, Dad explained that the sermon would be given by a travelling priest whom he knew quite well.  

Half an hour later, I was listening, spell-bound, as the Reverend Fred Preston gesticulated, went down on one knee, and threw up his hands towards Heaven.  

He was urging the congregation to get out into the air, play more sport, and keep themselves fit.

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I remember his final sentence: “If you need vitamins to help keep fit, take them! But remember that the best vitamin for a Christian is B1.”

After the service, my dad invited 'Rev Fred' to join us for lunch.  

Rev Fred turned out to be an amazing character. He was on leave from his main job as the military chaplain at the British military base at Osnabruck, in Germany.

He was also an expert in unarmed combat, a qualified dog trainer, and a ballroom dance teacher!

As the afternoon wore on, he began to ask me more and more questions about the ideals behind the formation of the Torbay Gentlemen.

Then, just as we were leaving, he looked at me and said: "Roger, will you bring this team to Osnabruck for me?”

The reception dinner at Osnabruck in the officers' mess

The reception dinner at Osnabruck in the officers' mess - Credit: Roger Mann

I agreed, shook hands on the deal, and we exchanged phone numbers.

During the following week, Fred explained that the invitation was on behalf of the officers, and that we would stay in the officers' mess, at Osnabruck for five nights.

Because so many officers chose to take leave at Easter, this would be the best time for the tour.

The invitation was for up to 30 people, we would play three games of football, and full board would be absolutely free!

In the weeks that followed, I contacted the Torbay Twinning Committee to add a further day to the tour. They arranged an invitation, from the mayor of Hamlin, to visit his city.

It's a long train journey to Osnabruck... Pete Walsh and Ray Spencer enjoying a nap on the way!

It's a long train journey to Osnabruck... Pete Walsh and Ray Spencer enjoying a nap on the way! - Credit: Roger Mann

On the last day of our tour, Easter Saturday, he would send a coach to collect us from Osnabruck, and we would play a match against Hamlin, at the Weserbergland Stadium.

This would be followed by a civic banquet in our honour.

By April, 26 members had signed up for the trip.

Former Torquay United stars Ray Spencer and Geoff Cox would assure that we were competitive on the field.

A friend of ours, Barbara Eaton, would act as the group’s interpreter, and our captain, Brian Slocombe, would ask his new wife, Marion, to treat the trip as their honeymoon!  

On April 11, a very excited party set out on the 18-hour journey to Osnabruck.

It seems unthinkable today, but, back in 1974, air travel was a lot more expensive than rail.

We left Torquay station and arrived at Paddington by midday. Taxis to Victoria followed, and then another rail journey to Dover.

We managed to get some sleep on the ferry to Ostend, before yet another train delivered us to Osnabruck, soon after lunchtime, on the following day.

A military bus collected us from the station, and we entered the base as guests of the officers of the 1st Staffordshire Regiment.

That evening, we attended an official reception, and were invited to our first dinner in the officers’ mess.  Before we sat down, Rev Fred called for our attention and said grace.

“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

These turned out to be prophetic words!

There is no doubt, whatsoever, that what we received, for the next three days, made us truly thankful indeed!

On the Wednesday and Thursday, we played two warm-up games of soccer against different sections of the barracks.

Our big match, against the officers, was scheduled for Good Friday. In the meantime, we were treated to a life of luxury!

Accommodation in the mess was five star. We enjoyed silver service with all meals, and had the non-stop attention of two batmen. We could call for transport whenever we needed it, and had 24-hour access to the mess bar.

And this was not just an ordinary bar! This bar sold eight Bacardi and cokes for a pound, and its chef offered hot, carve-your-own, steaks from 5am every day!

But, for most of us, the crowning glory was to be served cold lager, in regimental tankards, while in the bath, after each match! It tasted so good!

Good Friday came too soon. After three days of ribbing from the officers, in the mess bar, it was time to let the ball do the talking!

Team selection was never a process for the Torbay Gents. We took turns, and those, whose turn it was, got changed, and lined up for the team photo.

Rev Fred was named in the officers’ team, and, as we took up our positions for kick-off, he gave me a wave and a smile. But I didn’t respond.

The whistle went, my teeth clenched, and, suddenly, it was England v Germany all over again!