Determination and talent... wracked by injuries, Gulls refused to go under
- Credit: Steve Bond/Pinnacle
When Torquay United lost 4-1 at Maidenhead on Tuesday night, March 16, even the most diehard supporters wondered whether their season might be over.
Some 'keyboard warriors' laid the blame firmly at the door of manager Gary Johnson.
The heady first three months, awash with goals and points and sprinkled with 'Gary-Time' victories, were becoming a memory.
They had been highlighted by a televised 5-0 rout of Hartlepool United on Teesside and the 6-1 thrashing of Yeovil Town at Plainmoor on Boxing Day.
Even an FA Cup defeat hardly felt like a loss - it was an historic thriller against League Two Crawley Town, the Gulls eventually losing 6-5 after three goals in stoppage-time and five more in extra-time.
Everything was going swimmingly up to Christmas but that win over Yeovil cost them leading scorer Danny Wright and talented midfielder Armani Little, both to hamstring injuries, both before half-time and after both had scored.
It would be easier to list the players, mostly automatic choices, who did not follow them onto the casualty list.
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Wracked by those injuries, United saw their double-figure lead wiped out by Sutton United, then Hartlepool themselves.
When the defensive wheels fell off at Maidenhead, they had won only twice in eleven games and taken 10 points out of 33. They couldn't beat Altrincham, Wealdstone or Halifax at home.
But what's happened since that chastening evening in Berkshire has been truly remarkable.
Johnson and his assistant Aaron Downes, who created one team with one set of players, built a new one - in the middle of the season, on the proverbial hoof.
And, as new names like Scott Boden and Billy Waters ground out important results and those injuries gradually cleared up, the 'mojo' returned.
One of the unsung heroes of the season has been the club's highly-rated and tireless 'physio' Kai Hepworth, who's been under more pressure than any other member of staff.
The loss of wingers Aaron Nemane and Ben Whitfield, neither of whom finished the season, may have taken away the pace which made the original side so exhilarating, but the hallmarks of last summer's recruitment were 'experience' and 'versatility', and both have come good.
It's impossible to underplay the influence of veterans like Dean Moxey and skipper Asa Hall throughout, as well as Wright and Gary Warren even despite their injuries.
Hall's best-ever season delivered 14 goals from midfield at the age of 34.
Young Adam Randell joined from Plymouth Argyle on loan as a central midfielder and became an effective right winger.
Welshman Joe Lewis, 21, has filled every defensive position.
And Kyle Cameron has played centre-back, left-back, briefly centre-forward and finally, in the 4-2 semi-final win over Notts County, on the left of midfield!
That all takes some doing.
During their spring revival, United won at play-off chasing Wrexham (1-0) for the first time in 33 years and at Chesterfield (2-0) for the first time ever in a league match.
And, if home draws against Bromley (0-0) and Barnet (2-2) eventually allowed Sutton to win the title, Johnson's side still chased them down until the penultimate weekend of the season.
Eighty points from 42 games as runners-up deserved to win promotion.
United also won loads of new friends with their performances in a televised 2-2 draw at big-spending Stockport County and the thrilling play-off win over Notts.
No other team in the division had to cope with quite as many injuries as the Gulls, but they refused to go under.
Many players have reported on the team spirit and camaraderie which has run right through the squad, in good times and bad.
They called on that determination, their talent, as well as Johnson's years of experience - and that all kept them on the road to Ashton Gate on Sunday.