TORQUAY UNITED had just won promotion to the Football League at Wembley but Kevin Nicholson wasn’t celebrating in the dressing room with his teammates.
Instead, he was in a small room in the bowels of the national stadium with a drug tester desperately trying to provide a sample.
“It was about 80 degrees at Wembley and I was dehydrated,” Nicholson recalls of that May afternoon in 2009. “There are all these pictures of the lads in the dressing room popping champagne and I’m not in any of them because I’m downstairs with a bloke looking at me trying to have a pee.
“They have to literally watch you do it. It’s hard enough to pee with someone watching you whether you’re hydrated or not. So I was down there, downing bottles of water, desperate to get back up with the lads and couldn’t. By the time I did they’d all got ready and gone to see their families. My dad came to the game but I didn’t get to see him because I’d been so long he’d had to shoot off !”
Until then it had been all business for the Gulls. A year earlier they’d had a good season that had “come apart” in the play-offs against rivals Exeter City. Their bid to put a shine on the season also slipped by when they lost to Ebbsfleet United in the FA Trophy final. This was about redemption.
“We were really, really good for that level,” says Nicholson, now head of coaching at Exeter. “Paul Buckle put together a team whose biggest strength was its mentality. The bulk of the squad was at its peak and he peppered it with lads with a bit more experience who could steady the ship like Chris Hargreaves.
“Then younger lads coming through like Elliot Benyon, who were good young players but not yet mature. Sometimes you have that dynamic and belief in each other. We were just a team that never gave up.
“We weren’t the prettiest in the world. We were the kind of team that would batter you physically for 80 minutes, hit from a corner, hit on the break from something else, and then in the last ten minutes we’d pass the ball about a little bit and everyone would say we played good football.
“The reality was that we won most of the games through hard work, organisation, determination, good set-plays. It was exciting for fans because they always knew we’d give it a go.”
But they were also desperate to see their team return to the Football League. Driven by the heartache, 12 months after the disappointment they put it right.
“The loss to Exeter in the play-offs and the Trophy defeat were two big driving forces,” Nicholson says.
“We wanted to prove we should have been up the year before. It was a real siege mentality. ‘We messed up last year, we’re not going to go through that feeling again’.
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