The Police Dog That Saved A Football Club From Possible Extinction

On this day in 1987, a police dog saved Torquay United from plummeting out of the Football League
08:35, 09 May 2022

Have you heard the one about the police dog who saved a football club from plummeting to possible extinction? Thirty-five years on, Torquay United fans remain ever thankful for the hound who bit their captain and inadvertently steered them towards Football League safety.

Promotion and relegation between the fourth tier and the National League wasn’t always as fluid as it is today, and it wasn’t even until the 1986-87 season that a single automatic spot was opened up for the champions of the semi-pro Conference to replace the team finishing 92nd in the professional ranks.

It could easily have been coined the ‘Torquay Rule’ since the Gulls had finished bottom of the old Fourth Division in each of the previous two seasons, having to apply for re-election each time. With a run-down stadium still bearing the scars of a fire in 1985, there were no permanent changing rooms and little in the way of money to spend on a squad filled with journeyman players.

This was a club with almost no hope of avoiding demotion to the non-league. And after 60 years of league football, there was a very real possibility that the end of their stay in the professional ranks would also bring about the end of the club entirely. 

So heading into the 86-87 season, manager Stuart Morgan was left calling in favours to cobble together a squad which might be capable of scratching and clawing its way off the foot of the table. But after 45 of their 46 games they remained in the mire and needed a win at home to Crewe Alexandra to be certain of staying up.

“It was do or die, and we all knew it,” goalkeeper Kenny Allen told the Netflix series ‘Losers’ of the Crewe clash. “You can’t get that thought out of your head. ‘My God, if we lose this Torquay are going out of the Football League,’ which at that time was unthinkable.

After a first half which was all Crewe, Torquay found themselves trailing 2-0 at half-time. The results of Burnley and Lincoln City were also going against them, leaving the club just 45 minutes from the crushing inevitability of relegation. They needed inspiration from somewhere, with the crowd becoming increasingly restless.

Even a second-half free-kick from captain Jim McNichol couldn’t appease the masses, with Torquay still a goal short of trumping Lincoln City, who by now were losing to Swansea City and a point out of the Gulls’ reach. As the distressed locals became more and more irate, officers from Devon and Cornwall Police were called in to keep an eye on them from the pitch perimeter, some of them complete with police dogs.

So when a desperate chase to keep the ball in play led McNichol hurtling towards the corden of bobbies, Constable John Harris and his German Shepherd sidekick Bryn were suddenly in the skipper’s line of fire. Reacting as he had been trained to do, Bryn saw the oncoming figure in yellow and blue as a potential danger to himself and his handler and responded by sinking his teeth into the top of McNichol’s thigh.

McNichol was left receiving treatment for a period of some minutes while everyone else in the ground was left bewildered by what they’d just witnessed. “I saw his bite, it was as big as an apple and as deep as a plum,” striker Paul Dobson said of his captain’s wound, while the fans were left feeling ever more unsettled with their club’s Football League status on the line and their skipper left limping around with a bandaged leg for the final moments due to the lack of available substitutes.

The delay had, though, meant that everyone had heard the latest from the Lincoln game and it was now clear that a single goal would give Torquay the draw they would need to usurp the Imps on goal difference. And, thanks to Bryn’s intervention, there would be four added minutes in which to lay siege to the Crewe goal.

In the third of the four extra minutes, Crewe suddenly began to overplay at the back and Dobson pounced to turn towards goal and send a scuffed effort trickling past the visiting goalkeeper and into the back of the net, sending the whole of Plainmoor into ecstasy. Instead of Torquay, it was Lincoln who would finish bottom and suffer relegation to the Conference. 

At full-time, the fans invaded the pitch. Tears flowed. And Jim McNichol disappeared off to the dressing room to have his bite wound treated. Days later he was reintroduced to his attacker for a TV feature, while chairman Lew Pope presented Bryn with a large bone, supposedly to attempt to wean the dog off footballers’ legs.

 “If Jimmy didn’t get bitten and we didn’t have that added time, who knows where we’d be today?” manager Morgan told ‘Losers’, while goal hero Dobson insisted: “If we didn’t have the dog there, I know for a fact [the goal] wouldn't have happened.” 

The entire episode helped Torquay to stabilise, and they would remain a Football League club for the next 20 years. By the time they did eventually drop into the fifth tier in 2007, they had rebuilt the foundations enough to sustain themselves after the relegation and to this day they remain a healthy National League club with aspirations to once again be a part of the professional elite.

But that might not have been the case had they gone down back in 1987, and it’s thanks to the amazing intervention of Bryn the police dog that Torquay United summoned up the urgency and energy to pull themselves out of danger. There’s never been a football hero quite like him.

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