Martin Ling to use next six games as pointer towards Torquay United's forward progress
Unbeaten at home and holding eighth place in the table is not bad going, but Torquay United manager Martin Ling believes the next few games will go a long way to deciding whether his Gulls can repeat their play-off finish of last season or, perhaps, go one better.
United welcome back leading scorer Rene Howe, after his one-match suspension, against Southend United at Plainmoor today (3pm).
The Shrimpers, under former Plymouth Argyle boss Paul Sturrock, are only a couple of points behind the Gulls. They also reached the play-offs last season and have similar ambitions this time.
"The first third of the season is often a bit suck-it-and-see," said Ling, "but we're just past that now. There's six more games to the halfway stage, when we'll have played everyone in the division, and we'll know a lot more then.
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"This year Gillingham have looked like they may be getting away a bit, but there's a lot of other clubs who are much of a muchness. Ourselves, as well as many other teams, are in the balance.
"The league has tightened up, and a couple of wins or losses can see you fly up or down the table.
"There's a group of about 15 teams that are within striking distance of the play-offs and even third place.
"This is the time of year when squads start to get stretched for obvious reasons, like suspensions, and a bigger nucleus of games make injuries more prevalent."
The next six matches will round off with a local derby against Exeter City at Plainmoor on the Saturday before Christmas (December 22).
United know they could really do with beating Southend, not least because they will not be in action next Tuesday night when everyone else in the division will be.
The Gulls have switched next midweek's home game against Dagenham and Redbridge to December 1.
Ling has already hinted that Martin Rice, who replaced the injured Michael Poke in goal at Oxford (0-0) last weekend, will keep his place. That is even if Poke is deemed fit enough for a place on the bench.
But the United boss readily welcomed the return of Howe.
"Rene coming back is a big thing for us," said Ling. "We never really got going as an attacking unit at Oxford, although we stuck at it and got a good point. It ain't just Rene's goals, it's his general overall play."
Howe may be back, but Ling may well be thinking how he can pep an attack which has gone more than three-and-a-half games without a goal.
Both Ryan Jarvis and Danny Stevens have been nursing strains this week, although neither is completely out of contention.
One player from either squad will be facing their old club: United midfielder Craig Easton left Southend 18 months ago after turning down a reduced wage offer, while Shrimpers striker Elliot Benyon, whom Torquay sold to Swindon for £125,000 in January 2010, will be hoping for a place on the bench at least.
If Southend don't end up in the top seven, or very close to it, there will be plenty of people around Roots Hall who will want to know the reason why.
Sturrock has several experienced strikers who have not even been able to hold down a place recently, including ex-Exeter centre-forward Barry Corr, local favourite Freddy Eastwood and Benyon.
Sturrock has been pairing 19-year-old on-loan Watford forward Britt Assombalonga with former Yeovil forward and Torquay loanee Gavin Tomlin.
Torquay United (from): Rice, Poke; Oastler, Saah, Downes, Nicholson, Mansell, Craig, Lathrope, Easton, Bodin, Howe, Jarvis, Cruise, Leadbitter, Stevens, Yeoman, N Thompson, Halpin, McKenzie, Baker, Artemi.
Unavailable: Morris (Achilles tendon), Macklin (broken metatarsal).