Pat Kruse – The fastest own goal in history

A promenade lined with palm trees suggests that the depths of winter don’t bite too hard in Torquay, a seaside town nestled into the northern crook of Torbay. It’s certainly balmier than the deep freeze experienced on the exposed plateau of Dartmoor, just a few miles to the northwest and 600 metres above sea level.

January 3rd, 1977. It’s a Bank Holiday thanks to New Year’s Day falling on a Saturday. An overnight frost that touched -5oC left parts of Torquay United’s Plainmoor surface as hard as Harald Schumacher’s hip. The rest of it, the portion that caught the best of the sun’s tepid rays, was a quagmire fit for a hippo’s playground.

The match would’ve been called off these days. A 9am pitch inspection with a local ref going through the ball-splatting formalities to confirm the inevitable postponement.

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An unbeaten August 1976 raised hopes that the Gulls could improve on a creditable ninth place finish in the previous Fourth Division season. The optimism didn’t last long. Just four more wins came before the turn of the year. The twin nadirs were a 3-0 loss in the derby at Exeter City on December 27th, and succumbing to a 2-1 home defeat against non-League Hillingdon Borough in the FA Cup First Round a month earlier.

That result cost manager, Malcolm Musgrove, his job.

Returning to the managerial hot seat for his second stint in charge was Frank O’Farrell. The Irishman took Torquay to the cusp of the Second Division a few years earlier, before – with Musgrove as his assistant – leading Leicester City to top-flight promotion, the 1969 FA Cup final, and becoming Matt Busby’s hand-picked replacement at Manchester United.

Momentum against them, Torquay went into 1977 desperate to avoid being sucked into the bottom four. That would’ve meant the prospect of applying for re-election to the Football League for the first time since their inaugural campaign in 1928. A 4-0 hammering at Watford on New Year’s Day didn’t bode well for the visit of title-chasing Cambridge United.

The U’s made the 240-mile trip to Devon buoyed by just one defeat in their previous 13 league games. A 2-1 win over closest rivals Bradford City a couple of days earlier sent Ron Atkinson’s side to the top of the table.

So, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the visitors took an early lead. Nobody expected it to be after six seconds, though.

It might not have happened at all if Torquay’s goalkeeper, Terry Lee, had worn different studs.

That’s what Malcolm Webster, his Cambridge counterpart, did. With one penalty area smothered in mud and the other still icy, Webster plumped for his cake mix boots when he discovered which goal he’d be defending in the first half. At the opposite end of the pitch, frosty as Narnia, Terry Lee chose the same option.

Dave Stringer, the former Norwich City defender who would later manage them to fourth place in the old First Division, received the ball from the kick-off. In true route one fashion, he hoofed the ball as far forward as he could. It wasn’t a day for cultured football. With the emergence of Graham Taylor’s long-ball game at Lincoln, very few days in the lower divisions were.

There to meet Stringer’s clearance was Pat Kruse.

Just turned 23, he joined Torquay in time for the 1975/76 campaign after a successful loan stint there from his boyhood team, Leicester. That first year was a personal triumph for the centre back, solidifying a defence that kept 17 clean sheets and scooping the club’s Player of the Year award.

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Despite not conceding a goal in their opening five fixtures, the rest of the first half of 76/77 was proving to be much tougher. Things were about to get worse.

Kruse nodded the ball back to Terry Lee, who lost his footing under those soft-ground studs, floundering as the header scuttled past him into the unguarded net. Six seconds. 0-1. It remains the fastest own goal in the history of senior football.

In an act of high farce, Torquay left back Phil Sandercock, added a second own goal just before half time, giving the home side an especially slippery mountain to climb. However, climb it they did. Moustachioed striker Willie Brown (the second Scottish player of that name to play for the club, the first being a full back in 1928/29), struck twice after the break, and the Gulls somehow rescued an unlikely point.

On the other hand, they scored all four goals and still didn’t win.

That heroic fightback wasn’t quite the catalyst the team hoped for, but it sparked some belief on home turf/mud. Despite picking up just one win from their next 10 away games, they only left Plainmoor empty handed twice in the rest of the season. One of those defeats was against Exeter, who joined champions Cambridge in winning promotion, alongside Colchester United and Bradford City.

Frank O’Farrell moved upstairs in March to become Torquay’s general manager, making way for Mike Green, captain of Second Division Plymouth Argyle, who joined as player-manager. Still with one nervous eye on the bottom four, it took him a few weeks to corral his players into shape, but just one loss in their final 10 matches saw them over the line with plenty of breathing space.

Terry Lee and Willie Brown would help the Gulls to another ninth place finish in 1977/78, but Phil Sandercock and Pat Kruse had already found pastures new in the same division. Sandercock went north to Huddersfield Town, while Kruse moved to Brentford for £20,000 a few weeks after his moment of infamy. He secured promotion with the Bees a year later, making just over 200 appearance and becoming their Player of the Year in 1979/80.

The Author

Ian Burke

Ian is a writer and broadcaster from Manchester. He spends most Saturday afternoons watching his beloved Hyde United, and most Saturday nights wondering why he bothered.

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