Football Cities: Exeter
When football writers talk about provincial footballing sides and cities a few familiar names crop up, such as Nottingham and Derby. These definitely fall into the category of “not London” and smaller than the UK’s other major conurbations, but are still relatively large in size and success. When you start heading out to the geographical margins, however, life as a football club is a little less illustrious and more of a battle for interest and survival. As a modestly-sized city with a team that has only occasionally threatened the third tier of English football, Exeter is firmly in the latter camp.
Where a football club takes root and grows can be due a number of factors. Luck and quirks of history play a part. Money, obviously, plays a big part. Sometimes, like Carlisle, you’re literally the only game in town. Sometimes it’s a case of build it and they will come, such as Fleetwood – a town with a population roughly on a par with the North Devon town of Barnstaple. In Exeter City’s case, there has rarely, if ever, been cash to flash, while the population have only sporadically shown interest beyond the hardcore. For the most part the club exists largely as a source of comfort to the city, often as a source of embarrassment due to recurring financial crises and, occasionally, just occasionally, as a source of pride.
If anything, the attitude towards the Grecians is one more of affection than pride or a key sense of identity. Despite major financial problems in the sixties, nineties and noughties, Exeter have clung to their city centre ground, aided by the city council, who purchased the ground from Beazer Homes in 1996. Even though crowds hover between the 2,500 and 4,000 mark, the location of St James Park makes matchdays difficult to miss. You’d be hard pushed to say Sidwell Street is a sea of red and white on matchdays, but if you’re a nearby resident or visiting the city centre, it’s hard to ignore there’s a game on.
The general attitude of well-wishing can be frustrating for an Exeter fan. It’s a common experience to head to the pub post-match and hear the question “how did City get on today?”. There’s no doubting the interest in City is present in Exeter and East Devon. When the club have excelled, either in the cup of the league, Exeter wakes up and the Grecians become a badge of honour. Witness the near 21,000 who crammed into St James Park to watch Exeter’s sixth round replay in 1931, the promotion and cup run of the late 70s and early 80s that bred a generation of City fans, and more recently the FA Cup draw against Manchester United that saw Alex Inglethorpe’s side return to Devon with a goalless draw.
Yet these peaks serve only to frustrate and hint at a much bigger potential for Exeter as a footballing city. The population of Exeter may be a modest 125,000, but take in the surrounding areas of East and Mid Devon and you have nearly half a million, before you take into account North Devon. Catchment area is not a problem and the local non-league scene is relatively thriving. Maybe the question should be is Devon a footballing county rather than is Exeter a footballing city? But even then, the answer gets a little bit complicated.
For Exeter City aren’t the only game in town. Some may even argue they’re not even the biggest football club in the county. But Plymouth Argyle and Torquay United are not necessarily threats to Exeter off the pitch – support for both clubs tend to be cut on regional lines, with Plymouth’s support coming from Cornwall and the south of the county, and Torquay drawing fans from the Torbay and Teignbridge areas. There is more than enough support in Devon to go around between the three teams and create healthy rivalries. But drive up the A38 from Plymouth to Exeter and you’ll see one of the reasons why football is losing the battle for hearts and minds in Devon’s county town.
On the edge of the M5, where the motorway ends and rural Devon roads begin, looms Sandy Park, home of the Exeter Chiefs. Opened in 2006, it is still modest by Rugby Premiership levels but keeps growing, in no small part to the volume of fans turning up each week. Thirty years ago, the notion that the Chiefs would become the dominant team in the city seemed fanciful. The old County Ground in the St Thomas area attracted as many spectators for speedway as it did for rugby. But the Westcountry has always had a strong inclination towards the oval ball, with Bath often dominating, but Bristol, Plymouth Albion, the Cornish Pirates and, of course, the Chiefs all drawing respectable crowds.
With the advent of professionalism in rugby union, local businessman Tony Rowe spotted an opportunity and with sensible financial backing and a sympathetic local council, the club has spent the last 15 years in an upwardly mobile trajectory. The Chiefs are challenging at the top of the Premiership table, coach Rob Baxter is being talked of as a potential replacement for Stuart Lancaster as England coach, and Sandy Park was packed for recent World Cup fixtures. In the same period, Exeter have been relegated to League Two and trod water for two seasons. At the same time the city’s official World Cup fan park was packed for the Australia v New Zealand final, Exeter City were meekly slumping to defeat at Barnet. Locals have a sport team they can use as a source of pride and it’s not the Grecians.
But it would also be somewhat simplistic to say Exeter is now a rugby rather than a football city. As noted previously, locals do take an interest in the club and they do care, but just not enough to go to games. And that’s largely because Exeter are not their team. While the surrounding countryside areas have their fair share of born-and-bred Devonians, Exeter is a city that is in a continual cycle of migration. Unlike the more working-class Plymouth, which has an identity built around Devonport dockyard, Exeter is a university city with a high student population. In recent years, the local authorities have positioned Exeter as a tech and science hub. The Met Office moved to the city in 2003, bringing 82% of their key staff with them. This was followed by a nearby science park and a new town of Cranbrook. Other businesses also relocated. And like the students, these relocated workers came with their own allegiances. The third non-native group is made up of the newly-retired and young families who move to Devon for the quality of life. And finally, there is the group who have grown up with Exeter City, know and love the club, but leave for university or a better job and never come back.
Some, like comic Adrian Edmondson, end up becoming fanatical about their new hometown club, while others may attend the odd game but stick with their first love. And despite being hundreds of miles away from the Emirates, Anfield or Old Trafford, there is no shortage of locals who have adopted a top flight club from a young age.
Exeter, then, is a footballing city, just not a city with a strong passion for its own club. And yet there are signs as to what could have been. Between 2005 and 2010 the club was most definitely on the up. Two games against Manchester United cleared its debt, with queues going both ways on Sidwell Street for the replay after the local Odeon screened the game live for those who couldn’t get a ticket. Two promotions and a flirtation with the League One play-offs followed. Combined with the rise of the Chiefs, for a brief period it seemed as if Exeter had found its sporting mojo and was behind both teams. But while the Chiefs continued their momentum, the Grecians fell away. Relegation, struggle and an inevitable financial crisis followed while the pride of fan ownership and the chant of “We own our football club” gave way to procedural meetings and infighting within the Trust, as membership dropped.
Exeter City will inevitably, at some point, go through another period of minor success. The city itself may get a more stable population as people who relocate to Devon for work stay and raise families. But by that stage, the wardrobes of a new generation of would-be Grecian fanatics may contain Chiefs jerseys, Barcelona shirts and hand-me-downs from their parents’ teams. Red and white stripes may continue to be a short supply in Exeter.