Hot Seat Narratives: Paul Tisdale and Exeter City: A Complicated Relationship
In the summer of 2006, a group of Exeter City fans bumped into a well-known Football League manager and conversation turned towards the managerial vacancy at St James’ Park. The advice was unequivocal. “Get in Jimmy Quinn. He’ll get you promoted, no worries.”
It seemed like sound advice. Quinn had recently got Shrewsbury promoted from the Conference at the first time of asking and was available after leaving Gay Meadow. What’s more, his success in Shropshire meant Quinn was the first choice of many Exeter fans. Those who didn’t favour Quinn were clamouring for former City captain Shaun Taylor. Almost nobody expected the job to go to a relative unknown who was coaching university side Team Bath.
Fast forward almost two years and the former Team Bath coach was celebrating promotion back to the Football League on the steps on Wembley with his victorious City side. His opposite number, Quinn, sat disconsolate in the dressing room. A few weeks later, Jimmy Quinn would part company with Cambridge United.
Today, Quinn hasn’t held a managerial position since leaving Nantwich Town in 2013, while Paul Tisdale is now English football’s second longest serving manager behind Arsène Wenger. But this piece isn’t about Quinn, even if his own history makes for a fascinating story. Instead, in his ninth season in charge – nearly triple most managerial tenures – what has made Exeter stick with Tisdale and Tisdale stick with Exeter?
“We’re Exeter City. We do things differently now.”
Before Tisdale’s arrival, Exeter were fairly unexceptional in their approach to the man at the top. You’d be hard pushed to call them a sacking club – although given that City regularly struggled at the wrong end of League Two, then-chairman Ivor Doble wasn’t averse to hitting the panic button. The season before their relegation to the Conference was definitely exceptional with the chaotic reign of John Russell, Mike Lewis and Uri Geller burning through John Cornforth, Neil McNab and Gary Peters in one doomed season. But when the Supporters’ Trust assumed control in 2003, there was a sense that things would be done differently.
In part, this was due to the Grecians’ perilous financial position. In administration and owing money to football and non-football creditors alike, the new regime could ill-afford to add to their costs by sacking managers. Bar a serious threat of a second relegation, there was certainly no appetite to hand out any unnecessary P45s. A change of ownership can often mean plenty of chopping and changing in the dugout. In the Trust’s case, it added a degree of practical stability that is still seen today. During their time in charge, the Trust have yet to sack a manager.
But equally, this meant that the owners would be unlikely to stand in the way of a better opportunity to their managers, which was seen by the slightly unusual career decisions by both managers preceding Tisdale. The first, Eamonn Dolan, was loved by the City faithful, his passion on the touchline and clear affection for the club striking a chord with a fanbase who desperately needed galvanising at its lowest ebb. Dolan may not have been Exeter’s greatest manager but he was the right man at the right time, and perhaps more aware of his limitations than anyone could have imagined. When Reading’s academy came calling, Dolan accepted, departing with the best wishes of all at the club and with his reputation intact.
Dolan’s successor, Alex Inglethorpe, had a much more complicated relationship with the club and fanbase and by the time he departed to take up a youth coaching role at Tottenham Hotspur, there was a sense of relief that the owners had been spared a difficult decision. Inglethorpe got his career off to the best possible start – drawing with Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup just a few months into the job – but also had an unusually thin skin for a football manager. Innocent questions from journalists could often elicit a terse response and as City collapsed in the second half of the 05/06 season, culminating in an awkward accusation of an unnamed player leaking information to opponents, City during his final days in charge did not give the impression of a settled, happy squad.
However, the club were on a sounder financial footing following the two Manchester United games, while the Grecians’ youth academy was starting to reap the rewards of the years of hard work put in by Eamonn Dolan and was pushing young players such as Dean Moxey, Liam Sercombe and Martin Rice into the first team. For the right manager, there were solid foundations from which to develop. And the club board decided that rather than proven promotion winner Quinn or club legend Taylor, Paul Tisdale was the man to build on these.
Just a PE teacher from Bath
By 2009, following a double promotion, Exeter fans were lauding Tisdale as the Messiah, but it’s fair to say that following his appointment in 2006 he was some way from achieving deity status. Despite his impressive record with Team Bath, he was regularly perceived as being naive, with no success or contacts to fall back on, while anybody after a Dolan-esque display of passion on the touchline or a pithy quote, a la Inglethorpe would have been disappointed. “He’s rather different to other managers I’ve worked with,” said one member of the coaching staff to me at one pre-season press conference.
For journalists, Tisdale was somewhat of a nightmare. He wasn’t difficult or rude – far from it. Once you’d established a relationship with him, he was personable, friendly, affable and often incredibly helpful. But in a world of soundbites and hyperbolic headlines, Tisdale’s long, deep, thoughtful answers hardly lent themselves to a 15 second quote. As a consequence, anybody who took the time to listen to an unedited interview would get a fascinating insight into the workings of a lower league manager. Anybody who just heard or read the edited version probably got the impression of a very passionless man. But as Tisdale himself has said, “I find it difficult to think if I’m shouting on the touchline.” It’s a mindset the likes of Alan Pardew and Neil Warnock might learn a lot from.
But for fans who expect football managers to speak or behave a certain way, Tisdale could be difficult to warm to. Unlike, say, Shaun Taylor, Tisdale was not going to get time and with his first bad run of form just a few months into the job the first murmurings against the former Southampton player began. Every club has an element that don’t take to the manager but with Tisdale this started early and never went away. Whenever things take a turn for the worse, it doesn’t take long for those who aren’t his greatest fan to get vocal.
Why Tisdale isn’t and probably has never been universally loved by the City faithful is one of those curiosities of football. Broadly, unless the manager gets off on the wrong foot with the fanbase or cannot win a game for love nor money (nor cheese, if you’re Felix Magath) then the majority of fans will give the incumbent time.
And yet perhaps timing is one of the reasons the terraces are a lot quicker to turn on Tisdale than his predecessors. Your average Exeter fan would probably say Paul Tisdale is a better manager than Eamonn Dolan, but would have more affection for Dolan than Tisdale. This may be because of “Eamo’s” passion for the club and nearly a decade in the setup before taking over – quite simply, he was one of us. There was also an acknowledgement that the club simply couldn’t afford anyone else. Inglethorpe, meanwhile, had barely finished flipping through the paint catalogue for his office before securing the goalless draw against Manchester United. Such achievements will always afford a manager time.
For Tisdale, his appointment came after three frustrating years in the Conference, where Exeter were still seen as one of the bigger teams. He was very much the unknown candidate in a world where football fans can often be overly conservative and are suspicious of change. And, quite simply, Exeter got off to a slow start under his stewardship. For all the clichéd portrayals of the modern fan that wants success and will demand a sacking after a couple of bad results, often it’s a culmination of a number of frustrations. Clubs who get into a cycle of sacking managers often have more underlying issues that aren’t being addressed, while the lower league fanbase subjected to regular upheaval and poor performances are less likely to show patience to a manager who doesn’t come in adhering to their need for better times. In this case, Exeter weren’t exactly in a negative cycle but had been perceived to be underachieving and had been forced to endure dour, negative football under the final months of Inglethorpe’s reign. In short, the natives were already restless before Tisdale took over.
Yet Tisdale, in the first few seasons in charge at least, confounded in proving the doubters wrong. First off, Exeter stormed their way into the play-offs for the first time since relegation to the Conference. The second season, they won them. The third season resulted in a second successive promotion to League One; the fourth in final day survival on one of the division’s smallest budgets. The fifth involved flirtations with the top six and their highest post-war finish.
Had Tisdale departed at this point, he would have rightly laid claim to be Exeter’s greatest ever manager and, in many respects, these achievements and the respect he earned from a large portion of the fanbase gave him enough goodwill in the bank to survive one of the toughest periods of his career. Exeter’s board could have justifiably sacked him at any point over the past two-and-a-half seasons, while Tisdale himself could have had a pick of jobs in the two-and-a-half seasons before that. Yet, both parties have opted to stay. At the time of writing it’s entirely possible Tisdale may have slowly built another young, impressive team, but it could have been very different.
Saints and sinners
Get one promotion and you’re likely to be on the radar of a selected number of clubs looking for instant success. Get two promotions back-to-back and a number of larger clubs start taking an interest. Exeter fans are used to speculation about Tisdale and on two occasions the fear that he may be about to jump ship have been close to being justified.
With the Grecians flying in League One, it seemed a matter of when not if Tisdale would be poached by a bigger club. Southampton were often seen as the main threat, and with good cause. Tisdale had begun his career on the south coast and never hid the fact that he held a certain level of affection for the club. For their part, the Saints’ decline had reached a new low with administration and relegation to the third tier. New owner Markus Liebherr needed a new figurehead for a new era at St Mary’s and Tisdale certainly fitted the bill but elected to turn them down.
Next came Swansea, another club on their uppers. When the Grecians and the Swans were battling the ignominy of relegation to non-league in 2003, few could have predicted that six years later the South Wales side were harbouring ambitions of promotion to the Premier League. Again, with two promotions and a reputation for playing the fluid, attractive, passing game beloved of fans at the Liberty, as well as a long, successful working relationship with a Supporters’ Trust, it was no surprise to see Tisdale’s name linked to the position.
Swansea certainly gave Tisdale plenty of consideration in 2009 before electing to appoint Paulo Sousa. When the Portuguese departed after one season, the Swans came back to St James Park. Although neither party publicly confirmed it, Tisdale certainly appears to have been offered the job and Exeter were preparing for a new era, before one side or the other had a change of heart, Tisdale returned to Devon and Brendan Rodgers headed to South Wales.
Tisdale has never commented publicly on his dalliances with other clubs (even recently when he was strongly linked with the Portsmouth vacancy) and it’s one of the more enigmatic aspects of a manager who is inscrutable on his ambitions at the best of times. His critics say his decision to stay at St James’ Park betrays a lack of ambition, while his supporters point to his loyalty and desire to continually build a legacy.
Tisdale himself has gone on record to say he nearly didn’t take the Exeter job as he was happy at Team Bath and he certainly seems to favour stability over the managerial merry-go-round. Certainly it’s understandable why he may have viewed the then-chaotic Southampton as too much of a risk with the unpredictable Nicola Cortese in charge. Swansea is a more confusing decision. While the South Wales club have gone through plenty of managers under the current regime, they’re hardly a sacking club and Tisdale would have undoubtedly been given time to settle, while his playing style would have suited the Swans’ philosophy. Ultimately, only the Swansea directors and Tisdale know the precise reason why he turned down the club.
Loyalty and fear
One unexpected consequence of Southampton and Swansea’s interest in Tisdale may have ironically saved his job at the lowest ebb of his time in the City dugout. In 2009 the Supporters’ Trust, keen to receive the maximum amount of compensation from their soon likely to-be departed manager, decided to award him a two year rolling contract. At the time it made perfect sense, but when Tisdale elected to turn down his suitors and stay at Exeter, suddenly he became very expensive to sack. And as the club slipped into financial difficulty in subsequent years, Tisdale’s position became even more secure.
Not that City’s board have ever given any indication that their manager’s job has been in danger. Following relegation from League One, they made the admirable decision to stay with the manager who got them back into the League in the first place. Although Tisdale had undertaken a somewhat uncharacteristic panic reinforcing of the squad on their way down (signing Rohan Ricketts is the last roll of the desperation dice), his achievements certainly merited another season. And the season after, despite blowing a seemingly secure play-off place, there seemed little question of replacing the manager.
The 13/14 season, however, severely damaged the patience of fans. While most supporters expected another assault at the play-offs, Tisdale was glumly predicting a battle against another relegation. Signings such as Sam Parkin, another atypical Tisdale player, and the appointment of the unpopular Danny Coles as captain hardly helped. While City came flying out of the traps at the start of the season, between late October and March they only won three games. When the collapse at the end of the previous season was taken into account, Tisdale had one of the worst records of any managers in the League. And yet still no comment from the board.
The struggles on the pitch also took a little of the gloss off Exeter’s long awaited trip to play in Brazil this summer and had a knock-on effect of disrupting preparations for this season, culminating in a dreadful opening month. Today, Tisdale’s standing among Exeter fans could hardly be lower, culminating in a petition in September requesting the long-serving manager step down. But with a round of blood-letting on the club board, it was unlikely those in charge wanted to have to replace their chairman, CEO and manager in the space of a few weeks.
Ironically, the launch of the petition has coincided with Exeter’s best run in the league for two years. Once the Grecians got August out of their system, there have only been two league losses since the start of the autumn, while Wycombe, Bury and Luton – all of whom topped the table when visiting St James Park – have failed to beat the Devonians. And then, despite an incredible run of form, City lost at non-league Warrington Town in front of the cameras in the FA Cup. While Exeter may have recovered their pride and fans have started to enjoy football again, it’s fair to say the relationship between the supporters and Tisdale is still a little frosty and may need some time to thaw.
Where, then, does Paul Tisdale go from here? Had he decided to move to Southampton or Swansea in 2009, he would rightly have been hailed as one of the club’s greatest ever managers. But had Portsmouth made a move to appoint him earlier this year, there was a sense that while he would have departed the Westcountry with best wishes, few would have pushed hard for the manager to stay. Indeed, had the board decided to dispense of his services at the end of the last campaign, it would have felt like a natural split. After eight years, there was no shame in concluding that perhaps the relationship had gone stale and it was best for both parties to try something new.
Yet the Exeter board has never given any indication that Tisdale’s position is in danger or that they would relish a change of approach in the dugout, although equally there was never a sense they were desperate to retain Tisdale when he interviewed for the Pompey position. Had he departed, it would have been more than the end of an era, given there’s always been a feeling that Tisdale is tied closely to the club’s identity, as a Trust-run entity that rejects some of the worst excesses of modern football, which includes regularly sacking managers.
Before Tisdale, the Grecians were just another lower league club, hard pushed to say what differentiated them from other provincial teams. Having a cravat-wearing and articulate manager not averse from moving from 4-4-2 to 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1 from match to match, playing attractive football (although fans in recent reasons may dispute this) undoubtedly gives City a unique selling point. You can’t really call a man who dresses in Ted Baker “punk football”, but it certainly subscribes to the definition in Jim Keoghan’s book. With Tisdale, City are different. They have a distinct identity. Without him, the new manager will have a certain amount of pressure to live up to – or significantly differentiate themselves – from Tisdale. Exeter could become just another club.
However, Tisdale’s job certainly appears to be as safe as it has ever been. Yes, there is the issue of the two year rolling contract, which makes him expensive to sack, but the board seem content with his performance. And more importantly, Tisdale’s eight years in charge has also given him time working with the academy. His record with developing young players such as George Friend, Dean Moxey and Jamie Mackie was already set, but the current crop of home-grown players in the first team is as good as any vintage to come through the ranks.
Midfielder Matt Grimes has already attracted admiring glances from bigger clubs and, along with 19-year-old goalkeeper Christy Pym, is now a regular in the England U20 setup. Defender Jordan Moore-Taylor is a regular in the backline while Tom Nichols, Connor Riley-Lowe, Ollie Watkins, Aaron Dawson and Matt Jay are all on the fringes of the starting 11. Add in relative veterans Scot Bennett and Liam Sercombe and you have a strong Westcountry spine running throughout the squad. And to give Tisdale his credit, this is a group he’s nurtured and they already look better than many of the journeymen who have passed through Devon in recent years.
Their initial success this season is another positive mark for the manager. Should he build another strong side and win promotion, then it would go a long way to restoring his reputation.
However, it’s a fine line between success and failure and with no rich backers to cover any shortfall, Exeter are increasingly reliant on gate receipts and these have dipped from over 5,800 in League One in 2009 to occasionally below 3,000 this season. Clearly Exeter’s dreadful home form over the past two years has played a part in this and no amount of marketing and promotions can entice crowds towards a team that keeps losing. No matter how highly regarded the manager is in the boardroom, if he loses the support of fans on the terraces then Exeter are in trouble.
Those in charge at Exeter have done well to hold their nerve and support Tisdale at times when other owners would have shown no hesitation in handing out a P45. Whether that loyalty has become blind faith is another question though. Results this season have so far tended to suggest the decision to retain him was a good one.
But would Exeter have fared any better had they decided to dispense with Tisdale’s services and go back to chopping and changing managers? It’s hard to say. Certainly, the Trust could ill afford any financial payout to sacked bosses, which would have in turn put pressure on the playing budget. The club also seems to favour young coaches with an interest in youth work and who are willing to work with Director of Football Steve Perryman, which rules out a significant number of the usual suspects. Previously obvious candidates to take over, such as recently-sacked Tranmere boss Rob Edwards and Bristol Rovers coach Marcus Stewart have hardly covered themselves in glory since departing St James’ Park. And any young, untested coach comes with an element of risk. So far Exeter have been relatively lucky insofar as none of their appointments have taken the club backwards but it’s no guarantee that a new man won’t struggle.
Tisdale himself appears to enjoy life at Exeter and has found a club that has completely signed onto his long-term project and providing results, especially at home, continue to improve, there’s no reason to suggest this partnership won’t continue for many more years to come. Tisdale and Exeter will undoubtedly part one day, but it would take quite a special offer to tempt him away from St James Park. It may not be an offer from within football. Tisdale is close friends with Ray Kelvin, founder of Ted Baker and as one City fan once said to me: “It would be no surprise if one day Paul Tisdale decides he’d much prefer life as a fashion consultant than a football manager.”
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