Football Cities: Exeter

Posted by on Nov 16, 2015 in Football Cities | 4 Comments
Football Cities: Exeter
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Jolan Martinez

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.

Gary Andrews
Gary, an Exeter City fan, has a strange and some may say masochistic love of football and writes on this subject for Soccerlens . He also turns up in When Saturday Comes from time to time.


  1. Paul
    November 16, 2015

    Great and highly accurate view of my University city’s club, Gary.

    Having experienced university there in the mid-90’s, I’d say there’s an impact from that potential supporter base too?

    If I had to stereotype Exeter students (I should add I wouldn’t say I was typically stereotypical!) then you can’t ignore the fact it’s an old-fashioned red-brink uni and a good proportion of the students nearly/could have got into Oxford/Cambridge.

    Follow that logic through and you find that a further good proportion of those students are public school or private school-educated (there seemed to be great pride when I was there at being seen as a pink, Ralph Lauren shirt-wearing ‘Sloane’), where the sport of prevalence is of course, rugby union.

    I should point out, this was all in the days before the Chiefs were widely known beyond their own four walls.

    Rugby was always THE sport for the University focus, as hard as others like hockey, lacrosse (see the theme here?!) and even football tried to oust it from the focus.

    Whilst I was there working for the University newspaper, I conducted and wrote up an exclusive three-part interview with then City manager Noel Blake which gained me some pleasant comments, but it was very much second nature to that week’s match report from the Second XV in most people’s minds.

    Therefore even being a big university town, you don’t even get the halo effect you might hope for from students having some spare time on a weekend, and those that stay around the area after graduating (many don’t, because of the lure of the well-paid jobs in London) have no more affinity to the football club than they did when they arrived a a fresh-faced fresher.

  2. Rob Langham
    November 17, 2015

    Much of this also applies to the city in which I live, Oxford. The constituency of fans for the football club traditionally comes from Headington (where the old Manor Ground was located) and Cowley/Blackbird Leys to which the new one is close. The latter in particular is a working class area which grew up around the automobile industry and it contained an disproportionate number of Welsh incomers. To this day, it’s solidly working class and about as far away from the dreaming spires in spirit as you would hope for.

    But that’s not to throw in the towel. Oxford United themselves can blame an indifferent city but they need to do more to attract fans from the student body and other newcomers. If it were £15 to get into the Kassam, rather than £20, I would certainly be more tempted to attend regularly while there needs to be more around town to push the club – details of special deals, adverts for games etc – in the area that divides Cowley proper from the city, the multicultural and vibrant Cowley Road should be an area that United should be targeting for more support.

  3. Lloyd
    November 17, 2015

    Decent post, Gary.

    That said, the dockyard’s grip on Plymouth has been loosening for years and according to the latest available HESA statistics, Plymouth University is now in the top 20 UK universities by enrolment whereas Exeter in down in 44th place (plus Plymouth also has a second HE institution in the University of St Mark & St John).

    All that said, while classifying Exeter as a university / professional city and Plymouth as one of blue-collars is a tad out-dated, I can see what you’re getting at and I do think these things have a bearing on the comparative popularity of the sport and its premier teams across both cities.

    In any case, I wonder if plugging into local student populations for support is a bit of a non-starter. Like you say, students bring their own allegiances and I just don’t think that league clubs like Argyle and Exeter have enough about them to pull in student football fans. Some top flight clubs which have seats to flog (e.g. Villa, Sunderland) might be able to appeal to students, as might non-league clubs, who can appeal to the groundhoppers. But League Two games at St James and Home Parks? I just can’t see it.

  4. Lanterne Rouge
    November 18, 2015

    The exception to the students and football non-equation might be Partick Thistle who are accused by Celtic and Rangers fans of having a supporter base made up almost entirely of the breed.


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