The Coming of Exeter City
In his first contribution to the two unfortunates, Gary Andrews, Soccerlens writer and co-host of that particularly slick podcast on twofootedtackle.com, imparts the joy of being an Exeter fan these days.
When Huddersfield’s local paper recently looked ahead to potential finalists in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final, they noted the winners from the Southern section could either be Brentford or “League 1 strugglers Exeter City.” But with the Grecians sitting comfortably in mid-table, the writer isn’t the first and won’t be the last journalist to underestimate Exeter, and that suits the Devon club quite nicely.
It would be a mistake to view City as a team of underdogs. A team that perhaps is punching above its weight due to budget and status, but there’s nothing plucky about this squad, which has just about the right blend of talent, youth and experience. While many bookies and media outlets had Exeter as favourites for relegation back to League 2 this season, many City fans looked at the squad and concluded that anything less than a comfortable mid-table finish of around 12th would be a bad season. Indeed, many would welcome a quiet end to the season. It’s been quite a while since Exeter weren’t involved in a promotion or relegation scrap on the final day.
The Grecians’ rise in recent seasons has been well-documented. The first club to be relegated to the Conference under the new two-up two-down rule in 2003, Exeter spent five seasons before gaining promotion in 2008’s play-off final against Cambridge United, before surprising everybody to finish as runners-up to Brentford at the top of League 2 the next season to earn a second successive promotion and, even more impressively, staying up on the final day of last season. This season Paul Tisdale looks set to continue his record of finishing higher than the previous season’s position.
It’s impossible to discuss Exeter City without getting drawn into a study of Tisdale. Every fan likes to claim their manager is different but in Tisdale’s case, he really is one of a kind. Interviewing the former Team Bath head coach is always an enlightening experience, although frustrating for anybody wanting a quick soundbite – his answers are always detailed and thoughtful and, as the man himself has said, don’t expect hysterics on the touchline as he “finds it difficult to concentrate while shouting and screaming”. He’s turned down job offers from Southampton and Swansea and Newcastle were said to have considered him before plumping for Alan Pardew. There’s no guarantee Tisdale would have taken it though.
What’s most impressive about Exeter’s rise is that Tisdale has remained loyal to a core group of players from the Grecians’ non-league days. Goalkeeper Paul Jones may have lost his spot to Artur Krysiak, but at 24 he’s a veteran of the City team. Captain and towering centre-half Matt Taylor was recruited from Team Bath, cult striker Richard Logan and right-back Steve Tully were poached from Weymouth and have adapted seamlessly to the higher divisions, while Liam Sercombe came through the youth academy and Ryan Harley was picked up from Western-Super-Mare.
Indeed, although Exeter are more of a team than one that relies on star players, Harley has been an essential performer, coming up with late, vital goals and attracting rave reviews. Quite often, the midfielder appears to be playing in a different game to others, such is his ability to find space and time on the ball, and hit a killer pass or a 25-yard screamer. Harley may have worked on his tracking back, but he still remains a languid, creative player who can dictate the rhythm and tempo of the game. There’s no doubt he could play at a higher level.
As City have moved up the league, they’ve steadily been able to attract a a decent level of player and with a reputation for not standing in the way of transfers, the Westcountry has become an ideal place for bigger names to revive their career. Richard Duffy has been outstanding in defence, Jamie Cureton has rolled back the years this season, Daniel Nardiello is slowly putting his injury problems behind him while former Arsenal youngster James Dunne has been the perfect foil for Harley in the middle of the park. Of the squad, only Paul Jones and defender Troy Archibald-Henville have commanded fees.
This is easily one of the best squads Exeter fans have seen in recent memory and it seems inevitable that bigger clubs will swoop for some of their prize assets. Sercombe has been linked with Fulham and Harley with a number of Championship sides, while it seems improbable that Tisdale won’t move on at some point, when he feels ready.
But at the same time, Exeter may not have a better chance to make a push for promotion. Yes, promotion. The squad is talented, although perhaps lacking depth at centre-half, and League 1 is weaker than last season. The top of the table is still tight and although the bigger teams like Brighton, Southampton and Charlton are currently filling these spaces, there is room for a team to slip in under the radar. Currently Bournemouth are doing a sterling job but the final play-off spot is anyones. Exeter may be a very unlikely contender – and even their own fans find the idea unlikely, but they said the same about automatic promotion from League 2. Write off a Paul Tisdale team at your peril.