Sandwiched between the FA Cup and the Champions League this Sunday comes a game that will be just as close, hard-fought and unpredictable when two ex-league clubs fight to regain what they consider to be their rightful league places in the Blue Square Premier playoff final.
Six years ago Cambridge United v Exeter City would have been a league game but since then these two teams and both tumbled into the Conference, both with massive financial problems at the time. Since then both teams have picked themselves up and over a hard-fought campaign both have proven themselves worthy of a shot at Wembley glory.
The similarities and the differences
Both clubs have managers who’ve been in this position before. Paul Tisdale took Exeter to the final last season, where the lost Morecambe. Jimmy Quinn went one better with Shrewsbury in 2004 when he took then back to the league at the first time of asking. For both managers, Sunday will not be a trip into the unknown for either of them.
Neither team found life in the Conference initially easy. Exeter missed out on the playoffs by a point twice in a row in their first seasons in the non-league and collapsed spectacularly the year after, having spent much of the first half of the season at the top of the table. But Paul Tisdale has gradually moulded a squad in his own image – one that plays attractive, thoughtful football – and, after a slow start to this season, City started to climb up the table and finished the season as one of the form teams.
Cambridge had an even more indifferent start to their life in the Conference after they were relegated out of the league in 2005, and were firmly entrenched in mid-table while the club tried to get their affairs in order off the pitch. But those seasons were necessary to rebuild and build a squad capable of challenging for promotion.
That has largely come down to their manager, Jimmy Quinn, who was appointed last season following Rob Newman’s sacking after a 4-0 defeat to, you guessed it, Exeter City. The connection doesn’t stop there – Quinn had been interviewed for the Exeter job after Alex Inglethorpe’s departure but lost out on the hotseat to Tisdale. The U’s had a difficult start under Quinn, including a 5-0 loss to local rivals Histon in the FA Trophy but the Northern Irishman guided Cambridge to safety and this season his disciplined, tough-tackling side have exceeded expectations and briefly flirted with the idea of overtaking Aldershot. Nevertheless, their second place finish exceeded expectations.
It could have been a very different final, though, especially for Exeter. Three-one down on aggregate to local rivals Torquay with just twenty minutes to go, Tisdale’s team completed a remarkable turnaround by scoring 4 before the final whistle, three of them coming from Tisdale’s three substitutes. But perhaps that score shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Exeter have been the highest-scoring team this season and 3 or more goals haven’t been uncommon at St. James Park and on the road. In Richard Logan and Adam Stansfield they posses strength, pace and poaching ability.
Cambridge too were ready to lick their wounds midway through their first leg against Burton but a couple of generous referring decisions saw they pull back to two-all before Robert Wolleaston’s fluke goal sent them to Wembley. But to describe the U’s as lucky would be doing them a disservice. Over the two legs they were the better side and over the season, they boast the meanest defence in non-league football. Danny Potter is an outstanding keeper at this level and in Accrington loanee Lee McEvilly, Lee Boylan and Magno Viera Cambridge have plenty of goals in them.
Unlike last season, when Exeter went into the final as slight favourites, it’s almost impossible to predict which way the game will go. Exeter can’t be discounted even if they’re losing, while Cambridge could out-play and out-muscle the best of them on their day. This one could go down to penalties