Ok, I give up. I’ve written and rewritten the first few paragraphs of this piece more times that I’d care to count and have utterly failed to keep any balance of neutrality regarding the Conference playoff final at the weekend. The situation also isn’t helped by the fact the game is largely a blur to me, and I’d need to sit down and watch the match again if any sensible analysis is to be achieved.
So, with the greatest of respect to readers of this site, bollocks to intelligent non-partisan punditry in favour of a brief but personal journey through five seasons of non-league football.
If you hadn’t already guessed, or haven’t already read my profile, at the risk of stating the obvious, I’m a long suffering Exeter City supporter, who saw his team relegated out of the league in 2003 and, for a brief period, nearly saw the club collapse completely. During that time I’ve visited towns and villages I didn’t even know existed, watched some of the most turgid football I’d cared to remember, yet also some of the most exhilarating matches that rival the Premiership, La Liga or Serie A for sheer entertainment, and experienced a few periods of utter elation. And while I’m glad to be back in the league, I’ll be sorry in many ways to bid goodbye to the non-league.
Adjusting to life at a new level
After being relegated on the final day of the 2002/03 season, despite beating Southend in our last game, it really did feel like the end. Sure, Exeter had spent the last few seasons bobbing around the lower reaches of the bottom rung of the league – and for a season to be considered successful, it involved being Plymouth, Torquay and not getting relegated – but relegation was hard to take, especially as City were the first team to drop out of the league under the new two up, two down system.
But by the time we opened the new season at home to Halifax, there was a much more optimistic feel. The old chairman and vice-chairman, John Russell and Mike Lewis, were gone (after being arrested, and later convicted, of fraud) and the Supporters’ Trust had taken over. While we still had significant debts, the people at the helm cared about the club and were moving the club in the right direction and even though our first Conference game ended in a draw, after cult hero Steve Flack had put us in front with a trademark header, the fact we’d made it to the start of the season was a cause for celebration in itself.
Our early results were somewhat indifferent but I can still remember the day I felt we’d truly arrived and made our mark on non-league: Forest Green in mid-September. I was a student in Cardiff at the time and knew this was one of the few games that was within sensible traveling distance and, more importantly, affordable. Then I looked where Forest Green was – a village called Nailsworth that was only accessible via a bus ride or taxi from Stroud in Gloucestershire. Traveling had never been this problematic before.
Redemption came in the form of Gail, a city fan I’d got to know through fans website Exeweb. On an MSN chat I lamented my travel situation. A few hours later, Gail had sorted out a lift from Bristol Parkway with her ex-husband and brother. This was really the start of giving and receiving lifts from random people, united by our love of Exeter City.
Nailsworth itself is a picturesque village with a fantastic pub, and that day it was a classic Indian Summer with the sun beating down, and sitting with a pint of cider in the beer garden, life seemed perfect. It was to get better. Despite having our captain, Glenn Cronin, sent off, we won the game 5-2 with a brace from Brazilian defender Santos Gaia and star striker Sean Devine, on his first start since injury. The result had City fans rushing to check the record books, as nobody could remember the last time we scored five in a game.
That day summed up the two sides of non-league. On one hand, we were playing a village team in the middle of the Cotswolds that wasn’t even accessible by train. On the other hand, we were now winning more games than losing them and for the first time in a long while, Exeter could think about promotion rather than relegation. In the scheme of things, we were now a big club at the level we were playing at and it felt good. Despite having less than impressive subsequent results at Forest Green, that day – the friendly opposition supporters, the picturesque setting, the style of football – will stay with me and even now we’ve been promoted, I fancy another trip there one day.
There for the long haul
Despite several other impressive victories and comebacks – including a fantastic two-all draw at Shrewsbury – the season ultimately ended in slight disappointment. We needed the teams above us, including the Shrews, to slip up on the last day of the season and although City beat Accrington it wasn’t enough to force their way into the playoffs and we missed out by a point. Nonetheless, there was a general consensus among the fans that it had been a good season. We’d got back to winning ways, the Trust was moving the club forward in the right direction and a season in the Conference had felt like a breath of fresh air, necessary to clear away the cobwebs of the past. The next season, it was agreed, would be our year.
Except it didn’t quite work out like that and season two of Conference football was a reality check. The season got off to a slow start and come mid-Autumn, we were 13th – the lowest we’d ever been. Then manager Eamonn Dolan left to head up Reading’s youth academy and the on-the-pitch future seemed very uncertain. We weren’t playing well, the Trust was struggling to adjust from club saviours to club owners, and there were several murmurings of discontent. Yes, we were one of the bigger clubs in the Conference (and I’ve always maintained you’re only as good – or as big – as your league position) but it was clear the novelty was wearing off as supporters realised we were going to be in for the long haul.
Then came one of the defining moments in Exeter’s history – a series of moments that turned the club around and turned heads the world over.
Alex Inglethorpe had just been appointed as manager and one of his first tasks was to plot victory against Doncaster in the second round of the FA Cup, something he achieved thanks to a Steve Flack strike followed by an amazing 45-yard goal from local teenager Dean Moxey. That in itself was enough to make it a good weekend but what followed next was beyond anybody’s expectations. The next day, Tony Cascarino pulled out Manchester United’s ball before announcing they would play ‘Number 64 – Exeter City’. My parents had to scrape me off the ceiling, while the neighbours must have worried there was a murder in progress, such was a noise I was making.
The match itself has gone down in FA Cup folklore. Alex Ferguson had fielded a weakened team that nonetheless should have been capable of beating a non-league side. Instead the whole Exeter team turned in the performance of their lives and came away from Old Trafford with a scoreless draw. For a couple of weeks, the whole of Exeter went football crazy – and come the day of the game the local Odeon opened its doors to show the game on the big screen. Despite going down 2-nil, Exeter did themselves proud and never gave up. I nearly found myself spending the night in Bristol after getting another random lift back and making the last train back to Cardiff from Bristol Parkway by a matter of minutes.
Of course that game also had a major impact on our debts (the club had entered into a CVA the year before) and for the first time the club was in a position where money wasn’t such a worry (even if part of the debt still remains today). What was more, Inglethorpe had hauled the club around and we went into the last day of the season away to Carlisle needing teams above us to slip up. Again, we won, but again we missed out by a point. But with the Manchester United money and a bright young manager behind us, hope for the next season was sky-high.
That season started brightly, with Inglethorpe’s Exeter sitting at the top of the table for much of the first half of the season, with win after win. While City weren’t pulling away, they were building a commanding presence. But one thing struck me early on in this run, at home to Kidderminster. We managed to win without playing particularly well, and from reports from subsequent games it seemed that continued to be the case.
Like any run, City’s spell at the top had to come to and end and most fans can point to the exact game that the season started to unravel: Canvey Island at home in mid-November. The rain had been falling heavily for several days prior to the game and on that Saturday the pitch was a quagmire. It was a game that should have been called off but the ref let it go ahead, Exeter got stuck in the mud and Canvey came away wth a two-nil victory. The pitch never seemed to recover from this and quite what it did to the player’s mental states, I’m not quite sure but the once unbeatable City started to stutter.
Due to a lack of funds and an intensive course in Cardiff, I wasn’t able to get to anywhere near the number of games I’d have liked to, and didn’t make a single away game all season In this respect I was grateful to Sky for televising the odd Conference game. Just after the turn of the year, I rounded up all football supporting friends for 2nd place Exeter v table toppers Accrington live on TV It wasn’t easy – many of them took some convincing to watch non-league football while to ensure I could get to watch the game, I had to ring round three pubs before I found one willing to show it. I wish I hadn’t bothered.
Accrington started the game as they meant to go on with two bone-crunching tackles and a very physical brand of hoofball. New signings Matt Gill and Wayne Carlisle must have wondered what they’d let themselves in for. By the end of the 3-1 defeat, most of the group were chatting amongst themselves while a random local took it upon himself to yell how shit Exeter were at regular intervals. Sadly we were so bad, I had no comeback and trudged away from the pub wondering not if we could keep up the challenge for the title but if we could make the playoffs.
My fears were well founded as the team seemed to be unable to win a game for love nor money and we collapsed spectacularly, finishing way off the playoffs, making me thankful I’d not wasted endless amounts of time and money watching Exeter lose at the arse end of nowhere. In supporting terms, this was about as low as it got.
Enter the Messiah, even if people didn’t know it.
That summer Inglethorpe departed to head up Spurs’ youth team and the fans, frustrated and impatient after three years of underachievement, demanded either a name or somebody with a proven track record to hoist the Grecians back to the football league. What they got was Paul Tisdale, former coach of student side Team Bath.
Tisdale’s record with Team Bath was impressive, with three promotions under his belt, but this counted for little to a vocal section of fans. Tisdale had beaten off Exeter’s 4th division-winning championship captain, Shaun Taylor, and Jimmy Quinn, who’d taken Shrewsbury out of the Conference at the first time of asking.
It perhaps didn’t help that Tisdale wasn’t as outwardly passionate as Eamonn Dolan, who made Martin O’Neill look restrained, and didn’t have the cocksure arrogance of Inglethorpe in interviews. For the group of fans that demanded passion and fighting talk, Tisdale’s carefully considered answers and cerebral style of management didn’t go down well.
Nonetheless, with several decent signings, including former Yeovil and Hereford hitman Adam Stansfield, and experienced centre-half Rob Edwards, the team looked capable of challenging at the top and was playing a much more attractive brand of football to boot.
But City took a little while to get going and, despite Tisdale only getting the job a few weeks before the start of the season, by the start of September every loss or disappointing draw was followed by a number of supporters calling for his dismissal. On one hand levels of expectations at the club were greater than they’d ever been. On the other hand the cautious financial nature of the club’s directors and Tisdale’s slow start were drawing impatience. It was a tightly balanced time.
Again, my job had changed and I found myself back in Exeter, reporting on CIty: a dream job if ever there was one. Over the course of weekly chats with Tisdale I grew more impressed with his intelligent, articulate style. I’d freelanced for the radio station several years before and the morale in the camp seemed as good as it had ever been, if not better. I hadn’t been expecting miracles when he took over, but the more I got the know Paul Tisdale, the more I was convinced he was the right man for the job, and was building a set of very solid foundations.
There were several frustration results that season, not least a home loss to struggling Stafford Rangers, but on the pitch City were slowly moving in the right direction and stayed in touch with the playoffs without actually finding a way there. Three games, for me changed things that season, two against eventual champions Dagenham. At the home fixture I was unusually sat in the Doble stand, as opposed to standing on the terracing behind the goal. Exeter were taking a bit to get going and for the first time I could hear a co-ordinated ‘Tisdale Out’ chant from a small section of the crowd. Then at half time, winger Wayne Carlisle was brought on for his first start of the season and he inspired the team to an impressive three-two victory.
Just after Christmas nearby Weymouth imploded and we quickly snatched three of their players – Richard Logan, Lee Elam, and Steve Tully. The Terras had beaten us on Boxing Day at their place but in the corresponding fixture a few weeks later Elam got a hat-trick on his debut and we were back in business.
Weirdly for the next fixture, Dagenham away, Elam was relegated to the bench. I’d travelled up by train rather than car and was looking forward to a hard-fought victory. Instead we got hammered 4-1. At the tube station I was stood next to the club’s mascot, Chris aka Grecian The Lion, who was near tears and kept repeating “We’re not good enough” into his phone. The playoffs seemed a long way away.
But that match seemed to have a galvanizing effect on the players and as we reached the business end of the season the wins mounted up and suddenly we were sitting in the playoffs. But, in true Exeter fashion, it was never done easily. Goalkeeper Paul Jones got sent off at Aldershot and we lost the fixture 3-2, and a few games later we went into the final day of the season in 5th but needing a win against Southport to secure a playoff place. At one point, after going behind, we were out of the picture but in the end both our nearest rivals lost and the resulting Exeter victory was the icing on the cake.
In the playoffs Exeter had Oxford, who’d been that season’s ‘big’ team. It was their first year in the Conference and they’d looked like running away with it until coming unstuck midway through the season. Nonetheless they were clear favourites and after a narrow one-nil win at St James’, they went into the second leg confident of a trip to Wembley. What followed at the Kassam was one of the greatest nights of my Exeter City supporting career and one of the best performances ever put in by a City team. Matt Gill was peerless in the centre of the park, Stansfield ran himself into the ground, and Edwards was solid as ever at the back.
There’s nothing like a penalty shoot-out to bring out the tension in a tie and with the scores level at two-all after extra time, the game was settled from the spot. But there were nerves and missed penalties on both sides as regular takers saw their shots saved or missed. As we went into sudden death, right-back Tully was the man who stepped up and emphatically sealed our first Wembley appearance. Interviewing Tully afterwards was nearly impossible as he kept swearing, but it was understandable. He’d just taken part in one of the greatest games of his life.
But Wembley simply wasn’t to be. Despite taking the lead through a Lee Phillips goal, Morecambe fought back and the bus journey back to Exeter was one of the most depressing two hours of my life. To any Cambridge fans reading this – while I’m still ecstatic about going up, I can empathise with your pain. The only worse thing than not getting to Wembley is losing at Wembley. It’s a very unpleasant experience.
Expectations and achievements
At the start of this season expectations were higher than ever, not least because Torquay were now in the Conference and had pinched Exeter’s assistant manager Paul Buckle to be their boss and he in turn had signed three of our players. That, combined with a modest summer in the transfer market from Tisdale, did not go down well with the City faithful and once again their were murmurings.
But the season couldn’t have got off to a better start, with a 4-1 victory away at Altrincham on a glorious summer’s day. A mini-unbeaten run followed before City hit a sticky patch with a run of draws. Me moving to London in the middle of this was entirely coincidental.
But this meant I was now getting to more away games than ever before, and it opened my eyes as to why we needed to get out of the league. Northfleet, Grays, Stevenage, Woking and Crawley don’t make many tourist guide books and sometimes the football was as grim as the surrounding area. What seemed like an amusing novelty four years ago was starting to become a way of life, and while the prospect of Luton, Grimsby and Bury were no greater tourist destinations, and the passions of non-league supporters – and new grounds, attractive or otherwise – was still enjoyable, being in the Conference was becoming more grating. We were soon to cross the threshold of ex-League club and firmly into non-league team.
As with last season, Exeter were still in touch with the playoffs at Christmas, which included a 4-3 victory over Torquay on Boxing Day, and Tisdale had the thin squad playing the correct way. But the departure of star striker Jamie Mackie to Plymouth in January, combined with no activity on the transfer front, had some people questioning if the club was going to be able to repeat a trip to Wembley.
But slowly, and surely, Tisdale and the players clawed back at the playoff gap and by the last game of the season, against fellow playoff hopefuls Burton Albion, City were secure in the top five. Tisdale was still calmness personified in the end of season run-in and yet again proved what a masterstroke it was appointing him.
A semi against Torquay beckoned and despite being 3-1 down on aggregate with twenty minutes to play, Exeter turned it around to head to Wembley. The rest is history, but for me involved one hell of a hangover the morning after.
A message for Mansfield and Wrexham fans
So, while Exeter bid farewell to the non-league pyramid, part of me is still going to remain there. It’s a weird bug, but there’s something strangely enjoyable about the away days to the arse end of nowhere, even if they are places you’d never ordinarily chose to visit. And for the teams heading down from the league, it isn’t as bad as you think.
For a start, it gives your side the chance to win games – something they won’t have ben used to. It’s also a chance to get your affairs in order and experience a brand of football that is a million miles away from the Premiership but closer to the original spirit of the game.
Plus, there are gems to be discovered. Altrincham away is one of the nicest trips of the season, and has some of the friendliest fans. Kidderminster’s catering is top class, while Histon is a strange place to have a football club, but a cosy and attractive one nonetheless, even if it is the most non-league of all the grounds I’ve visited. Meanwhile, Cambridge and Oxford are two familiar names from league days and there’s a lot worse places to be over a weekend than the seaside towns of Torquay and Weymouth.
But don’t expect any god-given right to return to the league, or beat the smaller teams, just because you’ve never heard of them. Remember, your club is in the Conference for a season. And also remember, there are only two promotion spots and with many clubs turning professional, it’s a hard league to get out of. Just ask Hereford or Oxford. Similarly, during your stay in non-league, there’ll be plenty of clubs who implode after stretching that little bit beyond their means in search of league football. Try not to become one of them.
But above all, enjoy it. A trip to Northwich or Lewes may not top everybody’s idea of a good time, but each ground has its own charm, plus there’s a certain sense of pride when you tell other football supporters you were at Ebbsfleet last week.
Seriously, it’s not all that bad.
Although nothing quite beats the feeling of returning to where you belong. Exeter City: League Two. It still sounds good to me.
[Normal service about financial meltdowns, non-league obscurities and previews between two teams you’ve never heard of will resume next week. In the meantime, I’m off to attempt to flush the remaining alcohol out of my body].