I’m not sure if its a sense of pride or non-league obsessive shame that should accompany my accomplishment of being one of a few hardy souls to watch Exeter City away and home against Histon this season. Nonetheless, the terraces at St. James’ Park were where I found myself watching my last live game of 2007, reflecting back on the past six months and looking ahead to the new year .
Whipping past events up to July (roughly summed up as: started to win games, made play-offs, beat Oxford in THE BEST GAME EVER and then lost at Wembley and I sulked the whole bus journey home), pre-season was a cause for optimism. An ambitious 3-4-3 formation had seen City outplay Championship opposition at times, and look like a solid, threatening unit. New central defender Matt Taylor was looking the part, while striker Adam Stansfield was terrorising defences. With Matt Gill having an outstanding end to the season, it looked as if we had a great spine and a great chance.
The Wembley hangover looked like it might not last long, and a 4-1 rout of Altrincham at Moss Lane on the first game of the season, despite having a central midfield with a combined age of 36 who’d barely met two seconds before kick-off, seemed to confirm this.
The unbeaten run continued through August but the warning signs were there first when Exeter failed to break down 10-men Weymouth at the park, in a game where flicking jelly beans around the press box was a more entertaining option. One of the low points of the season followed: a 4-0 drubbing away at Kidderminster. Still, the catering at Aggborough is fantastic, as was a the quaint pub in an old railway station office that hosted fans before and after the game. I like to dwell on the positives, and those were two high points of the day. A football match also took place.
Despite a thoroughly entertaining comeback to snatch a point in the dying seconds at Oxford, who were making a habit of throwing away leads against the Grecians, the period that followed can be best described as The Draws O’Doom where, victory against Farsley Celtic notwithstanding, it seemed that City were doing everything possible to come away with one point instead of 3 (or even zero). Even the more optimistically-inclined fan, such as myself, was losing hair, due to large clumps being torn out in frustration.
The turning point was a dour ground-out victory against Grays, followed by a convincing 4-2 win against Salisbury where new found yellow-booted hero Richard Logan notched a hat-trick to take him into double figures – an impressive achievement for a player who many, including myself, had initially dismissed as lazy and average when he arrived the previous season. Suddenly ‘Logie’ was scoring for fun and idiotic journalists, such as myself, were rewriting our sighs of despair into platitiude upon platitude.
Then followed a depressing, dour goalless draw in front of the Setanta cameras at Northwich were Logan and the rest of the team seemed more interested in shooting off to have a look at the nearby salt museum. This game swiftly overtook Kidderminster as the most depressing performance of the season – at least we did occasionally threaten the Harriers’ goal.
At this point I relocated to London, and missed all games (including burying a hoodoo by convincingly winning against Ebbsfleet away in the FA Cup qualifers, and a 4-1 home capitulation to Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion, to give the Brewers their full title) until the 2-all draw at the distinctly unglassy Glassworld Stadium in Histon, which modelled its design on Oxford United’s ‘fence end’, which is exactly as you’d imagine it. City’s inability to defend set pieces cost them dear, and looking past the non-existent crowd, over the fences into pretty Cambridgeshire fields made you realise how far Exeter had slipped. I’d mostly enjoyed the non-league up to this point. Now, escaping and never playing in such places again seemed like an urgent priority.
Following Histon came a series of cup matches, including a competition, the Setanta Shield, that was so pointless that the BBC don’t list it on the results pages and Setanta couldn’t be bothered to mention it on their news channel despite sponsoring the thing. (We lost. To Ebbsfleet. In case you were wondering).
The, the highlight of the season. An end-to-end, edge-of-your seats, squeaky-bum game against local rivals Torquay on Boxing Day that ended in a 4-3 victory to City. It had everything – controversy, a red card and plenty of great goals. Plus, with our old assistant manager in charge of the Gulls, plus a number of summer defectors from St. James’ Park in the team, victory tasted all the sweeter.
Which brings me back to the uninspiring home victory over Histon in freezing conditions that had be tempted to disappear to the local coffee shop in search of warmth, hot beverages, and entertainment (hey, Starbucks plays piped music. That would have been more fun than 90% of the game) but instead saw me meditating on the future into theNew Year.
At this time last year Exeter were in a similar position – just outside the playoffs with somewhat inconsistent form. Three good purchases later and a great end-of-season run and we were within 90 minutes of regaining football league status. Sitting just two points off the playoffs going into 2008, the same could happen again. Of the teams above Exeter, few are good or consistent enough, bar Aldershot (although they lost to Grays today) and, much as it pains me to say it, Torquay to consider themselves safe in the top five .
But while last season the only January departure was the very talented-but-replicable Danny Woodards at right-back, there’s a very real fear that next month Exeter will lose the very talented and currently irreplaceable Jamie Mackie.
Last season the youngster was very much a rough diamond. Defenders were terrified of his pace, he’d chase lost causes all afternoon. Hell, if manager Paul Tisdale told him to run into a brick wall, he’d do it not once, but all afternoon. The two things he lacked were decision making and finishing.
This season he’s added both and looks lethal – the most complete striker I’ve seen at the Park in a long time, and with 11 goals in as many games, he almost singlehandedly won the Histon match while Torquay will be hoping he’s gone to pastures new by New Year’s Day judging by how he terrorised their defence. Crewe and both Bristol clubs are rumoured to be interested, although with a couple of other teams. If he stays, Mackie could be the man to fire Exeter to promotion but, with his contract expiring in the summer, it’s more likely to be a question of when and how much. I’m not optimistic, much as I’d love him to still be an Exeter player in February.
Other potential players rumoured to be departing in January, or at least attracting interest from other clubs, include not-at-all-lazy-but-never-played second top scorer striker Ricard Logan, who is also out of contract in the summer. Right-back Steve Tully, Woodards’s replacement last January, has been rumoured to be on the move so many times since October, its a wonder the removal man haven’t pitched up base outside his house, while mercurial winger Lee Elam and young keeper Paul Jones have also decided the rumour mill clearly hasn’t got enough players pushing it round and have also leaped, or been thrown depending where you read, to keep the mill churning.
And replacements? Well, Logan, Elam, and Tully all arrived last January after Weymouth suddenly realised running up debts of over £1m wasn’t a sensible way to run a non-league club and stuck their entire first team up for sale, and all three played their part in taking the club to Wembley.
This year the only rumour is ex-Grecian Jamie Mudge, who currently plies his trade with Dawlish Town. Mudge left the club as a youngster after complaining of bullying, before then-Exeter manager Eamonn Dolan attempted to bring the prodigal son back home only for then-club Tiverton Town to demand a transfer fee. Mudge apparently has offers elsewhere but wants to stay in Devon, which probably means he’ll be turning out for Willand Rangers anytime in the near future.
Other than that City boss Paul Tisdale is a man who likes to keep his transfer cards close to his chest and will probably bring in a couple of players no-one has ever heard of. If he has drawn up a shopping list, I’m hoping his trip to Sainsbury’s will yield a right-back, a tough-tackling box-to-box centre midfield, a striker or two (especially if they’re on a BOGOF), and a winger, preferably left-sided, if there happens to be one lying around near the checkouts when he comes to pay.
Put simply, I’ve absolutely no idea where we’re going to end up. There’s every potential for us to go on a great run and burst into the play-offs. We could also do what Exeter tends to do around this time and flatter to deceive before a heroic last-gasp attempt to reach the top five sees us fall a point short. Much will depend on the comings and goings in January, but there’s every possibility of a mouth-watering (TM Setanta) play-off final of Exeter v Torquay, which would be something to savour and, very possibly, more excitement and nerves than my bladder could take.
Happy Grecian New Year.
 Sadly the game was that bad, and my mind wandered badly. The most attractive thing on display was the sunset. Exeter can be quite a pretty city, even if they’re not going to be knocking down the old Debenhams eyesore.
 And if Torquay have title aspirations they need to sort out their defence. For a team challenging for the top they simply concede too many goals, and have been involved in too many high-scoring games. Exciting, maybe, but a run of clean sheets wouldn’t go amiss. With a slightly slow back-line, a left-back who gets caught out of position too much and a less-than-impressive keeper, they need at least one more centre half and probably a full back to keep challenging.