As the FA Cup was quite good (Villa v United apart) and it was just over three years to the day since Exeter City travelled to Old Trafford, I thought now was a good enough time as any to revive my memories of the day, posted pretty much as soon as I got back from Manc land. Proof, if any were needed, that football can still throw out some of the most unexpected, emotionally draining, but equally wonderful results. Not to mention the two games virtually wiping out Exeter’s debt, saving the club and giving us money and a solid off-the-field base to now build for the future on.
Ok, so really what’s below is pure unashamed nostalgia on my part. Anybody (un)fortunate to be within earshot of me for the next two weeks got virtually a ball-by-ball description of the game. And we acquitted ourselves well in the replay as well (if only Sean Devine had headed rather than volleyed that cross…).
Of course Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion then stole our glory a year later by doing pretty much the same thing. Bastards.
Manchester United? Just a small team in Salford.
I’m not sure how on earth to start this post. There’s still so many emotions going through me right now. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
When we drew Manchester United in the FA Cup, I was over the moon. This was one of the biggest clubs in Europe, playing the lowly Exeter City. As I’ve posted earlier, this was the tie that would help ensure the club’s existence for a few more years. In some respects the final score of the game would be irrelevant – there would be no losers.
As the weekend approached I was getting more and more nervous and excited. I’d never been to Old Trafford before and nor could I ever picture myself going to it under any circumstance than to watch Exeter play. I was still having to pinch myself. That Sir Alex Ferguson would rest some of his superstars was never in doubt. In addition, world class players such as Wayne Rooney, Ruud Van Nistlerooy and Ryan Giggs were either injured or suspended. Even so, United’s reserves should be good enough to beat a group of aging professionals, football journeymen and youth players according to the pundits, who know everything there is to know in these matters.
Realistically I didn’t think we should a chance. I thought United would score two or three goals. If we were lucky we might get a consolation. Of course in my heart I truly believed we could beat them and I had the same dream twice of Steve Flack heading us into the lead in the 89th minute. Well, a man can dream can’t he?
I didn’t mind that my seat was tucked away in top far corner of the East Stand at Old Trafford. The view and the atmosphere was amazing and frankly I was shaking. When Sean Devine (he wears number 10 not 9. He scores all the fucking time) led the bauys out onto the pitch I cheered like I’d never cheered in my life. Finally the dream was a reality.
The atmosphere in the away was amazing. I like going to away games as the armchairs critics generally don’t bother turning up for these, so there’s always a much better atmosphere amongst the fans who make a lot of noise. Normally we take about 600 away. This time we had over 9,000. Every single fan who had ever seen Exeter play must have been there. And, hell we were in fine voice. So fine, we outsung the 55,000 plus Manchester United supporters in the ground. The Prawn Sandwich brigade were very quiet indeed. Highlights included the chant “Have you ever played Brazil” (We have. Twice. I can explain more about this some other time) and “Champions League, you’re having a laugh.” Ninety minutes of singing my heart out didn’t leave me with much voice at the end of the game, but we showed Old Trafford what real supporters can do.
The game itself is somewhat of a blur in my mind, but what a blur. I’ve been watching City for a good few years now. I’ve seen some great performances. I’ve also seen some utter dross which made me ashamed to be an Exeter supporter on occasions. Not this time. I don’t think I have EVER seen our players play as well. From loan keeper Paul Jones in goal (who I had misgivings about before the game) to ex-United trainee Andy Taylor, to veteran right-back Scott Hiley, to teenage wonderkid Dean Moxey, all played out of their skins. Jones made some fantastic and mature saves, ensuring the United weren’t able to capitalise in any loose balls following a shot. Our defence was immense, with the back four keeping lone striker David Bellion very very quiet. In midfield Moxey and Taylor were getting forward down the wings and Marcus Martin and Danny Clay were keeping the centre ticking over. Up front Devine and Flack were awesome. Chasing the ball, causing the rearguard no end of problems. Immense. That’s the only word I can use to describe it. Kwame Ampadu, an often unfairly maligned player, came on for Clay and marshaled the midfield fantastically. Little Les gave it his best to run at the tired United defence. My God, what a performance. We could have won the game. We nearly did.
The first inkling we had that this might be our day was when Sean Devine latched onto a pass, got the other side of the defenders and shot past Tim Howard’s goal. It would be inaccurate to say Exeter dominated the first half, but we were certainly the better team with clearer chances and more stomach for the fight. First Andy Taylor stuck a sweet shot that Tim Howard saved. Then Moxey was brought down on the edge of the area and Taylor, remembering his top-class free kick against Hereford the week previously, was always going to be first choice to take it. He curled the ball over the wall and the net rippled. The Exeter end exploded. I was jumping up and down, hugging whoever was around me. Sadly it wasn’t to be, as the ball had gone just wide, although from our perspectives it looked like it was in.
0-0 at half time and hell, we were pleased (at least, I was once I finally fought my way to the toilet – I’d been busting to go for much of the first half). At this stage, we all though Fergie would give his team a good shouting at during half team and we’d start to fade before the end. In fairness to United they were a bit better after the break and attacked with a bit more conviction. But, even so we still had our chances. Deano fancied doing some more giant-killing heroics and had a couple of good shots. The United defence cleared the ball from Flackie’s feet as he was about to pull the trigger. Les went on a mazy run that sadly didn’t go anywhere (no change there then).
After an hour Fergie had had enough and threw on the big guns with Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo coming off the bench. Still nothing. On came Alan Smith, who quickly became their biggest threat. A wonderful header in the centre of the park found Ronaldo scampering away but Jones parried the shot brilliantly.
As we entered the final ten minutes, it was heart-in-mouth time. We’d done better than expected – we’d matched anything United could throw at us, on occasions playing the better football than the Premiership big boys. None of us really thought we’d still be in the game at this stage. The minutes ticked down and full time was up. Three minutes were indicated just as Paul Scholes made a run into the area. A fortunate bounce off a tackle saw him in prime shooting space. Jones was beat but it rolled just past the far post. 90 second left, the ball went up to the United end, out for a throw by one of our games, a throw-in and then the final whistle. Cue euphoria from the Exeter fans. You could have been forgiven for thinking we’d won the final – it was as good as. This was what the FA Cup was about – the minnow, the Davids, taking on the big fish, the Goliaths at their own game and staying on level terms. We didn’t care it was a 0-0 draw, we’d matched the mighty Man U and were taking them to a replay at St. James’ Park (the real one) a week Tuesday. Twenty minutes after the final whistle, we were still there, singing away and saluting the team who had given everything and come away with a fantastic result. As I left the ground I couldn’t resist starting singing “If you’re all going to Billericay clap your hands”. Billericay are our next opponents, in the FA Trophy – a non-league version of the FA Cup. We are very much the big fish in this game as Billericay are two leagues below us, being as they are in the Ryman Premier league.
My voice was hoarse from so much shouting. There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat as I left the ground. I, like every other Grecian in the ground, had suffered years of pain in preceding seasons. Twice our club very nearly ceased to exist. For many seasons we were the relegation-battlers of the bottom league before we finally tumbled out of the football league and into the Conference. By this stage our not-so-illustrious co-Chairman, who actually wasn’t anything of the sort, Uri Gellar, had turned the club into a laughing stock and our Chairman and Vice-Chairman had been arrested on fraud charges. Somehow, through hard work and dedication, we’d slowly built ourselves up again. Even so, between us and Manchester United stood 86 places and we’d humbled them. At this moment in time I don’t think I’d ever been so proud to be an Exeter supporter. This was the moment any supporter dreams of and we were living it. I hardly spoke on the train journey back. I was tired, but very emotional.
Today it still seems like a dream. I’ve been singing Exeter chants to myself all day. I’ve had text messages congratulating Exeter on the result off friends who had always given me a good-natured ribbing about the club I supported. Tomorrow it’s back to earth with work. But there’s still a replay in just over a week to look forward to. Will I be trying to get tickets for our 9,000 capacity stadium? You bet I will. Do I care about anything else right now? Not really. Will be win? Probably not, but then I said that about the first game. Whatever, the extra money from the replay has probably almost completely wiped the club’s debts. I don’t think anybody will care if we lose one-nil or ten-nil in the replay. Fergie will be putting out a stronger side and we’ll have made our point.
It doesn’t get much better than this.