Saturday, 1 March 2008

An alternative universe

First published in The Grecian, 01 March 2008, Exeter City -v- Altrincham

Aside from action, excitement and romance, the curious lure of football is undoubtedly enhanced by those dodgy machinations surrounding almost everything that happens off the pitch, let alone on it.

I’m talking about the rivalries, the boardroom manoeuvring, the transfer speculation, the takeover bids, the dressing room fracas, the managerial ups and downs, the business rumours.

Sometimes it all gets on our nerves, or turns us into ‘three-pint pundits’ (each drink liquidizes another part of the brain and renders it more susceptible to extreme views). But there’s a bit of us that loves it, too.

That mixture of horror and fascination has certainly been felt at St James’ Park in recent years, as the media has repeatedly observed. Except that I’m talking about the real St James’ near the Exe, while most of them are fixated about the one shrouded in fog on the Tyne.

Here at Exeter we’ve experienced the drama of near bankruptcy, heart-wrenching rescue, court cases, jail sentences, the formation of one of the finest football Trusts on the planet, a pop superstar landing in a helicopter, relegation, Cup glory against Manchester United, a Wembley spectacular. You name it.

One thing it hasn’t been is mundane. If we were ordinary mortals, rather than footie fans, we’d perhaps welcome a bit of mid-table obscurity just to normalise our pulses, wouldn’t we? Not a bit of it. We’re delighted to be back in the play-off zone again thanks to that scraped win over Farsley Celtic. And there are many more extraordinary twists and turns to be had in the Grecians’ story, for sure.

But its still good to keep a grip on the basic realities – which, despite the sometimes violent swings of pessimism and optimism, we ECFCers mostly manage to achieve. Unlike the denizens of that other St James’ Park in Newcastle, where they really do seem to live in an alternative football universe populated by pixies, pirates and endless possibilities. But no trophies for fifty years or so.

“I want a team that will give Chelsea a walloping,” owner Mike Ashley proclaimed at a press conference few weeks ago. That was before the 5-1 humiliation at the hands of Manchester United and a run of six games with no win, 3 goals scored and 16 conceded under the tutelage of “people’s choice” King Keegan.

You can’t fault Ashley’s ambition. But you also can’t help but wonder whether the chairman pulling on the Club jersey and yelling homely advice from the terraces is really the best way to make sound judgements. Especially when those terraces are awash with black and white expectations and testosterone.

One way to silence the overheated longings of Toon fans is to give them what they want and see if you can benefit from an adrenalin-driven energy boost. That is essentially what has happened with Keegan’s surprise appointment as pitch side Messiah.

The problem is that ‘Wor Kev’ has inherited Sam Allardyce’s re-spray of a team - one with more holes in it than my old green jumper, not to mention an enfeebled strike force. All of which, along with a sketchy tactical plan, rather compromises the “you score four and we’ll score five” ethic, until Mr Ashley opens his sizeable wallet again in the summer.

It might work. It probably won’t. But in any case, I know which St James’ Park team I’d rather rely on to deliver some sustainable progress over the next few years. League Two here we come, this season or next.

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