Monday, 14 April 2008

Doing it the hard way

First published in The Grecian, 12 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Northwich Victoria

When likeable Fulham boss Roy Hodgson contemplated his Premier League side’s recent trip to the Stadium of Light, bereft of a single away victory in 32 previous attempts, he didn’t describe it as a ‘must win game’. He called it a ‘must, must, must win game’. They duly lost 3-1 to resurgent Sunderland.

Make that 33 away defeats, then. Another third of a game and it’ll be a record, quipped a fan. Not a very good joke (even if you are old enough to remember the playing speed of vinyl records), and not one that many in the West London club are likely to enjoy as they contemplate hosting Championship football next season and enduring the wrath of a certain Harrods owner. But when times are tense you need light relief somehow.

Thankfully for the Grecians, it’s life at the top end of our league we’re contemplating, rather than a four-points-adrift relegation scrap, but today’s game is definitely in the ‘must, must, must win’ category, with little slack for possible dropped points around us after Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat against Salisbury. Northwich Victoria are not out of the drop zone and will be fighting for every ball.

After the expected array of twists and turns, including a hard-won away win at fellow Blue Square Premier play-off contenders Stevenage, and a disappointing draw at home to lowly Droylesdon, Exeter City’s fate is not quite in our own hands. But almost. Win the remaining games and we might well be off to Wembley again, this time for celebrations rather than consolations.

But no one reading this programme is likely to believe it will happen straightforwardly. Since relegation from the League, ECFC, with no small leg-up from its hugely loyal supporter base, has achieved a remarkable turnaround and consistently high finishes in what some see as Division Three, but which still feels like the wilderness to those who have come to expect ‘the proper thing’.

You certainly couldn’t say it’s been plain sailing. Before last year, we had missed out on a series of promotion opportunities by the merest whisker, losing games we should have drawn and drawing games we undoubtedly should have won. That’s happened this term, too, but so far we are very much in with a fighting chance as the finishing line hoves into sight.

The Grecians still do things the hard way mind, and all the professional punters (among whom I’m certainly not one) will no doubt be putting their money on things not reaching a definite conclusion until the last Saturday of the season. So we will just have to go on biting our nails, even after three points and a few more goals this afternoon.

I confess I’ve missed a few of ECFC’s ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ over the past couple of weeks. It was my 50th birthday on 30 March, and I was on holiday in Scotland with my wife, sponsoring a match at Dumbarton’s picturesque Strathclyde Homes Stadium – contemporary site of my oldest footballing love.

Like the Grecians, the Sons have an active Trust, the first in Scotland. But promotion from Division Three is still a dream. The mighty DFC’s main aim this year is not to steal East Stirlingshire’s longstanding ‘bottom of the pile’ title. Our haul while I was there this time was two defeats and a postponement.

So even if things feel tough St James’ Park, remember: it could be much worse, and with any luck it will end up being a good deal better.


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