This article appears in the Exeter City souvenir brochure for the 2008 Blue Square Premier Play-Off Final, versus Cambridge United, at Wembley Stadium on 18 May 2008. Copies are available from the club shop.
EVEN after Wayne Carlisle side-footed the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of Torquay’s goal to confirm that Exeter really were going to Wembley again, most of us standing immediately behind the net still couldn’t quite believe it.
The Grecians’ fourth at Plainmoor, bagging the tie by two clear goals after we’d been two behind, was greeted on the terraces by an explosion of elation, relief, joy and amazement. Something extraordinary had happened. Just when it looked as if the play-off final had Torquay written all over it, a piece of football daylight robbery had been executed, with breathtaking aplomb. But how, exactly?
The answer involves skill, guts, organisation and determination from City’s finest on the park that afternoon, combined with some calm tactical shrewdness from manager Paul Tisdale. “Stay focussed, switch to 3-4-3, keep playing to your strengths and use the fresh energy of the subs,” he told them.
There was another ingredient too. The belief generated by the fans. Players need confidence, and they pick it up not just from each other and from the backroom team, but from the supporters as well. That’s why all of us have a key part to play in making this second-in-a-row visit to England’s national stadium one to remember for all the right reasons.
The energy generated by Exeter’s away support this season has had to be seen and felt to be believed. I caught a whiff of it on a dismally damp Tuesday evening in Crawley back in March, and found myself pitched right in the middle of the mayhem at Torquay.
Usually, you understand, I sit in the “polite seats” near the centre circle. Temperamentally, I’m more likely to stroke my (metaphoric) beard than yell and shout… and, well, I’m a bit of a practiced sporting pessimist. When the Gulls went ahead just short of the hour, a big part of me thought, “ah well, there’s always next season.”
But those standing around me didn’t allow that idea headroom. The players didn’t. The bench didn’t. Instead, they redoubled their efforts and kept the energy up, even when things looked grim. That’s the shared commitment out of which true confidence is born, and it’s the reason why getting behind the Grecians for their latest Wembley adventure is so vital – whether you will be in the stadium (hopefully), at home, or in a local hostelry.
I discovered what a vital commodity confidence is in football when I was a youngster. It happened the hard way. Never a great schoolboy player, and certainly never a goal scorer, one day I found myself, incredibly, standing in front of goal with the ball at my feet and only a yard to kick it. I froze. Completely. Totally. Every ounce of belief I had drained out of me, and the keeper simply doubled back to whip the ball humiliatingly away from me.
It was a crushing moment. Thankfully, a young team-mate picked me up, told me to forget about it and straightaway passed the ball to me, when others wouldn’t have contemplated anything so foolish. His name, funnily enough, was Jeremiah, that of a biblical figure known for being a bit of a doom-monger!
The lesson I learned, apart from the fact that I might need to maintain a day job, was that you can’t unleash the skill you’ve got unless the people around continue to believe in you.
Paul Tisdale showed that confidence in Paul Jones, after his unfortunate mishap against Torquay at St James’ Park. He kept him in the side, the fans cheered his name, and after Exeter’s thrilling Plainmoor fight-back, the young ’keeper came and shook the hands of what must have been a hundred delirious Grecian supporters.
It was a great moment; one that embodies the real spirit of the club. Make sure you’re part of it for Wembley. Keep the confidence flowing.