Thursday, 1 May 2008

Success, failure and belief

First published in The Grecian, 22 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Torquay United (Blue Square Premier play off semi-final, first leg)

It’s been quite a season, but in the end Exeter City surprised even themselves by securing their play-off place with a whole game to spare. Now we need to put the 4-4 draw at Burton, the final table and the rest firmly behind us. It’s good to take momentum and confidence into this tie, for sure. But today is a different world to the league. It’s do or die time.

I’m sure the manager, players, staff and fans are all too aware of that, and what they need is not nervousness about what has been or what might be, but the belief, imagination and determination to coax the team into playing the way we know they really can – as a more than ‘aspiring’ League side.

The deal is success or failure, for sure. But these are far from straightforward commodities in modern football. Viewed one way, for instance, Manchester United and Arsenal are past masters at the failure game. Between them they have countless Champions League and Premiership contests that they didn’t win. They ended up second, third, fourth or worse.

Yet from where you and I sit at St James’ Park, this kind of ‘failure’ represents an unimagined pool of riches. Second in the Premier League? A semi-finalist in Europe (and the world’s) most prestigious club knockout competition? Yes please!

Likewise, there will be people looking at the Grecians today who will envy us even if we don’t make it to, or past, Wembley – which we will, I hasten to add. Those condemned to mid-table obscurity or worse would love to be in our position. Let’s not forget this.

Right now we can’t even contemplate not beating local rivals Torquay. It would be dangerous to do so. But in the broader scheme of things City have already triumphed, and that will remain so even as the Grecians move to greater things.

Bouncing back from last season’s almost-but-not-quite disappointment has been a tremendous achievement, for example. Let no-one tell you anything different. Others have wilted or disassembled under less pressure. The fact is, Paul Tisdale and those around him, including the supporters and the Trust, have engineered a desire to move forward, to achieve more, to do better, to go higher… and also to play football.

That last bit isn’t to be underestimated. The philosophy of today’s game can sometimes seem like little more than “it’s not the taking part, it’s the winning that counts”, or “don’t look at the match, look at the result.” But true football fans can only half believe in that kind of approach.

What makes this the game we love above all others is the beauty, the artistry, the skill, the cunning, the tactics and the endeavour. In the midst of a match that gives us these things, the rest, frankly, is for accountants and statisticians – people with a vital role to play, but not on the field.

So let’s hope that the game you are about to watch is not just one with the right result, but a memorable one too, as the decisive clashes with Aldershot and Stafford Rangers certainly were. It won’t be easy, because nerves will inevitably jangle.

That, however, is precisely the point. The team most likely to triumph is the one that can overcome the fear factor and play to their true strengths. Which is why winning and doing so with footballing verve are not polar opposites, as the pessimists like to think, but part of the same deal. The one we all crave for.

See you at Wembley, I hope. Believe.

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