First published in The Grecian, 12 August 2008, Exeter City -v- Southampton, Carling Cup First Round
Well, the summer waiting is finally over and Exeter City can truly say that they’re back on the path to Wembley again. This time it’s the Carling Cup that focuses our attention, rather than another nail-biting promotion play-off final.
Three trips to those North London towers in three years? OK, it’s unlikely, but not impossible. Back in 1961-2, when the League Cup was only in its second season, Rochdale became the first club from the fourth flight of English football to make their way to the final, eventually losing out to Second Division Norwich City.
How we’d all love the Grecians to follow suit. But before you head down to the bookmakers for a decidedly outside wager (I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing around 200/1), there’s the small matter of a home tie against Championship survivors Southampton.
We were due to play the Saints during our very successful pre-season friendly campaign, but the plans were changed after the Carling first round draw. This match will definitely have much more bite about it, with the newly promoted Grecians wanting to prove that they can compete with the best, and Southampton seeking to recover from a poor term that almost saw them sink into League One – while south coast rivals Portsmouth (who we recently drew 1-1 at home) achieved an FA Cup win and their highest ever Premier League finish.
What is now the Carling Cup began back in 1960 as an idealistic venture aimed at giving more limelight to the smaller clubs. It was greeted with cynicism in some quarters (surprise, surprise!), but soon proved its worth, switching from a two-legged affair to a straight knockout competition in 1966, the same year it offered the possibility of European qualification.
As well as providing a first major trophy to the likes of QPR (who triumphed as a Third Division side in 1967, with the legendary Rodney Marsh), the League Cup also gave a taste of triumph to teams such as Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Don Revie’s Leeds United, prefiguring their extraordinary achievements in the 1970s.
Since then, the trophy has been an up-and-down affair in terms of prestige and attention. In the era of big spending Premier League sides that soak up youthful talent from all and sundry, it has become something of a test-bed for players who don’t get regular first team football or who are trying to break through.
But all that blasé nonsense about “the Cup no-one wants to win” was decisively put to rest last year, when Spurs lifted the trophy against billionaire rivals Chelsea. Tell those fans who lined the streets of Tottenham that it didn’t really matter!
Which brings us back to St James’ Park this evening. Though we still await the excitement of hosting Shrewsbury in our first full home League game for five years, tonight definitively marks the fact that “the Grecians are back”. To do so with a result against an experienced side two flights above us would be wonderful, of course.
But even if that hope isn’t realised, we have two more cracks at Wembley still to come. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, which kicks off for League One and Two sides in September, and the FA Cup itself – a tournament in which Exeter retain lasting public profile following our heroics against an outfit called Manchester United.
Without that tie, we probably wouldn’t be back where we belong, in the League. So these Cup games are no distraction. They’re an important part of the overall feast we call football.