Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Great Grecian expectations

First published in The Grecian, 20 September 2008, Exeter City -v- Notts County

The good news is that Exeter went one up against League Two high-fliers Bradford City in the first half. The bad news is that we then shipped four in the second, outflanked by their lightning paced wingers Joe Colebeck and Omar Daley – who The Observer described as being the football equivalent of his fellow Jamaican, sprint star Usain Bolt.

But that was then and this is now. Today we face different opponents, Notts County, a team with a journeyman pedigree laced with some uplifting moments along the way. Like the Grecians, they are in a lower mid-table position at the moment, coming into this game on the back of a 1-1 away draw at Accrington Stanley – who Exeter topped in a positive home display recently.

The task, then, is to learn the lessons from a heavy defeat, put it behind us, and get down to the game in hand. On paper, City have the players, the organisation, the grit and the flair to do the job and walk away with three points this afternoon. No question. But we are learning that how things look in print and how they work out on the turf is not necessarily the same thing. So real concentration will be needed.

Every game this term is proving tough, and the players and manager need the fans fully behind them. In the Conference, the expectation of Exeter City supporters was always high. It still is in League Two. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ambition is a vital ingredient in negotiating the path to success in football. As someone once said, “If you aim at nothing, you’re pretty sure to hit it!”

However there is a difference now. We’re in a higher league, and make no mistake, it is higher. Over the past few seasons I’ve often heard spectators speculate that many of the teams in what became the Blue Square Premier would flourish in ‘the football league proper’. There was talk of a ‘fifth division’. I always remained sceptical about this.

It’s true that most of the sides promoted from the Conference in recent years have done well. Some have done very well. But let’s not forget that they were often shades above their non-league competitors anyway, they had established or developed pedigrees, and they recognised the vital need to strengthen as they moved up.

There have been also been sides like Chester, who dominated in their promotion season and then struggled. There’s no magic formula, no guarantee. I’d be delighted if, as some were saying before this season began, the Grecians could claim a top eight finish. But I’m not counting on it. That isn’t pessimism, it’s realism. Because as well as expecting too little, you can overstretch by expecting too much.

It’s been wisely said that the best way to avoid disillusionment is not to have too many illusions in the first place. The genuine confidence that produces results (rather than the pride that leads to a fall) starts from a realistic estimate of strengths and weaknesses – not from pipe dreaming.

It’s this kind of feet-on-the-ground approach that enables a well-adjusted football team not to get too carried away by victory or too deflated by results like last week’s against Bradford. That seems to be the spirit around Exeter at the moment, which is why I’m expecting (that word again!) a good display and result this afternoon.

Usually I’d be cheering on from the stands, too. This week, however, I’m up in Scotland lending voice to the team I’ve supported for nearly 40 years, Dumbarton. But my antennae will also be tuned to St James Park (the real one, not the mad-house on the Tyne!) rooting for a Grecians win.

I’m especially sorry to miss the Notts County encounter. Back in 1967 they were the first team I ever saw live, at home to my grandfather’s side, Brentford. The Bees beat them 2-1. I hope that’s an omen.

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