Saturday, 6 September 2008

Time to show what we're made of

First published in The Grecian, 06 September 2008, Exeter City -v- Accrington Stanley

This afternoon’s game against Accrington Stanley comes on the back of a hard week for Exeter City. We’ve suffered two defeats, have been knocked out of a cup competition at the first hurdle, and have lost one of our brightest young talents in George Friend.

But this is not a time to waver. After four games, the measure of League Two and the demands it will make is becoming clearer. The defences are tighter, the thinking is quicker and the chances are fewer. City have shown that they have playmaking quality, but they need more bite in the final third and sureness in dealing with set plays.

Undoubtedly, we will miss George. Like many, I had hoped he might be with us until the next transfer window. But Mick McCarthy’s statement that he will immediately be competing for a first team place at Wolves (as Jamie Mackie did for another Championship side who shall remain nameless) is testimony to his class.

What we should not forget is that George is a product of City’s fine academy. So while no-one can doubt that, in today’s rapacious football market, quality will always be preyed on by the wealthy and willing, the club’s overall policy of nurturing talent will continue to pay dividends.

What’s more, the proceeds of this sale mean resources for the continued construction of the team. For that is what’s going on. Being ‘back in the League’ is not business as usual. It’s a step into a footballing environment that demands constant change. If you stand still, you move backwards.

At the same time, durability and rigour are also vital. Those were two words that came to mind as I watched Manny Panther against Shrewsbury a few days ago. The outcome of the match was disappointing, with missed chances costing the Grecians’ dear. But there were some strong individual performances and Manny’s appearance as a second half substitute was one of them. He chased, harried, found space, ran at the opposition – and if his shot had been just a little bit lower I doubt that the net would have survived.

When things are difficult you need to build on strengths, and tackle weaknesses without allowing yourself to be defined by them. That applies to the fans as much as the players and the staff. At St James Park in midweek it was therefore encouraging to see (and hear) some youngsters around me keep up a constant barrage of support for City… blissfully undaunted by being in ‘the polite seats’!

It’s fair to say that the Johnstone’s Paint trophy didn’t end up colouring the town red and white on Tuesday. But the 1,523 who came along saw some good football, one or two agonisingly close moments in front of goal, and an Exeter side that was within minutes of taking the game to penalties.

I admit to a small feeling of disappointment that the cup-tie didn’t go the full distance, and not just because it meant we were out. I’ve been to hundreds of football matches in the last forty odd years, but I have never actually witnessed a live penalty shoot-out – other than from the sofa.

Ah well, that spectacle will have to wait. Much more important is three points against Accrington. Stanley have done a small town proud by returning a historic club to the League. That’s something we in Exeter can well appreciate. But their initial seasons back have not been without severe testing, and things are not made easier by the lure of the football giants surrounding them.

This time they made a fighting start. Then after two victories they lost on the bounce in league and cup, like us. Both sides have something to prove. The Grecians’ need to show just that little bit more resolve.

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