Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Back to the front again

First published in The Grecian, 25 November 2008, Exeter City -v- Rotherham

Goodness, it seems so long since we’ve seen first team action at St James’ Park – three weeks and three days, to be precise – that you could almost be forgiven for having forgotten what the place looks like!

These domestic hiatuses, together with periods when it feels like we are rooted to home turf, are just part and parcel of the annual fixture lottery. But that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant to the business of preparing the players and seeking the right balance to keeping the Grecians on the upward League track.

It is often said that results at home determine a team’s ultimate fortunes. And the reason for this is that, like many commonplaces that pass for clichés in football, it’s often true. Not that there’s anything magic about your own territory. It’s more that familiarity ought to breed a strong degree of reliability.

At St James’ Park, for instance, the characteristic swirl of the wind during the colder months can be seen to have a significant impact on matches, as keepers and defenders struggle from swinging crosses, or the ball is by turns lofted unexpectedly forward or surprisingly retarded and swerved in mid air.

Professional footballers should be prepared for such vagaries, of course. Reports and DVDs all play a role in providing crucial information about the opposition and their ground. But there can be no doubt that the home side’s intimate knowledge of the feel, scale, features and play of their own pitch ought to make a positive difference. Not to mention the passion of the fans. At home, factors that can be unpredictable elsewhere may be taken into better account, if not controlled.

So the ‘home boost’ is the foundation upon which many a successful season is based, or alternatively the rock upon which otherwise well-honed football dreams are dashed. In Exeter’s case, one of the cracks in an otherwise fine and daring return to the Football League has been a series of deflating defeats and draws on Well Street – culminating in that awful mauling by Chesterfield, where defensive blows seemed to eat deep into the Grecians’ second half confidence.

Thankfully, the determined performance against Chester City at the beginning of November, resulting in a 2-0 win, was exactly the response City needed. That resolve rather than panic was the response to an unexpected, crushing blow tells you all you need to know about why this side has the capacity to stay in contention for honours throughout the cold Winter and on to the 2 May conclusion of the 2008-9 campaign – which, it should be noted, will be away to tonight’s opponents, Rotherham.

Of course there are many talking important points that could preoccupy us from more recent outings at Aldershot and Morcambe, not to mention the FA Cup game against minnows Curzon Ashton. No lessons can be unlearned if the ups and downs we inevitably experience are to be put in proper perspective. But I suspect it will be the spirit and shape of that gutsy display against Chester that will prove most significant as Exeter face a Rotherham side who have struggled so far this season, and who will be all the more motivated as a result.

City defender Matt Taylor, interviewed by the Express & Echo in the aftermath of the Chesterfield debacle, made a good point about why home can sometimes be where the heartbreak is. In away games “maybe [opposing teams’] full-backs push on a bit and leave a bit of space in the channels,” he declared. For home games “there is not much space in behind and we find it hard to break teams down.”

With reference to the challenging standards of League Two, Matt added: “It is proper football now, and teams are coming to watch us every week. Word gets round we are a good passing team and maybe we need Plan B.” Rotherham will try to stifle us tonight, no question. But watch out. Here at St James’ Park, football is coming home.

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