Saturday, 6 December 2008

Drawing the right conclusion

First published in The Grecian, 06 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Lincoln City

In a strange way, you could say that being on the wrong end of a painful FA Cup giant killing a month ago (from a team several levels below us) is a positive measure of distance travelled for the Grecians.

After a number of seasons outside the League, some spent fighting for our very existence, Exeter City is now a scalp worth having. We may not be quite in Theatre of Dreams territory, but we’re a class apart from simply trying to reclaim “our rightful position”. But the further forward City go, the more the teams we have passed will want to cause an upset.

Thankfully, that disappointing game against plucky Curzon Ashton is already history. Of more concern now is only 2 points out of a possible 9 in the last three games, the quest to maintain our purchase on the League Two play-off zone, the need for a good home performance against Lincoln City, and the hoped-for satisfaction of walking off with three points.

While there’s plenty of time after Christmas to press upward (the Grecians have certainly unleashed a few important ‘late bursts’ in recent years), as many goals and wins as possible before the New Year will set the tone for the all-important second half of the season.

Football watching, both on the park and across the acres of coverage now available online, on telly and in the paper, is all about searching for patterns. Sometimes they’re plain to see. A remorseless slump or a continual rise gets tongues wagging, pens scribbling and (in the former case) the team’s many unpaid advisers turning out in force on Exeweb!

Exeter City’s season has been less clear-cut than that, at least in terms of results. No-one in their right mind could possibly complain at seventh or eighth place at this stage in our first term back. Along the way we’ve recorded some significant victories and taken a couple of salutary hammerings – just to remind us not to take anything for granted. The pay off for these highs and the lows has been a number of other games where City have ground out a result even though we haven’t been anyway near the top of our game.

But while determination to ‘keep on keeping on’, especially when the going feels tougher, is the backbone of success, moments of decisive action are also indispensable. As Paul Tisdale observed, we missed several recently against Rotherham. Drawing the right conclusion from the season means more than drawing a spate of games. Especially at home.

The difficulty at home is that the teams Exeter are playing now realise that they are dealing with a side capable of open, creative football. We have become a ‘known quantity’. For many the answer will therefore be to pack behind the ball, try to wrestle control in the middle of the park and look for opportunities to break when we are coming forward.

For all the technical skills and tactical niceties of this wonderful game (and there are many of them), some things remain simple, but not easy to achieve. You only need one mistake or a couple of unintended cracks in the best-laid plans for things to go awry. That includes set-plays, where positioning, awareness, quick reactions and knowing you can rely on your team-mates is crucial.

Another priority is not letting things slip in the final quarter of the game. When limbs tire and nerves start to jangle, that final whistle can seem further away rather than nearer and woodenness can start to undo you. A dramatic example was Portsmouth’s loss of an incredible and deserved two-goal lead against AC Milan in the last six minutes of their UEFA Cup tie at Fratton Park the other week.

With all due respect to Lincoln, Pompey were facing one of the finest sides in Europe. There will be fewer excuses for the Grecians this afternoon. Hopefully we won’t need any.

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