Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Thanks for the memories

First written for The Grecian, 06 January 2008, Exeter City -v- Macclesfield Town. The game was postponed due to a frozen pitch and will be played in February.

We may only be six days into the New Year, but the football seems to have been coming at us thick and fast in the past few weeks, including a fair few home games. This is a demanding time for players, manager, staff and fans alike. The Christmas period ends on the Twelfth Night, and by this time the reputations and dreams of many clubs have been buttressed or wounded by what has happened on the pitch as the cold and the wind bites.

Today, our guests are Macclesfield Town, whose own journey to St James’ Park will have been long but not, we hope, too eventful. The Silkmen, named after the craft of weaving that provided their town’s traditional backbone, had a long and honourable history in non-league football before becoming the Football League’s newest members in 1997-98.

Though we at Exeter don’t especially treasure our time outside ‘the league proper’ (we wouldn’t have wished that exile and the grim circumstances around it on ourselves), I hope that our time in the Conference did give us an abiding respect for all those echelons of football that exist below us. We made some good friends there, and the true passion and dedication of fans at lower levels of the game is part of what makes it so special.

Like the Grecians, Macclesfield have their hopes pinned on moving up these days. But things have not been easy for them. A run of four wins in their final seven games saw them escape a return to the Conference in 2003-4, for example. This season they have piled on the points rather more quickly, in spite of a series of defeats. They will be gritty opponents.

One of the undoubted managerial heroes in the 135-year history of our South Cheshire opponents is former Northern Ireland star Sammy McIlroy, a name likely to get you a smile anywhere in the vicinity of Moss Rose. He took the Macclesfield reins just after they avoided relegation from the Conference in 1993, having got there from the Northern Premier League six seasons earlier.

McIlroy had a pretty immediate impact. The Silkmen won the championship at the end of his first season in charge, but unfortunately they were unable to meet the requirements for a League-compliant ground, and had to wait a little longer before finally succeeding Hereford – who later returned to the top at the expense of Oxford… who the Grecians met in the semis of our unsuccessful promotion bid in 2007, before eventually triumphing in 2008.

Many sides in or around League Two are linked by this kind of yo-yo history, it seems. Not that Exeter City intends to be playing the relegation game again any time soon, or indeed at all. Our plans are consolidation and forward movement. That means aiming to take three points out of bread-and-butter games like this one.

While the focus right now is on League points, it’s worth mentioning that just as Exeter City is well known among more general fans for taking Manchester United to a replay in the FA Cup in January 2005, having drawn the first game at Old Trafford, so Macclesfield had their moment of ‘almost glory’ in the third round of the same competition in 1967, when they were a Northern Premier Club – champions, indeed.

Their famous tie was against Fulham, who had supplied full-back George Cohen for the England World Cup winners the year before. The game at Craven Cottage was shown on Match of the Day (not a regular occurrence in that era), and although the home side ran out 4-2 winners, it was said that the real difference was made by a dubious penalty.

Here at St James’ Park we don’t want any uncertain decisions playing a major role in today’s result. The Grecians need a clear win to keep them on track, and the fans want an open entertaining game to keep us cheering them on.

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