Saturday, 31 January 2009

A real endurance test

First published in The Grecian, 31 January 2009, Exeter City -v- Barnet

As might have been predicted, the January transfer window has turned out to be a game of two halves. While the big clubs have splashed the cash (though with one eye to the credit crunch and another to the sustainability of their inflated wage bills), smaller teams have mostly gone out looking for good value loan signings – either known, solid performers or youngsters shaping up for the future.

Forget all that fuss-about-nothing over Kaka and Eastlands. Here at St James’ Park, Exeter City certainly look like we’ve landed a good ’un in Spurs defender Troy Archibald-Henville. Those Tottenham links have come up trumps once more. The 20-year-old started out for the Grecians in our recent 2-1 win against Dagenham and Redbridge. He also put in a very creditable display, winning plaudits from Paul Tisdale, the fans and the media alike.

City certainly need a few boosts like this at the moment. Mid-season is always a tough time of the year, and after conceding a late goal at fellow promotion contenders Gillingham we find ourselves needing to regain ground. Having slipped to tenth before a really hard mid-week game at Chesterfield, we now face Barnet this afternoon and Port Vale at home on Tuesday night as part of a run of four matches in eleven days. This is a genuine test of the team’s fitness, mettle and prospects.

Part of the extra heat we have been experiencing in League Two is down to the fact that there is less time on the ball than in the Conference, so mistakes are punished more readily right across the park. More often than not we have upped our game to meet this challenge, but points that shouldn’t have been dropped have slipped through Grecian fingers nonetheless.

The other part of the League Two challenge is sheer endurance, and from now through to April that will play a huge role in determining final outcomes. The sides that achieve their aims this term will do so through long-distance stickability alongside skill and cunning. So where does that leave Exeter?

Well, there’s no shortage of effort but we have a bit of an issue in the strike department at the moment. If you look at the Grecians’ goal tally at home, compared to the sides just above us, we are mostly down by four or five – with more slippage at the back, too. After we hit four past Rochdale during a marvellous home display on 20 December, we only managed the same number of goals in the following six matches combined. The weather may have been damp, but our difficulty turned out to be a dry patch in the penalty area!

This is no cause for despair, however. The same problem surfaced back in August and September last year, and we then went on a great run of 15 goals in five games. It’s a matter of confidence and organisation as much as anything, especially when (for a variety of reasons) a stable up-front partnership seems difficult to achieve. So following on from midweek, a few more goals would be a huge fillip.

Our opponents today, Barnet, are some ten places below us in the league and have been struggling this season. Things have picked up a bit (mainly through draws) since a disastrous start that meant just one point in eight matches, but the drop zone still beckons ominously – with Bournemouth seemingly determined to counteract their points deduction and an inspiring 3-1 win over leaders Wycombe making them look like serious prospects to do just that.

Meanwhile, Barnet have nabbed three loan players during the window, with two youngsters going in the opposite direction. Away from home they have actually scored one more than the Grecians so far. However the Bees have also conceded 50 in 27 games and have a goal difference that reads minus 22, the worst in the division. They will be determined to plug the gaps that have created that unenviable statistic, but hopefully not as much as Exeter’s strikers’ want to open them up!

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