Saturday, 14 March 2009

A test of character

First published in The Grecian, 14 March 2009, Exeter City -v- Bradford City

After eight back-to-back games undefeated, Tuesday night’s home loss against Bournemouth was undoubtedly a body blow – because the match was effectively thrown away by defensive slips, but also because the Grecians lost the chance to claim fourth place, just behind those important automatic promotion slots.

It’s vital to get things in proportion, however. Exeter are still only three points adrift of third-placed Rochdale. We are now level with today’s visitors, Bradford, who the Dale beat 3-0 four days ago. And when was the last home game where we witnessed a defeat here at St James’ Park? That would be back on 28 December 2008, against Brentford.

Overall, then, it would be fair to say that the Grecians’ midweek stumble over south coast opposition looks like a blip rather than a crisis. Those who were booing at the end of the game need to remind themselves just how well City have done so far this season. We have become used to things going our way in recent weeks, but Bournemouth reminded us that nothing is easy in League Two. The run-in to April will be especially tough.

A word of respect should also be offered to Eddie Howe and the Cherries, who are battling against what most expected to be a near certain relegation prospect at the beginning of the term, given the club’s financial situation and a mandatory points deduction. But they have struggled valiantly.

Meanwhile, the real tragedy of Tuesday night was nothing to do with losing a game of football, regrettable though that might be. It was the tragic loss of life endured by a supporter who fell ill on the terraces just before the match began.

Liverpool legend Bill Shankly was once famously cornered on television in an interview where he appeared to say that football was right up there with life and death issues. He was quick to point out that he hadn’t really meant it that way. When human life is on the line what really counts goes far beyond anything that might happen on the pitch.

Mind you, with all this pressure bearing down on this afternoon’s game, facing fellow promotion contenders Bradford City is undoubtedly a test of character for Paul Tisdale and the boys. But it is one they surely have the mental and physical resources to take on. This has been shown several times already over the past year, when reversals were turned around and momentum regained.

Toughness and resilience are traits the Bantams know all about. Ten years ago then manager Paul Jewell bought the Valley Parade club's first £1 million signings. He then guided the team up to the top flight for the first time in 77 years with a second place finish in the Championship.

But that sweet moment of triumph was short-lived. Within a year, Bradford had worked through three managers and found themselves relegated back down to the second tier. Two years later, after a couple of reasonable seasons, they endured a second spell in administration, a further relegation to League One, and then a third dip down into the basement (for the first time in 26 years) in 2006–07.

It’s easy to look back and decide, with hindsight, how things could have been handled differently. But you cannot revise the past, you can only resolve to make the most of the present and be ready to seize those opportunities the future may bring.

That is what the Bantams have been seeking to do. Last season they finished just outside the play-off zone. This time they are aiming to go at least one better. But comparative to other teams searching for glory, Bradford have struggled on the road, losing nine out of 17 matches and running up a minus-four goal deficit.

All this should give the Grecians encouragement for a positive result today. But it guarantees nothing. Exeter have the skill and football know-how. Now is the moment for real application from team and fans alike.

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