Saturday, 15 August 2009

Searching for winning ways

First published in The Grecian, 15 August 2009, Exeter City -v- Norwich City, League One

Well, that was the Carling Cup and Queen’s Park Rangers, then. A burst of anticipation, tension, excitement and disappointment in the August evening sun. Having a go at a trophy run is one thing; something that has eluded Exeter City for a fair few years. But these days it’s the League that’s seen as the real test of a football team’s mettle.

This is why Paul Tisdale and his talented squad will have moved rapidly on from dissecting Tuesday night’s performance and result in order to prepare, in some detail, for this afternoon’s fixture against Norwich City.

Though they’ve fallen on hard times lately, the Canaries are a still a notable example of a so-called ‘provincial’ side made good. To have ascended the heights of English football from a modest starting point is no mean achievement, but these days the price of getting into the Premier League and then seeing yourself ejected from it can be high indeed – what with the financial chasm that opens up through relegation.

Leeds, Southampton and Charlton are other examples of the downward trend of the once mighty – ones that make League One a particularly fascinating and challenging enterprise this season, along with the return of lost heroes from the lower reaches of the game.

In their first outing at Elland Road, City did the fans proud. The game and the points slipped frustratingly away in the dying embers of the match, but the effort, skill and guile the team showed on the pitch was extremely encouraging.

Indeed, to judge from the fans’ comments and from the media coverage the Leeds game attracted, you would almost think the Grecians had scored a famous victory, or walked off with not less than a point.

There’s a bit of a parallel here with City’s most famous recent FA Cup exploits, when it was two outstanding performances against Manchester United in 2006 by a then Conference side which the watching world remembers most, not the fact that the tie eventually went against Exeter at St James’ Park.

That was then. Today’s game is quite different, but it’s still going to be very competitive. The Grecians are back in the football’s third tier and on home soil for the first time this term. We need a win to show the bookmakers and other sceptics that we are no one-off (or indeed two-off) Devon wonders, but are here to stay… and to progress.

With one or two injury concerns and Barry Corr’s unfortunate three-match suspension, the onus may once again fall on younger players, alongside the backbone of experience embodied by a certain Mr Edwards. Whoever makes the final line-up, there will be no problem with motivation. And the seven-substitute role is offering a deserved chance to those rising through the ranks, as well as providing the flexibility the manager needs at this level.

Norwich, meanwhile, have a great deal of pride to restore after their unexpected 7-1 pasting against Colchester. All kinds of reasons have been advanced for this result, from bad luck to a wee bit of complacency, from key absences to an unfortunate combination of under-performance and the twist of the green.

One thing is certain though: Exeter will not be granted a free ride by the Canaries today. Quite the opposite. It is wise heads, good tactics, careful play and just the right amount of adventure that is most likely to decide the outcome of this afternoon’s encounter, with any rash moments or fits of unfettered optimism as liable to create opportunities for the other side as to seal them for your own.

That said, it’s as important not to put too much stress on the outcome of today’s game as it is to avoid early slippage. The season is a long one, and the dark winter months, the spring showers and the final sunny stretch will be just as important as the early part of the campaign. Peak too early and you fall away. Peak too late and you fail to fulfil your potential.

It’s boring to say, but overall consistency is the key. Which is one reason why Paul Tisdale is, and will continue to be, highly effective. He believes in winning and (as Brian Clough would have put it) “winning well”. But he doesn’t get carried away with particular moments of success or moments of failure. His aim is to keep moving forward, whether the momentum is with you or whether you feel as if you are being dragged down.

Let’s hope the Grecians are seen to be on the rise today.

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