Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

First published in The Grecian, 30 September 2009, Exeter City -v- Swindon Town

Swindon Town’s players and staff are going to be pretty familiar faces at St James Park over the next week or so. Not only are they our visitors this afternoon, in an important mid-table League One clash, but they also return on 6 October for the second round of the Johnstone’s paint trophy.

I’ve seen the Robins in action on several occasions in different locations over the years. The details escape me, but there is one Swindon incident no-one can forget. That legendary second extra-time Don Rodgers goal against Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup Final is still the talk of the town 40 years later, and one of my own earliest football memories.

I watched the highlights of that famous encounter on a battered black and white telly in my grandparents’ living room when I was 11 years old. The picture was pretty fuzzy. But, fortunately, Don’s jersey was gleaming white and the old Wembley pitch was covered in mud, so the contrast worked well for the all-important moment!

What most people don’t know is that Swindon followed up that glorious and unlikely victory (they were in the third tier of the league at the time) with international silverware in the shape of a hastily arranged Anglo-Italian League Cup Winners Cup match.

Since then it’s been a pretty familiar yo-yo existence for one of England’s redoubtable provincial sides, punctuated by a several struggles for financial survival. This season, the Robins would love to push for a play-off place, at least. They bring with them a blend of experience and youth, including ambitious 20-year-old left-back Callum Edwards, who is keen to establish himself as a regular in Swindon’s first team line-up.

It’s a sign of how tight this division continues to be that, up to Saturday, just four points covered the difference between Swindon in seventh position and ourselves and Oldham in fifteenth and sixteenth places respectively.

Put another way, the Grecians lag our rivals by a win and a draw – or at least, that was the situation before the weekend, when we faced a really tough encounter with Charlton Athletic, while the Robins had a potentially easier ride against struggling Wycombe.

Then again, when this afternoon’s match is over, the table may have yet another complexion. There are no insignificant fixtures when you’re trying hard to establish a good base going into the autumn and winter. Every point and goal counts.

Elsewhere, the football world continues to be as eccentric as ever. Last week Sol Campbell left Notts County and their well-bankrolled League Two ambitions after just one match, having signed up only five weeks previously for a five-year ‘project’. Obviously Sven Goran Eriksson’s persuasions were not enough to combat the grim reality of life outside the Premier League limelight for the former England defender.

For many people this will only confirm the reality gap between ‘real football’ and the fantasy expectations of millionaires in the top flight. By contrast, our former Conference and League Two opponents Accrington Stanley are engaged in a huge fight for survival in the face of diminishing crowds and a large tax bill. One possible option may be a whole or partial fans buy-out of the debt, and it’s heartening to see supporters from a host of other clubs rallying around.

Particularly praiseworthy has been the willingness of Premier League newcomers Burnley to play a fundraiser with Stanley, in spite of their own preoccupations with survival among the big boys. It’s one clear indication that ‘small teams’ can achieve outstanding success and still retain values rooted deep in the ordinary fabric of this fabulous game.

That’s something followers of Exeter City will be keen to emulate as we look towards the as-yet-uncharted territory of the top two divisions. But to start thinking of those pastures would be to get ahead of ourselves. The higher echelons will only become a real prospect if we can start winning games like today’s against Swindon on a regular basis, as well as giving the Charltons and the Leeds’s of this world a torrid time.

Against Tranmere Rovers, the Grecians ground out a match that turned more on the result than on the performance, as Paul Tisdale commented to the media afterwards. But that doesn’t mean City are abandoning style – merely adding grit to well-nurtured talent and well-thought tactics.

This talent certainly includes ’keeper Oscar Jansson. With Jonesy injured, he turned in fine performance against the Super Whites, including two excellent stops in the first half. We’ve only had one clean sheet so far this season. Another one would be very welcome today.

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