If you don’t support one of the Premier League ‘big boys’ there’s a piece of conventional football observer wisdom that says it’s often better to be involved in a promotion chase in a lower league than a survival scrap in the one above.
Try telling that one to Exeter City fans after the last couple of weeks! The word ‘Leeds’ is likely to be among the first thrown back at you – and in any case, the Grecians aren’t easily admitting that the bottom of the table is on their minds. Boring it has not been.
It’s now a fortnight since that incredible 2-0 victory over the mighty men from Elland Road, and while we now have more to chew on following the away derby defeat at Yeovil, the aura of that famous victory still understandably lingers around St James Park.
Unfortunately, I’m not one of those who is entitled to join the burgeoning new Facebook group called ‘I Was There The Day Exeter Beat Leeds 2-0’. But as the final whistle blew, I found an email in my inbox from a Grecians fan simply saying, “I’m walking on air!”
When I mentioned this to my wife, who takes a passing interest in football – by which I mean she tries to pass it wherever possible! – she responded dryly, “Hmmnn… I thought you were supposed to play it on the ground.”
I rather imagine that the gaffer has been saying something similar to his players in recent days! Indeed, in his post match interview, while still relishing the Leeds triumph, Paul Tisdale was quick to point out that it was “only three points”, hard as that is to credit when you topple the side that only recently beat Manchester United in the FA Cup.
When it comes to the prediction stakes, I’m usually not one to follow. But I had ‘a feeling in my bones’ about that Leeds match. In my last programme note I wasn’t quite bold enough to forecast a definite upset, but I did manage to write: “The bookies have most of their money on new-look Leeds today, and the pundits say Exeter should be happy with a point. But that underestimates the determination of [the] side... who will be straining every muscle to make this a truly memorable match for all the right (red and white) reasons.”
This afternoon, by contrast, I predict a tough game – but would be happy to be proved wrong with a convincing and large victory. However, Carlisle United visit the southwest today buoyed by a few boosters themselves. The fact that they also managed to beat a certain Leeds, for example. They won 2-1 at Elland Road (no less) in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
Likewise, though they are just below Exeter in League One, the Cumbrians have games in hand, and will be keen to avenge themselves of the 1-0 defeat to the Grecians at Brunton Park back on 22 August last year. That day it was a 73rd minute penalty from Marcus Stewart that separated the two teams.
Much has changed since then, of course. But Exeter City still sometimes give the appearance of bringing out their best performances against a few of the strongest teams, while letting goals and points slip in the lower zone of the table. It will be a clear New Year’s resolution on Well Street to ensure that the kind of weaknesses that contribute to this pattern are ironed out, and this game is as good as any to prove that.
An added impetus for City this afternoon is the knowledge that there are some demanding fixtures just around the corner. Next weekend the boys take on Milton Keynes Dons, who are pushing hard for the play-offs. Then it’s Southampton at home – another game that’s sure to attract a large crowd. Hopefully, I will be able to make that match, as I am down in Devon from my new home in Birmingham over the weekend.
Hardly will Exeter have had a chance to capture their breath from tackling the Saints than a trip to the New Den to face Millwall hoves into view on 13th February (that’s Saturday, not Friday!)… followed by two home matches in quick succession on the 20th and 23rd, concluding with an end-of-the-month trip to the seaside to take on Brighton.
Hopefully that fixture bundle gives a fair idea of just how resilient the Grecians and their supporters will need to be in the second half of the season. A good result this evening would be a fine start to the journey.