There is little doubt that today’s encounter with Leeds United at St James Park will be, for many Exeter City fans, ‘the big one’ as far as home games go this season. Anticipation has been heightened further by Leeds’ magnificent FA Cup victory at Old Trafford on 3rd January, recalling the Grecians’ own heroics against Manchester United a few years ago.
While fans of the Peacocks (to give Leeds their traditional nickname) still like to sing, with tongues firmly in cheeks, “We’re not famous any more!”, the ‘brand recognition’ for the club nevertheless remains high, not just in Britain but across Europe.
So Whites’ supporters holidaying in Italy, Spain and Germany still find themselves in long, nostalgic conversations about past glories with fellow aficionados of the Beautiful Game. And that’s before anyone gets on to the subject of Brian Clough’s notorious 44 days at Elland Road and the side’s consequent appearance last year in a fine football film, ‘The Damned United’, starring Michael Sheen.
This big screen cameo was admittedly a bit of a mixed blessing, as it highlighted aspects of the all-conquering 1970s Leeds side that earned them the dislike of some football followers, as well as undeniable respect. Cloughie said at the time that Don Revie’s warriors should be relegated to the second division. In the event, they went one better!
But that’s all history. If their current formbook is anything to go by, Leeds will almost certainly be playing Championship football next season, deservedly so. Few would doubt that their challenge to get back into the Premier League will then be swift and substantial – buttressed by a huge supporter base in West Yorkshire and beyond, as well as by fans willing to travel far and wide to show their loyalty… as we are witnessing in the southwest this weekend, wild weather permitting.
For those of us in our 40s, 50s and beyond, the thought that Leeds have ended up playing in the third level of English professional football for the first time in their history is still hard to credit. Their fall from grace over the past decade was startling. Remember that United were only ejected from the top flight in the 2003-4 season, after 14 years there and an illustrious history stretching back many years before.
Indeed, not long after the turn of the Millennium, the men from Elland Road were appearing in a major European semi-final and planning yet another assault on the Premiership title. It was economic folly that was their undoing – spending massively beyond their capacity, and mortgaging huge borrowing on TV rights and income from a qualification place for the Champions League that did not materialise.
At that point the Leeds slide began in earnest, serving as a definitive lesson about the perils of gambling with big money in modern football – a financial warning which many clubs have sadly failed to heed, as the current lamentable mess at Portsmouth illustrates.
Exeter City have suffered their own problems with mismanagement in the past, too. But now the Grecians are on a path towards sustainability at a respectable level within the Football League, and this afternoon’s match is both a marker of the huge distance travelled since the bad old days of relegation, near non-existence and non-league obscurity. It also provides an opportunity for us to judge the level City have now attained, and how far they have to go to negotiate the next step up.
Meanwhile, as the current Peacocks strut their stuff in Devon – mindful of the tough game that Exeter gave them up North during their narrow 2-1 win on 8th August, no doubt – many Grecians fans will have their own recollections of the Leeds of old. Mine go back to 2nd December 1972, and an away clash with Arsenal at Highbury.
Those were the days when you could get a walk up ticket for a clash of the titans if you were lucky, and I spent the afternoon with two schoolmates who were Gunners fans watching 22 players who are now all legends. That day Leeds consisted of Harvey, Reaney, Cherry, Bremner, Madeley, Hunter, Lorimer, Clark, Jones, Bates and Yorath – and they still managed to lose by the odd goal in three!
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 Paul Tisdale’s side, now without Danny Seabourne, who will be straining every muscle to make this a truly memorable match for all the right (red and white) reasons.