Saturday, 6 February 2010

Football saints and sinners

First published in The Grecian, 06 February 2010, Exeter City -v- Southampton

No doubt about it, this afternoon’s match against Southampton at St James Park is going to be seen as one of the ‘big games’ of the League One season for Exeter City, at least as far as the fans are concerned. Then again, the prestige or otherwise of the opposition counts for little if it’s not worth three points at the end of 90 minutes. Some recent results have taught us that hard lesson.

Points, of course, are precisely what the Grecians need right now. Letting things drift further is not an option. Attractive football may be what we all hope to witness after parting with our hard-earned pounds at the turnstile, but skill alone is to little avail when the drop zone lurks menacingly behind you.

After the midweek results, City now stand four points above that forbidding relegation line, but with Gillingham, Brighton, Oldham and Tranmere holding one, two, four and two games in hand over us, respectively.

The situation is manageable, but only if we starting winning again. Thankfully the creditable point in the 2-2 draw away against promotion-chasers Milton Keynes Dons last Saturday ended a five-game losing streak for City and has hopefully regenerated the confidence of Paul Tisdale’s men.

An added boost came a few days ago from the signing from Spurs of admired 21-year-old defender Troy Archibald-Henville, who is now with us on a permanent basis. The deal was clinched right at the end of the January transfer window.

Not only does this amount to the Grecians’ first formal transfer fee in seven years, it also secures the permanent services of a player whose 19 games last term helped to guarantee Exeter automatic promotion from League Two, and whose 17 appearances this season have amply demonstrated the talent, effort and determination Troy brings with him.

That little transfer statistic is also a reminder of the way City are trying to leave past troubles behind. The same is true, in a rather different way, for Southampton. The sequence of wheeler dealing and speculation around the club between April and Summer 2009 led one local paper to headline the saga, “From the brink of extinction to a billionaire.”

Overall, Southampton’s current League position (twelfth, on 33 points) belies their actual level of accomplishment on the field of play and the £3 million they have spent in the transfer window. Docked ten points in April 2009 for going into administration, and then ten with relegation, Saints fans will have their own ideas about who the chief ‘sinners’ are: that is, who is most responsible for leaving them in the third flight for the first time in 50 years.

The fact remains, however, that without that deduction they would be on the edge of the play-offs with games in hand over two of the other contenders. That is a fair measure of their quality this season, notwithstanding one or two blips and blemishes. Promotion is far from ruled out.

Meanwhile, although this encounter is hardly what most people would class as a ‘derby’, the relative isolation of the southwest lends all south coast encounters at least a bit of added spice as far as the Grecians are concerned – as does Saints’ recent acquisition of Exeter's Danny Seabourne.

I’m glad to say that I’ll be back at St James today. Having moved recently to the West Midlands I shall have more of a ‘commuting’ relationship with Exeter City for the rest of the year, but thankfully there are Devon friends and interests to keep me coming back from time-to-time.

As for Saints, well I remember them well from the 1970s, from 1980-81 when they finished sixth in the old Division One (with Alan Ball, Phil Boyer, Mick Channon, Charlie George and Ted MacDougall on board), and from the 1983-4 season when they achieved their highest ever top flight finish, second place. Now a friend of mine even lives in ‘Channon Court’ in Southampton, named after one of their legends!

I last saw Saints play here on 12 August 2008, when Dean Moxey was the Grecians’ 85th-minute goal hero in a midweek 3-1 defeat in the first round of the Carling Cup. Southampton looked quite comfortable in the end, but if two near misses by Adam Stansfield had gone the other way it might have been a different story.

At that time, just 18 months ago, Saints were a Championship side and City were the League Two new boys. Now we meet ‘on the level’, and Exeter have a chance not only of reversing Cup and friendly defeats at the hands of our visitors from St Mary’s, but also easing our current League concerns.

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