Saturday, 6 March 2010

Digging for victory

First published in The Grecian, 06 March 2010, Exeter City -v- Oldham Athletic

According to the popular aphorism, “If you find yourself in a hole, just stop digging.” That makes perfect sense in most departments of life, where further excavation will inevitably make the dreaded pit even larger. In football, however, finding yourself in or near the relegation zone is precisely the time to get those shovels polished, into action and working extra hard!

There, I’ve mentioned it. The ‘R’ word. Not because I’m pessimistic, but because there’s little point in denying the scale and difficulty of the task Exeter City face, viewing the League One table from twenty-second out of twenty-four teams in the division. To do so would be sheer denial of reality… something that never, ever helps you to turn things around.

A prompt about-turn is precisely the Grecians’ task this afternoon – right through until the final whistle. No, not the one at around ten to five today, but the one we will hear on 8 May, against Huddersfield. There are exactly thirteen games left for City to dig for safety and victory. Some regard that as an unlucky number – but they are the ones who have already abandoned themselves to an unnamed fate. By contrast, the teams still playing at this level next year, or going on to higher things, will be the ones who have chosen to take fate into their own hands.

I have no doubt that the Grecians have the capacity to do that. But there is little time to lose (literally!), and there is therefore no point in looking back in grief or disbelief at the current poor patch of results: three wins in the last nineteen, if you must know, and no three-pointers since that euphoric 2-0 victory over ‘famous Leeds’ at St James Park on Saturday 16 January.

All that’s history. What really matters is what lies ahead. And the most important aspect of Exeter’s future is the grass beneath our feet and the goal right in front of us today. The manager and staff at Oldham Athletic will be thinking exactly the same thing, of course. For the Latics lie just one point in front of us, with the extra cushion (and incentive) of two games in hand.

There’s also a strange symmetry attached to this fixture, and it contains a ghost we definitely need to bury. When City travelled up to Boundary Park back on 12 December last year, we lost 2-0, following a level first half. The previous week, the Grecians’ opponents had also been Brighton & Hove Albion, and the result – like the match at the little-loved Withdean Stadium last weekend, ended in disappointing defeat… albeit by one rather than two goals.

In every sense, then, the task facing Exeter in this game is to disconnect themselves from the “what happened last time” and generate fresh momentum for what lies ahead. On paper this is entirely achievable. But it’s what happens on the pitch that counts, more so in the result than in the type of football played.

For most of the season, even when things have not been going well, City have done themselves credit with some attractive, flowing play. What we have lacked is consistency, concentration at the back (particularly when facing counter-attacks) and the ability to translate dominance and movement into balls striking the back of the net.

As pundits often observe, the line between success and failure in the professional game is incredibly thin. A kick, a touch, a well-timed run or a refereeing decision can make all the difference. That and the confidence to take get to that challenge first, to spot the gap, to take necessary risks, and to pounce on half-chances.

If City can win today and follow up with another good couple of performances, our prospects will start looking very different. The table remains tight, the results around us are not stacking up evenly, and we have Southend, Wycombe, Leyton Orient, Brentford, Tranmere and Hartlepool among those still to come. None of these are sides it will be easy to beat. But they are all within reach of our position and they are all teams we would rightly hope to take points off.

So it’s a going to be a challenging couple of month, undoubtedly. But there is no reason to start giving ‘bad luck’ a foothold. If the players can keep digging, the results will start to come. Stop for a breather, and the earth is likely to fall around them. Meanwhile, we in the stands can do our part to ensure that Exeter City are where they deserve to be next term: here in League One again.

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