First published in The Grecian, 02 April 2010, Exeter City -v- Colchester United
Ah, the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. An ideal time to relax, unwind, enjoy some good weather (hopefully) and let the stresses and strains of the first three months of the year disappear as we spend time pottering in the garden, playing with the kids, enjoying a distracting hobby, or taking in a game of football…
Hold on, though. If you thought this afternoon’s clash between Exeter City and Colchester United was going to be some kind of stress sinecure, you maybe haven’t been paying sufficient attention to what’s been going on in League One of late!
Here is an encounter between two sides at opposite ends of the table, with competing aspirations and rather different fortunes of late, who will both be stretching every fibre and sinew to secure another three points. A relaxing afternoon is unlikely, at least if you have the slightest concern for the fate of either team.
At this stage of the season, with eight matches separating us from the final verdict for 2009-10, every game has the potential to develop the spirit of a crucial cup-tie – dogged, thrilling, unpredictable and nail biting. And that’s just in the terraces!
For the Grecians, the pressure of the past few weeks has been alleviated by a positive run of results, culminating in a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Walsall at St James’ Park last Saturday. In five games, City have claimed nine points and six goals, conceding four. That followed seven games without a win, during which time we gave away eleven goals and scored just five, following the euphoria of a 2-0 home victory over Leeds United on 16 January.
In recent seasons, Exeter have been known among fans and observers for making a strong finish, often after a period of uncertainty or slump. That capacity to respond well under pressure has contributed to the not inconsiderable achievement of two Wembley play-off finals and back-to-back promotions from the Conference and Football League Two over the past three years.
This time, however, the Grecians have faced an unrelentingly tough eight months, lightened by some fine performances and one or two notable victories, surely – but also marked by high quality opposition, little room for manoeuvre or mistakes, and results which have proved disappointing compared to the degree of endeavour and skill invested by Paul Tisdale and his aspiring side.
Right now, however, City are showing the determination to dig themselves out of the League One relegation mire. Following that Walsall win, Exeter sit two points and three places above the drop zone, with just two sides holding games in hand over us. The team are in the position they need to be – namely, in control, of their own fate.
That is vital. Having to rely on other teams to drop points for you is perilous at any stage of the season, but most especially when it is heading towards its climax – because that is the time when you can least rely on those below or around you to do you a favour. Everyone is scrabbling for advantage, especially those for whom it could be a matter of survival or non-survival come May.
It hardly needs pointing out that three points for the Grecians this afternoon would be a further huge boost to the confidence of team, fans and city alike. Far from ‘job done’, but heading towards the mid-table boredom that, frankly, we all crave. A point would not be sniffed at either, in normal circumstances, but it is ‘full house’ that the lads will be going for in every game leading up to Huddersfield at St James’ on 8 May. That is the best route to safety.
Meanwhile, our opponents will have very different ideas. Colchester United sit on the bottom edge of the League One play-offs, with three hard games against top table rivals Millwall, Swindon and Charlton in the offing. This away trip to Exeter forms the bridge between those matches and a run of results which has been dispiriting, to say the least.
If the Grecians have been able to talk about revival of late, the men from Essex, and what claims to be the oldest town in Britain, will be feeling desperate to end a run of six games that has included three defeats (versus Walsall, Carlisle and Bristol Rovers) in spite of seven goals scored.
The last two matches against lowly, battling Wycombe Wanderers and mid-table Brentford have seen four scored and four conceded in two draws. Last Saturday the U’s gave away two more points in the 93rd minute, so they will be wanting to make sure they are as tight as possible against City this afternoon. An absorbing encounter is in prospect for a ‘relaxing’ Easter Saturday.