Saturday, 10 April 2010

Loyal to the red, white and red again

First published in The Grecian, 10 April 2010, Exeter City -v- Leyton Orient

Football loyalty can be an intense, tribal, frightening thing at times, especially when it comes to identification with a particular team and locality, or the rivalry embodied in a fiery derby match – like the one Exeter City fans hope they will be enjoying with Plymouth Argyle next season.

To make that possible, the Grecians need to stay in League One so as to be ready to welcome the Pilgrims back to where City-ites think they really belong! That remains a challenging task, too, with this tough match at St James’ against fellow strugglers Leyton Orient next on the menu. Then there are five matches between City and safety.

In midweek manager Paul Tisdale named the two qualities that he thinks can make the crucial difference between success and ‘the other option’ this term. They are “steely determination” and “the freedom to play.” They sound opposites. How can you be tight and open, constrained and free, disciplined and adventurous all at the same time, you may ask?

Yet that is the epitome of the modern game at its highest levels. When I played the knockabout stuff at school, you could have teams that did well because they were really strong in attack, or rock solid at the back, but not vice versa. It was the old “we’ll simply score one more than you” or “if we don’t let a goal in the worst we can end up with is a draw” syndrome.

In professional football you still come across that kind of thing. But it is far less common. The artistry of the game has merged with its science, and aptitude in one department alone has had to give way to competence in all. Of course the Barcelonas of this world can become sublime rather than merely great because of the exceptional talent of a Lionel Messi, but even they have to integrate that magic into a formula which eliminates weaknesses and builds on potential in every area.

The ’70s vision of ‘total football’ may never have been realised fully and consistently anywhere, apart from flashes of Brazilian, Spanish and Dutch genius over the years. But the notion of ‘deep football’, in the sense of combining across the board, is the ubiquitous aim now. As a result, my estimate is that the fitness, strength, skill, application and adaptability at the core of third-tier English football would have put today’s sides at least a division higher twenty-five years ago. Maybe more.

You can argue over that later. The task in hand is this game with the lads from East London. It’s what the pundits terms, with mocking self-awareness, “a six-pointer”. The winners, if there are such (and no-one would really benefit from a draw), will not only claim three points for themselves but take three away from one of their competitors for the dry land of 20th place. This is where Orient sit right now – with the Grecians just three points, three places and two goals ahead.

Below that mark lies a watery grave, a dip in finance and support, plus football in the fourth tier for 2010-11. No-one on the pitch, on the bench or behind the scenes for either club will be wanting to think in those terms for at least 90 minutes. But it is a reality that shadows us all.

That said, the Grecians enter this tussle with a booster from some good recent results and form. The gritty 0-0 draw away at Brentford over Easter follows victories against Colchester, Walsall and Bristol, interspersed with single points from Wycombe, Southend and Oldham.

Orient, on the other hand, who only a couple of months ago were drawing with Leeds, thumping Bristol Rovers 5-0 and beating Charlton 1-0 at the Valley (I saw the last two of those, and impressive they were), now find themselves on the edge of crisis – if not dangling right in it. Six defeats in the last seven games, slumping nine places from 11th on 2nd February, and sacking manager Geraint Williams after a 3-1 humiliation by Hartlepool… all this puts a very different complexion on their season.

Now former Yeovil boss Russell Slade has come in to try and rescue Barry Hearn’s team, with this trip to Devon his first outing in that role. City hardly need telling that sympathy or complacency cannot be allowed any head- or pitch-space today. Personally, however, I want to see both these sides remain in League One. It’s that loyalty question again, with mine spread (though not split).

I’ve been following Exeter City as my local side now for seven years. But in English terms (41 years of my life having been fully dedicated to Dumbarton up in Scotland) Orient have been my ‘London team’, thanks to my friend Kevin Scully, an Os fanatic and Rector of St Matthew’s Bethnal Green. Sadly, he can’t be here this afternoon – though he usually travels with the Orient faithful.

I’ll be in the Exeter stands nevertheless. I want it to be a great game; and whatever the result, I definitely hope for a couple of repeat fixtures next season.

[Pic: Fr Kevin Scully (right) and Mark Smith - the Orient faithful]


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