First published in The Grecian, 24 April 2010, Exeter City -v- Charlton Athletic
Brace yourselves, then. Until recently not much Flybe traffic was getting through in the wake of all the volcano ash around, but Exeter City most definitely need ‘take off’ this afternoon, and over the coming two games away at Hartlepool and here at St James’s against Huddersfield, to ensure that we do not crash and burn in the last few kicks of the season.
To say last week’s 3-1 defeat at Tranmere was a disappointment would be an understatement. If the result had gone the other way, City would have been eight points clear of danger before Tuesday night’s catch-up game for Rovers against Brentford.
It hardly needs saying that “if” is the most impotent word in football, especially when combined with hindsight. The previous Saturday is ancient history now, and all Exeter eyes, hearts and minds are now fixed on the task of overhauling Charlton Athletic, who in turn will be desperate to pick themselves up from their Norwich defeat in order to secure a play-off place and keep the side in with a slender chance of automatic promotion if Leeds slip up again – as they might.
But frankly, what’s happening at the top of League One is of little interest or consolation to Grecian hearts, more intent as they are on not being broken than in wasting tears on the jostling of the big boys. The relevant fact for Paul Tisdale’s team is that Charlton will be in no mood to show generosity or quarter today. So this game has all the ingredients for hard fought, end-to-end entertainment. But let’s be honest, City fans would happily settle for 93 minutes of unalloyed goalless boredom if a winner in the last gasp of time-added-on was guaranteed. Which it won’t be.
This season the Grecians have had their ups and downs (more of the latter, as our league position shows) and along the way have displayed more than a few moments of promise, quality and inventiveness. But it is mistakes and lapses that have cost them precious points and left, if not a mountain (let’s be positive), at least a steep hill (let’s also be realistic) to climb. So bring on the jets, boys!
Beating Charlton is going to be very hard, but it is well within the realms of possibility. As I mentioned in my programme note for the (disappointing) Leyton Orient game, I saw the O’s take on and overcome Athletic 1-0 at the Valley back on 25 January. They did it by being at the top of their game, matching the Reds for flair, pace and commitment, and then making sure that they hassled and harried every ball.
After what proved to be the winner went in, it looked for a time as if Charlton were going to steal back. But then Orient pushed forward again, not by sitting on a lead (or recklessly trying to add to it while leaving them exposed, either), but by moving up from the back and continually trying to take the game to their opponents.
It was heart-stopping stuff, and anything like that this afternoon would be welcome entertainment. But the outcome is what really counts, for both sides. The pitch at St James’ is hardly likely to be as smooth and invitingly playable as the Valley was that cool February evening either, but City surely know how to play at home – and as the gaffer rightly suggested earlier on this term, it is likely to be our Devon exploits that keep us in this division, rather than travelling fortunes.
Positively, then, two of the Grecians’ final three games are on domestic territory. The trick is that they are also the toughest ones. My guess is that six points will do it. But nine has to be the target, to ensure that City really are masters of their own fate, following Brentford’s helpful victory over Tranmere on 20 April. My late grandad’s Bees have inadvertently kept City buzzing just that bit louder over the past few days. Now is the time to turn up the volume against the east Londoners again.
Meanwhile, as we agonise over every kick, ball and decision, a little secret mantra will be doing the rounds in the stands and on the Big Bank: “Gillingham, Tranmere, Wycombe, Southend… stay down.” For while wishing none of them any ill-will (and I don’t), those are the sides who will stand between Exeter City and League One football again in the summer – after England’s World Cup fortunes have… oh, I’ll let you finish that sentence as you wish!
Realistically, the Gills and the Rovers are the real survival rivals. But no half-thoughts should stray in their direction today. Every ounce of effort and grit is needed within St James’ Park to will on Exeter City to a morale-boosting, point grabbing win. We’ve got to want to succeed. Then we can.