Gillingham, Rotherham United, Port Vale, Bradford City, Chesterfield, Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Fleetwood Town, Burton Albion, Shrewsbury Town, Bury, Southend United, Northampton Town, Oxford United, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Portsmouth, Plymouth Argyle, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool, Accrington Stanley, Luton Town, Wycombe Wanderers, Coventry City, Lincoln City, MK Dons, Tranmere Rovers, Swindon Town and Crewe Alexandra.
That’s a lot of teams. 29 in fact. One of them (Bury) doesn’t even exist in the same format anymore. What do they all have in common? Since the 2012/13 season, they have all been promoted to League 1 from the 4th tier of English football, League 2.
The same cannot be said for Exeter City.
This article will look to explore why Exeter City have remained in the basement division of the football league for nearly 10 years, despite having had some of the best players on show, certainly the best academy, and three play-off final appearances since 2017.
To remain in the same league for the period of time Exeter have suggests a certain level of mediocrity, given how evenly matched League 2 tends to be, and why so many teams regularly get promoted or relegated. A certain level of mediocrity would also suggest that the Grecians have had a number of average players in their side for that level of football, however this couldn’t be further from the reality.
Since 2012 the Grecians have had the following players represent the club:
● Matt Grimes, Captain of Swansea City
● David Wheeler, Wycombe Wanderers
● Christy Pym, Peterborough
● Jordan Storey, Preston North End
● Jayden Stockley, Preston North End
● *Jack Stacey, AFC Bournemouth
● *Kyle Edwards, West Bromwich Albion
● *Dara O’Shea, West Bromwich Albion
● Ollie Watkins, Aston Villa
● Ethan Ampadu, Chelsea (on loan at Sheffield United)
*On loan to the club.
There is no doubting how impressive the above list is. There’s also no doubting how impressive Exeter City’s academy is, having produced the likes of Matt Grimes, Ollie Watkins and Ethan Ampadu. Even 17 year-old, ex-Grecian Ben Chrisene recently represented the COVID-ravaged Aston Villa or “COVI-lla” side against Liverpool in The FA Cup.
Exeter City have no problem producing some of the finest players in this country. This means that they should be confident in their ability to keep generating revenue through player sales during a time in which bringing in money for a lower league club has never been as important. It also explains why they have made it to three play-off finals since 2017, losing to Blackpool, Coventry City and most recently, Northampton Town in 2017, 2018 and 2020 respectively.
The lack of experience of many of these players during their time at Exeter City could in part explain why the Grecians haven’t been successful in these finals. However, when you look a bit closer, Exeter have always done well at blending their talented youth with more experienced heads.
It makes the whole situation even more mind-boggling – how can a team with this many exciting young players who have the benefit of playing with more experienced players still struggle to succeed in a league that almost encourages promotion of its participants?!
Managers Part 1 – Paul Tisdale
Perhaps a look at the coaching set up at Exeter City will help explain the situation. In the period from 2006 to 2018, Exeter were managed by the current Bristol Rovers ‘Gaffer’, Paul Tisdale.
Tis did a remarkable job at St James’ Park, taking the team from what was the Conference, all the way up to League 1, and of course back down to the dreaded League 2 in 2012.
Tis’ achievements really cannot be overstated, and it’s why during his time at Exeter he was regularly linked with a number of jobs in the Championship and League 1. However, again despite his previous success in getting the Grecians up to League 1, between 2012 and 2018 he just couldn’t get them back to the promised land of the Third Tier.
Why? Well, in these early seasons when Exeter City were in League 2, incidentally when I was living in Exeter and fell in love with the club, the Grecians had a problem winning games at home. This problem was so serious that in the 2013/14 season, there was a realistic chance the Grecians would get relegated. Thankfully, they didn’t and as the years went on Tisdale appeared to improve the team, to the point where automatic promotion looked a realistic outcome in those first two play-off final years. However, something else that became increasingly apparent was the relationship between Paul Tisdale and the fans, which became fractured due to the fans’ unhappiness with many of his decisions – both on the pitch and his comments in the media. Some of this disgruntlement was justified, some not, but what must be said is this lack of connection between Manager and supporters certainly didn’t help the club’s cause, and could be argued to have been a reason why the promotion never happened.
Managers Part 2 – Matt Taylor
No, not ex-Portsmouth player Matt Taylor, or current Oxford striker Matt(y) Taylor, but yes, Exeter City Manager, Matt Taylor. An ex-player at the club during the Tisdale ‘glory years’ and a coach under him at the club too, it made sense for Taylor to step up and replace in Tisdale in 2018.
His first season started positively and the Grecians only missed out on the play-offs after a poor end to the season. He has also mended the disconnect between Manager and club from the end of the Tisdale era.
During the COVID-hit 2019/20 season, he was able to raise the team’s performance, and despite the chaos surrounding the behind-closed-door play-off Semi Final against Colchester which took place in the unfamiliar month of June, the Grecians again marched on to a final at Wembley. Sadly, recent history would yet again repeat itself, and an extremely physical Northampton Town side led by Keith Curle would go on to beat Exeter 4-0. Taylor wasn’t helped by his most experienced player and local Exeter native, Dean Moxey, who lost his head and got sent off at the start of the second half. The game would prove to be Moxey’s final appearance for the club. What a sad yet predictable result it proved to be.
At the time of writing, Exeter City are sitting 10th in League 2, just two points off these ever-familiar play-off spots. The chance of another trip to Wembley remains a very real possibility.
There is a lot to be positive about. Matt Jay, a local lad and one of the more experienced players in the team this season has already scored 11 goals in the league from midfield, and he has been ably assisted on the goalscoring front from big target man Ryan Bowman and one of the latest academy stars, Joel Randall. They have nine goals each.
In addition to Randall and Jay, the Grecians have a star playing in the middle of the park in the shape of Archie Collins, yet another academy graduate at the club. Randell Williams, a player who made it into the PFA League 2 Team of the Year for last season, also remains at the club for the time being.
It all feels rather familiar, which may not be a bad thing, but perhaps it’s not a good thing either given the lack of promotions in recent times.
It’s really hard to put a finger on why Exeter City continues to miss out on promotion. The standard of the players doesn’t appear to be a major problem, the quality of the academy as previously mentioned is incredible and the coaching is extremely solid too.
Have the Grecians simply been unlucky? I think there’s certainly been an element of bad luck in this instance; there are not many teams who make it to three play-finals in three years and lose all three of them. However, there is one firm conclusion that can be drawn:
The mentality of the club needs to change. Exeter City is a well-regarded side for many of the reasons that I’ve mentioned above, but with that potentially comes a sense of complacency to the club. Yes, they continue to bring in revenue through the sales of their players, but if the club truly wants to push onto the next level (League 1 is very much a realistic level for Exeter City) then there has to be a greater focus on securing promotion. In order to achieve this, it seems that tough decisions need to be made regarding some of the players, and from a recruitment perspective, there needs to be a focus on bringing players in who have already experienced promotion from League Two and are hungry for more success. To some extent, this is already happening but I think the results of the last decade demand this to become an even greater focus if promotion is going to be achieved. The talent is clearly there, but the belief is lacking.
It is clear that Exeter City are ready to compete in League 1, and ultimately they have the resources in place to be one of the better teams in that league. Evidently they need to take things step by step, but when you look at the current Wycombe side and the Yeovil team of a few years ago, it’s impossible not to dream about seeing the Greicans in the Championship. Anyway, back to reality and fingers crossed that this is finally the year that Exeter City get that much-deserved promotion!