On matchdays, Paul Tisdale doesn’t go unnoticed. “I’ve done the cravat, I did the deer stalker hat before it became big, I’m wearing the pork pie hats at the moment and I enjoy mixing my tweeds. I’m also the lead ambassador for Ted Baker.” It is quite a statement he makes but “it’s about being English, about being yourself. A bold look sends a strong message to your players and they can have confidence in you.”
The Daily Mirror ran a poll recently – Is Paul Tisdale a fashion icon? A) Yes, he’s a lucid tweed dream. Or B) No, he looks like an organic greengrocer from Shoreditch. “Both sound alright to me” he claims, but really, he looks relieved when I tell him that the ‘lucid tweed dream’ has shaded it. He leans back in his chair with an air of satisfaction. “The thing is, if I see an opposition manager at the start of a game wearing tracksuit bottoms tucked into his socks, in my mind, I’m one-nil up already.”
But this isn’t matchday. ‘Tis’ came bouncing out of the reception, all smiles and affability, to invite me into the managers’ office. ‘The boldest dressed manager in English football’ was in his training kit and flip flops – a more casual look for a Friday afternoon.
He is the second longest serving manager in English football, and “yes,” chuckling, he is counting down the days until Arsene Wenger retires. “I’ve shown a commitment to the club and they have given their full support back, and that’s why it has been such a success.” Success indeed – three promotions, two trips to Wembley and ten years of steady income have been the staples of his tenure at St James’ Park. “When you look at the dynamic of a football club, you look at the size of the club facilities and the geography. Those three, coupled with the finances show where the club should be and we are a middle third league two team. Our aim is to overachieve and play above our level.”
Once a handy player himself (scoring a premier league goal for Southampton against Manchester City in 1996) he fell into management whilst coming back from injury. Training at Bath University where his brother was studying, he was approached to manage the football team. In 2002 Team Bath achieved a feat not seen since 1880 – a University team reaching the first round of the FA cup.
“It was a brilliant day. The University brought in 5000 seats and we actually could have beaten them (Mansfield Town). We just couldn’t quite believe it. 70 people were in the press conference on the Wednesday before the game, including CNN – we couldn’t have imagined that.” The cup run had wider implications for the University. “There was a huge hike in UCAS applications for the following year and the netball team rode on the wave of success and made it into one of the top professional leagues too.”
Bath University are in town on Wednesday night in the varsity game at St James’ Park and there is a big push for student involvement at the football club. “In Exeter there is a lot to be gained by having as much connection and affinity to the university as possible. We are right on the doorstep and offer a great atmosphere.” At £5 a ticket to stand in the ‘big bank’ it’s a steal in times of ticket price inflation, and it really is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. There is hope for a stadium development in the coming years with the potential for 320 student beds behind one of the stands. “Having students there is a practical solution and the University is great for business in the town.”
But something else marks out Exeter City: it is a club with a conscience. Five years ago, 31 year old Adam Stansfield, “the local lad who always tried his best; tough as old boots,” according to Tisdale, lost his life to bowel cancer. With two years still to run on his contract, the manager and the supporters trust insisted on it being paid in full to the estate. That was 5% of the clubs revenue for that year but there were no objections. The number 9 shirt has been retired until 2019, and touchingly, the name ‘Adam Stansfield’ still appears in the first team squad listing in the match day programme. The players are given a poignant reminder every day, passing a mannequin adorned with his last shirt and boots worn for the club which stands in the reception at the training ground.
Out of the window the academy players, with their can-do attitudes and questionable haircuts are cleaning the footballs and sweeping the grass off the main walkway. Tisdale cuts a relaxed figure. A man with a calm, committed and collected attitude, he’s happy at the club and the club are happy with him. It’s surely only a matter of time before he topples Arsene Wenger.