The first time is always special. Whether it’s the ghostly glow above the surrounding rooftops during a midweek evening kick-off, or the low rumble of thousands of voices shouting in unison at 3pm on a Saturday, you don’t forget it. The wonder of a community football club’s hallowed turf has inspired, enthralled and united communities across the country for well over a century and shows little sign of abating.
It comes as something of a shock to many students in Exeter that such an atmosphere exists so close to Streatham Campus. That aura, of course, emanates from St. James’ Park – the home of Exeter City Football Club (ECFC). Fringed by rows of terraced houses, St. James’ Park sits in the heart of the student community in Exeter – a city where students comprise over 10% of all residents, with that figure rising to almost 19% in the district of St. James according to the 2011 census. The marriage of the student and local communities has been particularly pertinent this season as the stadium undergoes renovation, with the Old Grandstand that backs onto Well Street being demolished after 91 years of service in October 2017.
As sports fans in Exeter, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re blessed to have two quality clubs right on our doorstep – a remarkable achievement for such a small city. While the Chiefs have become one of the best rugby teams in Europe, the Grecians continue to upset the odds in the lower tiers of the English Football League (EFL).
It’s an achievement made even more remarkable considering City were hours away from going out of existence back in 2003. Instead of financial problems bringing an end to its then 102-year existence, the football club was saved by its fans – bought by the Supporters’ Trust, which retains a majority stake and comprises half of the eight-person board.
In the week of Exeter’s final home game of the 17/18 season – the play-off final second-leg against Lincoln – I caught up with Nick Hawker, ECFC Supporters’ Trust Chairman, as well as a member of ECFC’s supporters’ group, the Red Legion, and Nick Marsden, Publicity Secretary for Exeter University’s Grecian Society, to talk about the new stand, as well as the personal significance of the stadium and the club.
THE FIRST TIME & SJP MEMORIES
“The first game I watched was in 1969 – we lost 2-1 to Port Vale, but it didn’t put me off!” I’m chatting to Hawker in the club’s boardroom that overlooks the St. James’ Park pitch. The midday sun is blazing down onto the turf, casting spectral flashes of colour in the spray of the sprinklers dotted around the ground. Cameras are being installed onto the posts for the goal-line technology that will be used for the upcoming game. With the scaffolding of the new grandstand overlooking it all, it’s a far cry from the lower-league football of yesteryear.
“I used to sit in the Old Grandstand with my dad,” says Hawker. “When I was a kid I used to run newspaper copy from when journalists used to write by hand. I used to cycle down to Sidwell Street with the report in my hand.”
He looks across the ground, with the builders busily working away on the Old Grandstand’s replacement. “But I think you do have to move on,” he admits. Having started as a fan before leaving to work in London, Hawker returned to the club six years ago, initially as Secretary of the Supporters’ Trust before reaching his present position of chairman.
“The history of the Trust is embedded in people’s minds and emotions” – Nick Hawker, Exeter City Supporters’ Trust Chairman
“The history of the Trust is embedded in people’s minds and emotions more than anything and that determination to save the club is still the backbone of the Trust. It’s what we always go back to: no matter how hard it is [we always think] ‘there’s nothing we can’t get over because we actually saved the club’.”
And, fortunately, saving the club is precisely what the Trust did. Formed in 2000 as a response to the then directors’ perceived mismanagement of the club, things came to a head following Exeter’s relegation from the football league in 2003. It was a surreal period in the club’s history – Uri Geller, famous for bending spoons and befriending Michael Jackson, was a co-chairman at the time. Of more concern was the arrest of the chairman and vice-chairman over allegations of financial mismanagement. Trust members Ian Huxham, Terry Pavey and Julian Tagg were appointed as directors of ECFC, before the Trust purchased the club in September 2003 for £20,000.
“This year it’s been 15 years [of owning the club], and we’ve stayed in the football league after coming out of the Conference [in 2008],” says Hawker. With Exeter reaching the League Two play-offs for the second consecutive season, Hawker is similarly delighted with the success on the pitch as well as off it. “The last two seasons have been really successful. It’s a great example of what you can do as a Supporters’ Trust.”
It was an F.A. Cup fixture against Manchester United in 2005 that paved the way for Exeter’s regeneration from the brink of annihilation. After holding Sir Alex Ferguson’s titans to a goalless draw at Old Trafford, the return leg at St. James’ Park brought in a new generation of Exeter City fans, as well as swelling the coffers to help finally bring the club out of administration. Coincidentally, the Red Devils are related to the game that Hawker picks out as the moment his love affair with Exeter began.
“Going to St. James’ Park was “the bedrock of the relationship I had with my dad”, explains Hawker”
“I remember beating Sheffield Wednesday 3-1 in a cup game which I really, really enjoyed – I think that was my first big game I went to see, and the week prior Sheffield Wednesday had beaten Manchester United so it was nicely set up.”
As with many fans, supporting City meant more than simply what happened on the pitch. Going to St. James’ Park was “the bedrock of the relationship I had with my dad”, explains Hawker. “He started taking me to the football when I was old enough and I had a few years in my teens and early 20s when I wanted to be with my mates. But thereafter I was bringing him to games as he got older.
“I think Exeter especially foster that family togetherness. That’s what’s kept them going. Not long after he died, I retired early and took up a role on the Trust as the Secretary, and I’m now Chairman.”
Despite his emotional familial link to the Old Grandstand, Hawker is clear that the redevelopment needed to take place. “The upkeep of a wooden stand was significant – you’ve got the health and safety concerns every year and getting the licenses to be able to use it.
“Also, I think people’s expectations around what’s available on a matchday have changed significantly. It’s not a lukewarm cup of Bovril and a dodgy pasty anymore; people want a bit more than that. You’ve got to move with the times.”
THE NEW GRANDSTAND
Which is what ECFC and St. James’ Park have had to do. The new structure, currently under development and projected to be completed before the end of October at an estimated cost of £3.5m, replaces the Old Grandstand – also known as the Stagecoach Stand for sponsorship purposes. After the new grandstand’s completion, work will begin on another new-build – a block of student accommodation that will sit behind the Big Bank terrace at the north east of the stadium.
The ground is in fact owned by the council, with ECFC tasked with maintaining its upkeep. The pitch – visibly damaged through a combination of the poor weather earlier in the year and a lack of sunlight due to the construction work – will receive £40,000 worth of attention during pre-season to go towards improving the playing surface, with that money coming directly from the club.
Yet funding the development of the new stand has been understandably difficult for a Trust-owned club. The finance has arrived through player sales, cup-run money, and the developers. As Hawker puts it: “It’s mostly been ‘you build your student housing, and we’ll let you have that [if] you build us a new grandstand’.
“[It] is all about the profit ratios for the developers,” he explains. “You try to drive a hard bargain, but we’ve got a new stand out of it, and it’s fantastic. It’s going to make a huge difference – the stand will have a proper undercroft, they’re going to do a bit in the corner over there [gestures] where the trees are, they’re going to do a bit to have some food outlets for the Big Bank as well. So in some respects it’s miraculous that we’ve actually got there because we don’t have a huge amount of money yet we’ve still been able to build a new grandstand.”
The corner Hawker refers to is the leafy space that separates the Grandstand from the Big Bank. Such is the ground’s proximity to the railway line, the new Grandstand cannot be built along the length of the touchline due to the land’s sharp decline down to the tracks – another challenge in developing the current site of St. James’ Park.
Once the new Grandstand is completed – and the food, drink and toilet facilities fill the corner between the Big Bank and the Grandstand – work will begin on building a covered away end. Behind the Big Bank, the block of student accommodation will house 336 students when it is completed – for whom, as Hawker points out, “the nearest watering hole is going to be the Centre Spot”.
FROM TO DICK PYM TO ETHAN AMPADU – EXETER’S HERITAGE OF HOME-GROWN TALENT
The land where the stadium sits had a more humble beginning – owned by Lady Anne Clifford, it was rented out for fattening pigs, with the proceeds paying for an apprenticeship of a poor child from the parish of St. Stephen.
Fast-forward to 1921, and the ground was bought by ECFC following the sale of star goalkeeper and Topsham man, Dick Pym – a method of growth that the current set-up is well versed with due to the club’s academy.
“Exeter have made more money in the last three seasons than all the other league two clubs put together through transfer fees”
Hawker says: “Julian Tagg has to take a huge amount of credit for this in the way he’s managed and developed the academy. I think I read a piece the other day that Exeter have made more money in the last three seasons than all the other League Two clubs put together through transfer fees. People like Matt Grimes [sold to Swansea for £1.75m], Ollie Watkins [to Brentford for a reported £1.8m], Ethan Ampadu [to Chelsea for a fee that could rise to £2.5m] – and we’ve got players in the academy now who are looking good.
“That’s been our financial model and our saving grace really because we don’t have the means to do the work we’ve wanted to in terms of ground development and [the] training ground – bringing good players in who are going to help you succeed, you need that flow of money, so without that, it starts to be a struggle.”
Further to their academy stars helping pave the way for the club’s continuation and development, the building of a new block of student accommodation behind the Big Bank has funded the current redevelopment on the stadium, although the decision has been met with some disgruntlement from the residents of St. James. With the well-documented disruption after the 2016 Football Varsity souring the relationship between University students and local residents, it can sometimes feel there is something of a divide between those who come to study in the city and the people for whom it is a more permanent home.
Hawker dismissed the student presence as a negative when I asked him, declaring “there are huge advantages to having students” to both the city and the club. “I think just as an Exonian, students breathe life into the city, particularly in the cold wintery months,” he said.
“It’s nice for the students to come closer into the city so that integration is a lot easier, and we’ve got some great facilities here – we’ve got the Centre Spot, there are bands here from time to time, there’s a comedy club. [The new student accommodation] could work really, really well for everybody.”
I decided to see whether a divide was felt on the terraces by talking to representatives of the ECFC fanbase – one who is part of the Red Legion, the ECFC Supporters’ Group set up in 2015 to improve atmosphere and generate an identity within the ground and on away days, and Nick Marsden of Exeter University’s Grecian Society.
“It does bug us sometimes when we see students wearing GREEN Exeter Uni tops in our section”
“I think the students are more than welcome,” says the member of the Red Legion, who asked to remain anonymous. “If someone wants to come and support the club, spend their money, and back the team, then who am I to say they shouldn’t be here?
“I get why residents were against the [accommodation] building and having more students in the area. But it is what it is.” The member does, however, highlight one particular grievance with Uni students on the terraces: “It does bug us sometimes when we see students wearing Exeter Uni green tops in our section”. Such a sartorial faux pas is particularly unwanted with green being the colour of rivals Plymouth.
For Marsden, and many students who take the Grecians to their heart, ECFC and St. James’ Park is not his first home – yet that hasn’t stopped him from embracing Exeter and getting behind the club. “I’m a Blackburn fan,” says Marsden, “and it’s nice having the contrast between having really bad owners at my first club and then supporting a Trust-run club as my second.”
On the issue of a cultural divide, Marsden says local supporters are largely understanding: “I think the fans do appreciate we’re students but we do get down to games. There’s a good Exeter City forum called exeweb so I’ll talk to people there – you don’t usually get anyone saying ‘oh, you’re students, you shouldn’t be coming along’. They do know that they’re our second team[s] but they appreciate that we’re trying to grow [the Exeter fanbase].”
Like many students, the location of St. James’ Park came as a shock for Marsden: “I remember going past the stadium early on [and] I was amazed how close it was to the Uni. I always planned on seeing games there.
“I went to see Wycombe in a cup game and saw Exeter pump them 4-2 – that got me into it,” Marsden says. Is there any threat of the Grecians becoming his first-choice club? “Not really,” he admits. “Although I’m really into City, they’re definitely my strong second team – I don’t support them that much to be first. But I solidly think I’ll be watching after [I leave] Exeter, even if [they went down to] the Conference because it’s got such good memories of Uni life and meeting people through the club.”
Marsden admits he’s found himself drawn to the 4000-capacity Big Bank terrace – a huge asset of the ground – and the atmosphere generated there by the Red Legion. The member I spoke to admits it took a concerted effort to generate the noise the ground currently emits: “Around three seasons ago, the atmosphere was atrocious. There was probably more atmosphere at Sandy Park than you would get here.
“I don’t want to say we’re up there with Germany and the Bundesliga, but we’re probably the next best thing in this country”
“The idea was mooted on away days […] about lads getting involved and getting the atmosphere together. When we go to away days – we’ve been to Swindon, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury – they’re all sat-down and soulless.”
From the despair of fans singing “one ‘We Are Exeter’ in the whole 90-minutes” a few years ago, the Red Legion now tasks itself with turning St. James’ Park into a more vocally partisan fortress, as well as bringing banners and flags to mark their territory. “When we have control of the atmosphere and get it going…I’ve been to Germany to watch football and it’s probably – I don’t want to say we’re up there with Germany and the Bundesliga, but we’re probably the next best thing in this country.”
On the topic of St. James’ Park, he is adamant about its importance. “It’s our home,” he says. “It’s right in the City centre.” The appeal of the ground is heightened by the fact the Big Bank is the largest all-standing terrace left in English football. “The Bank’s massive, obviously. It’s a big draw for a lot of us,” he says. “[St. James’ Park] is home – and the redevelopment needed to be done, but I’d be gutted if we ever had to move.”
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
The fact that Exeter chose to stay at St. James’ Park may largely have been a question of finance, yet the personal and emotional consequences of moving home were also considered by the Trust.
“It was looked at a number of years go,” explains Hawker. “The supporters made their feelings clear that they didn’t want to move. We talked about my dad and the emotion [of staying at St. James’ Park]. I’ve got a season ticket and I exchange comments with the lady I sit next to. Football supporters like that, they always stand or sit in the same place – you have your rituals before the game. You either go to the pub, or the Centre Spot [and] something as big as moving grounds disrupts all of that.”
“Until we become massive like Barcelona, I don’t think we’ll ever have to move to be honest”
This sentiment was echoed by the two supporters I spoke to as well. “I’d be gutted if we ever had to move,” says the member of the Red Legion. “I wouldn’t want to see it. I think the Chiefs have done it, but it hasn’t worked. Our ground [has too much] sentimental value. Until we become massive like Barcelona, I don’t think we’ll ever have to move to be honest.”
Marsden concurred: “Despite the fact [the ground is being] redeveloped, I do like stadiums with a bit of character. The Old Grandstand was a lovely stand – it had had its time, but it’s different to the corporate bowls you get. You hear the players and feel a lot closer [to the action in an older stadium].”
Yet in many ways the move has worked for Exeter Chiefs. Since leaving the County Ground for Sandy Park in 2006, the Chiefs have continually improved on and off the field, culminating in winning the biggest prize in English rugby in 2017. The new site has allowed the Chiefs to bring corporate facilities into the ground, and with a new £25m hotel approved in October 2017, the revenue generated by the relocation has seen their financial situation improve dramatically.
The Digby & Sowton train station allows fans easy access to Sandy Park – something ECFC experiences with the railway line running beneath the Grandstand and Big Bank – yet the out-of-town location creates an entirely different experience. Rather than the terraced houses and historic pubs that surround St. James’ Park, Sandy Park can list the M5 and Ikea as its neighbours. Despite the ardent support the Chiefs receive, it’s distinctly lacking in the historic romance ECFC and St. James’ Park can claim on a matchday.
For all its romance and the sentiment attached to St. James’ Park, Hawker admits the current location of ECFC’s stadium does pose problems when it comes to finance and “how [to] make a football ground generate revenue seven days a week, not just on matchdays. We’re really restricted by that here, we don’t have huge conference suites, so we always have to be open to the idea that maybe [a new stadium is] something we need to keep in our back pocket.
“You wouldn’t do it lightly, and you certainly wouldn’t do it without asking the majority shareholders, so it’s their shout. But I think you have to be alert to the fact that the cost of running a football team increases all the time.”
“COMPARISON IS THE DEATH OF JOY”
The question of whether to stay or go is by no means an easy one to answer. In mentioning Shrewsbury Town as an example of a “soulless” ground, the Red Legion representative chose a club that provides a neat juxtaposition with ECFC.
The parallels between Exeter and the historic market town of Shrewsbury feel particularly pertinent this season. Like Exeter in the division below, Shrewsbury Town finished third in League One, losing their play-off final the day before Exeter’s own defeat at Wembley. In similar fashion to Exeter boss Paul Tisdale’s departure, Shrewsbury manager Paul Hurst left the club not long after the final whistle at Wembley – before being swiftly replaced by another man. There is little place for sentimentality when it comes to succession planning.
Having profited from selling home-grown players such as Joe Hart, Dave Edwards, and Callum Burton, their model of academy talent and an eye for a bargain in the transfer market is also not too dissimilar to Exeter’s. Shrewsbury also dropped out of the football league just over a decade ago, facing financial difficulties at the same time as Exeter – a difficult period for many lower league clubs that eventually led to the demise of the likes of Hereford United and Chester City. Those two clubs’ relatively recent dissolution is a very real reminder of what financial failure can mean.
“Hereford and Chester’s relatively recent dissolution is a very real reminder of what financial failure can mean”
Yet there is one key difference between these two teams – and that is their respective stadia. Where Exeter have stayed at St. James’ Park, Shrewsbury left their own ground, the Gay Meadow, in 2007. Like St. James’ Park, the Gay Meadow was in the centre of the town with the old terraces tucked tightly against a railway-line; crucially, however, it also sat on the bank of the River Severn, and frequent flooding of the pitch proved terminal when the decision between renovating or moving to a purpose-built stadium was made.
The decision to move to a new-build has, ultimately, brought rewards to Shrewsbury on and off the pitch, with the 17/18 season being their highest finish in the English pyramid in 29 years, while they also notched up record profits in 16/17 as well. This, in no small part, is down to the ground’s ability to produce revenue outside football’s traditional matchday fare. Yet the accusation that the New Meadow is a “sat down and soulless” replacement to the 97-year old Gay Meadow appears to have some legs – Shrewsbury will be the first club in the EFL to install rail seating to appease fans who miss the allure, and atmosphere, that comes with standing terraces.
Undoubtedly, the issue of standing at football matches is a deeply emotive one, with atmosphere, economics and spectacle often weighed against tragedy and safety. The Red Legion member I spoke to was adamant that “we couldn’t do what we do without [the Big Bank]” in terms of generating atmosphere and support – views shared by ECFC Chairman Julian Tagg, who declared “for clubs like Exeter, terracing is imperative” earlier this month as he backed the Stand Up For Choice campaign. For now, at least, the relative novelty of the Big Bank remains a major draw in attracting fans to St. James’ Park.
STABILITY OR SUCCESS?
With the current renovation of St. James’ Park, a move to an out-of-town stadium is now highly unlikely for Exeter in the near-future, yet the dark days of administration are still all-too prevalent for Hawker and the Red Legion to be looking at clubs like Shrewsbury and hoping they had followed suit in moving grounds.
“If it was [a decision between] fan ownership and the community feel in Exeter City Football Club, or being someone like Portsmouth, Bolton, or Wigan and it not being sustainable, then I would choose what we are now every day of the week,” says the Red Legion member. “I have sympathy with clubs like [Leyton] Orient and Hereford. I would never want that.”
“People say you can’t buy success but [money] goes a long way towards it!”
Hawker says the Trust has to collectively consider what success means for Exeter. “Do we want to have a crack at the Championship,” Hawker says, “or do we consolidate where we are? If you really want a crack at the Championship, what would that mean? We have to ask the supporters what they want – and that’s the lovely thing, they have that choice.” Once again, it’s a question of balancing finance with the Trust’s wishes for Hawker. “People say you can’t buy success but [money] goes a long way towards it!”
For the Red Legion fan, it’s an easy decision between risk and reward: “I think in terms of stability, mid-table League One isn’t above the club. If you’re looking at some of the clubs in League One – Accrington have got there this year, Wimbeldon have done very well, Wycombe are in there and they’re also fan-owned – I don’t think it’s above us. Maybe getting to the Championship is a bit of a pipe-dream, but I think once you get to the point where the club was going to die, where the club was 24 hours from being wiped off the face of the earth and we were f****d over, you value the fact that there is an Exeter City Football Club – that’s the main thing.”
Having been integral to the club for so long – briefly becoming the longest-serving manager in the English game after Arsène Wenger left Arsenal – manager Paul Tisdale’s departure, along with Director of Football Steve Perryman, will bring new challenges for ECFC next season as Matt Taylor takes charge. Chatting before Tisdale’s move to M.K. Dons, Hawker was full of praise for the man who held the reins at St. James’ Park for 12 years: “He got the ethos, he got what supporter ownership is about.
“Nobody ever talks about promotion, nobody ever talks about winning all the time, we just talk about how do we grow – and I think that he really gets that and I think we’ve suited one another really well.” And although Tisdale will no longer be part of that journey, growth is what the new stand represents: of the club, the city, and the two communities that live in the surrounding area.
As I leave the boardroom – past the conference rooms that exacerbated the club’s financial problems in the 1990s and 2000s – Hawker shows me the Museum that is being created by the club in partnership with Exeter University. It’s a testament to the rich history the club has, one built by people like Hawker and his fellow members of the Supporters’ Trust. The expertise the University can offer the club – through Gabriella Giannachi and Will Barrett – in preserving and celebrating ECFC and its community is also an invaluable aid, with Hawker calling it “a great partnership”.
If there is a divide between students and locals, the University’s expertise in maintaining ECFC’s history through personal accounts and paraphernalia is a wonderful way to bridge it. The history of a club isn’t just its statistical record – the wins and losses, transfers and relegations, promotions and goals. It’s as much about the people who volunteer to paint the railings; the generations of families who return together week-in, week-out; the fans who stump up their own money to save a club from ruin.
And integral to history is a place to call home. In an era where television viewership of the Premier League can boast well in excess of one million people in the UK alone, the proximity of the bricks-and-mortar of St. James’ Park to the city centre – with its average attendance of just over 4000 – feels vital to maintaining the club’s identity as an accessible and meaningful site for football supporters in Devon. It’s a reminder of what preceded, and still sustains, the corporate juggernauts at the pinnacle of the English game.
As I leave the ground, there’s a keen sense of anticipation in the air. As well as everyone involved with the club looking forward to the prospect of promotion, there’s also a distinct contentment to the unseen and more unheralded proceedings that are taking place – from the staff restocking the Centre Spot cellar ahead of the match against Lincoln, to fans hovering outside the Club Shop looking to pick up a scarf or shirt for a loved one. There’s something reassuringly stable and welcoming that resonates throughout the place. That feeling is certainly heightened by the intense heat of the afternoon, a climate that lasts until the evening of the game itself.
* * *
The fans arrive early, quelling the heat and nerves with thirst-quenching drinks. I join the ranks on the Big Bank where the Red Legion are in full flow, ceaselessly drumming the crowd into full voice.
The skeletal shadows of the new grandstand stretch across the turf, grazing the far touchline of the St. James’ Park pitch. A giant shirt bearing the name of the late Adam Stansfield – the former Exeter player whose foundation is championed by the club – is draped across the stand as the players make their way out of the changing rooms. It’s a poignant reminder that Bill Shankly’s infamous statement on life and death still resonates – for all that football is a game, it takes a community club like Exeter City to illuminate how it means so much more to the people who find a home in its hallowed ground. The Big Bank erupts into cheers and cries of support.
Ninety-minutes later and the Grecians have defeated Lincoln 3-1, with three incredible goals that send the fans delirious. Supporters spill out from the Big Bank onto the sodden pitch. The surface is scarred with stud-marks and patches of scorched earth from an uncharacteristically frosty spring. Choruses of ‘Que Sera, Sera’ herald the players as they head triumphantly back to the dressing room. In between the pillars of the new structure, and behind the houses that surround St. James’ Park, the sun has all-but set into thin bars of deep amber.
Flags wave. A flare is lit. According to reports, fisticuffs are thrown, too. Tonight, the Grecian faithful celebrate their second trip to Wembley in twelve months; 11 days later, they travel east along the arteries of England to the home of football – from St. James’ Park Station to Wembley Way, where their side succumbs to a second play-off final defeat in the space of 12 months.
Despite the undoubtable disappointment at falling at the final hurdle, and Paul Tisdale’s surprise exit, the fact ECFC still exists, and EFL football is being played at St. James’ Park, is something to savour. In the days that follow, the modernisation of St. James’ Park continues: the stadium falls silent, the bones of the new grandstand are fleshed out, and the turf breathes in the summer sun. Until next season, when it all begins again.