After seasons of top-half misfortune, are Exeter City finally primed for promotion? Joshua Hull previews their chances in the 2019-20 campaign.
As painful and raw as it may still be, the terms Exeter City and play-off heartache have formed an uneasy union during recent years.
Such is the nature of the knockout format, where the fate of an entire season rests on whose resolve and nerve is strongest, there will always be teams who feel their failure was unjust and unfortunate. The Grecians, who missed out on the top seven by one point last season and were runners-up at Wembley in 2017 and 2018, have certainly earned themselves the right to enter that category.
However, with Matt Taylor’s team undefeated in the opening ten League Two fixtures, there is renewed optimism that City can finally clinch one of the three automatic promotion positions – eradicating the need to tread down that darkly familiar play-off path.
The manager, of course, is the most crucial cog in the machine and, in Taylor, Exeter are blessed with a young man whose stock in the football world is ever-rising. Last week an approach was made from Lincoln City about the (then) vacant position at Sincil Bank. Though the 37 year-old (thankfully) refuted, it is a sign that City have a talent on their hands and that his work is not going under the radar.
Truth be told, their 1-1 draw with Newport was not Exeter’s most distinguished and fluent footballing performance. But, cliché as it may sound, dogging out results is an essential element of becoming a consistent side. Taylor’s grounding as a central defender appears to have played into the fact that the organisation and solidity of an Exeter team, which was always known for demonstrating principles of playing attractive, passing football, has been improved.
Certainly, this summer’s recruitment was geared towards adding extra pace and physicality, as well as essential squad depth, with the likes of Alex Fisher and Nigel Atangana among nine new faces at St. James’ Park. Granted, there remains a worry about who can provide the firepower missing since Jayden Stockley – top scorer for the previous two years – left for Preston in January.
THE FANTASY OF PROMOTION SHOULD NOT INTIMIDATE THE LEAGUE LEADERS, FOR THEY ARE UP THERE ON MERIT
The more prevalent question now is what constitutes a successful season for the club. It is always important with Exeter to consider the self-imposed financial restrictions of the club’s fan ownership model. However, natural progression from previous years suggests promotion is a realistic outcome. And, undoubtedly, their generally strong start to the season will have raised expectation and pressure to another level.
In such circumstances, it is remarkable to think that Taylor is only just entering his second season in the management business – having taken the helm after Paul Tisdale’s departure to MK Dons – and is the fourth youngest boss in the entirety of the Football League.
At the time it appeared a risky appointment, given his lack of experience and both the longevity and achievements of his predecessor. Fortunately, Taylor had already established a rapport with the fans through his playing days, making over 100 appearances for Exeter and captaining the club to promotion from the Conference. There was also a feeling among supporters that, despite Tisdale’s strong performance over twelve years in Devon, their relationship with the manager had become stale and needed re-energising. Taylor represents the change they wanted, his highly likeable and engaging character coalescing with ruthless and decisive decision making.
Ultimately, attempts to measure success for Exeter can feel a little patronising. Like any other club, winning is the definition of success. Obsession with attendances, trophy cabinets, and budgets only exists to begrudge the fact that City possess a very capable group of players, whose professional pride will not allow them to settle for second best. Rightly, the fantasy of promotion should not intimidate the league leaders, for they are up there on merit.
And perhaps, given everything gone before, the Grecians will have a little bit of fortune on their side, too.