Print Sport Editor Nick Powell looks at the news that Exeter City will face Colchester United for a place in the League Two play-off final
For the third time in four seasons, here we are.
After agonisingly missing out on the League Two play-offs last season, Exeter return to the fight for a prize that has somehow managed to allude them for the last four seasons, a place in the Sky Bet League One.
No team in the history of this league, perhaps in the history of any league, has come closer to achieving promotion for four consecutive years and failed to get it than Exeter’s attempts to exit League Two.
Arguably, the Grecians’ promotion to League One should already be settled. Perhaps if the season had reached its natural end, it would have been. Just one week before the halting of the season due to the Coronavirus outbreak, however, Exeter slipped out of the top three automatic promotion places after just two points from their previous four games out of a possible twelve.
Three points stood between them and third when the season was ended, to make matters worse, Devon rivals Plymouth Argyle were promoted in their place.
So once again Exeter will have to take the thrilling, but unpredictable route to League One, via the playoffs.
In the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons, Exeter reached the final at Wembley on both occassions, beaten by Blackpool and Coventry respectively. Both sides finished below them in the League table before pipping them at the post in those finals.
Though they were unlikely to be braced for the agonising finish, many fans would’ve been pleasantly surprised to see their team taking on vastly more settled clubs last season, when they slipped out of the play-off places in the final few rounds of the season after a poor run of form.
But after starting this season so strongly, missing out on promotion yet again will come as a cruel blow to Matt Taylor’s men, who will feel they have never been more ready to enter League One.
When Exeter last met Colchester, they were five points clear in the automatic promotion places, it was their 11th consecutive league game without defeat and they were sitting comfortably in 2nd place. Their eyes weren’t looking down the table, but up. Victory in the game in hand they had on leaders Swindon would have taken the Grecians top.
Swindon’s 13 points from seven since then was solid, but hardly dazzling, form. Nevertheless it was enough to see them win the league, while Exeter slipped out of the top three with only 11 points from their nine games up to the suspension. They would finish up in fifth after Cheltenham Town leapfrogged them with a better points per game ratio.
On this occassion, things are likely to be very different to their previous play-off finals. With no crowds, who were integral in Exeter’s sensational semi-final win over Carlisle in 2016/17, it is likely to be a vastly different atmosphere, as Exeter and Colchester face each other twice in empty stadia.
There will be other challenges to, the long break, the lack of matches in the lead up and the bizarre situation of arriving at the play-offs before all games in the season have been played out.
Had it finished, a University of Reading model predicted the top six would have been identical, leaving Exeter in the same place, against the same opposition, but they also acknowledged that had the Devon derby against Plymouth of the 23rd March had gone ahead, and Exeter had won it, they would have been likely to have secured an automatic spot.
But the language coming out of St. James Park has been very positive. Articles on BBC Sport have noted both how cash reserves made from the valuable sales of Academy players in previous seasons have left Exeter financially stable during this uncertain time and despite two playing staff tested positive, Exeter are (according to captain Jake Taylor) “itching to get back” on the field.
Whatever the result in these play-offs, it is likely to be a historic and memorable set of games not only for Exeter, but for the Football League itself. Grecians fans might not get to see it live, but they will be desperate to see their team reach League One after eight seasons in their current division.
The League Two Play-offs begin with Colchester United vs Exeter City on Thursday 18th June, live on Sky Sports Football and BBC Radio Devon at 5:15pm.