|Letters from Wiltshire #27|
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 16th Jan 2021 16:01
Welcome to 2021, and hopefully a vaccine-driven start to a much better year for everyone – which as you can guess was going to be my introduction two weeks ago. From a selfish perspective, hopefully an improved year for the U’s as well that sees us cement at the very least a play-off spot, but why stop there – don’t mess around with the lottery of play-offs, go straight for it with automatic promotion (who am I kidding). First up in that quest is a tough match against Tranmere Rovers Cambridge United, and no longer with Chuck to help us out. Still, set up for Jevani to put one over on his former club.
[b]Exeter City v Colchester United
The opponents for today’s Letters from Wiltshire #27, Exeter City, know all about the lottery of the play-offs, appearing as losing finalists in 2017, (spoiler alert) 2018 and of course 2020. Being a local trip from here, Exeter City also feature prominently in my memorabilia collection, and this isn’t the first blog I’ve written from St James Park. This should have included our three most recent visits, but on 25th January 2020 a trackside fire put paid to my journey at Tiverton, the pandemic prevented a visit for last season’s play-off match, and again for our most recent 6-1 mauling – though in truth I’m glad I wasn’t there for that one.
There are a number of etymological suggestions as well: that it is a corruption of the derogatory term “Greasy ‘Uns” for children from St Sidwells, or perhaps based on the Welsh name for Exeter, [i]Caerwysg[/i]. This derived from the Roman fort at Exeter, as Caer = fort and Wysg = Exe, and thus people from Exeter would have been known as ‘Caer Iscuns’ (which at a stretch, if repeated enough times, could morph into ‘Grecians’ over time). A slightly more prosaic explanation could simply be because a jeweller’s shop on Sidwell Street had a clock hanging outside with the name Grecians on its face
[b]It’s not the despair…[/b]
An exceptionally poor start to the season saw the U’s down near the relegation zone by the end of September, and knocked out of the League Cup in the first round at home to Aston Villa in front of the Sky Sports cameras (albeit it was a spirited performance). Although our league form rallied somewhat after that, in rapid succession we went out of the FA Cup in the first round at home to non-league Oxford City, and three days later went out of the EFL Trophy at the group stage, losing 2-0 at Southend United of all places.
However, we did seem to be capitalising on our opportunity to ‘concentrate on the league’, and with only one defeat from then through to the new year, we managed to climb into play-off contention. It wasn’t to last though, and a catastrophic dip in form through to mid-March realistically put paid to any lingering hope of the play-offs, even if mathematically it was still possible. Typical U’s, that despair gave way to faint hope after three wins on the bounce: at Stevenage, home to Luton, and at Forest Green Rovers, the latter including one of the fastest goals I’ve seen scored by a U’s player, as Drey Wright poked home a Sammie Szmodics cross after just 16 seconds.
However, as we know, hope is a capricious mistress, and all that good work was undone by three more successive defeats, at home to Accrington Stanley and Notts County, and away at Lincoln City, followed by a drab 0-0 at home to Swindon, ended any lingering dreams of an unlikely and ill-deserved play-off spot. That defeat at Lincoln would also turn out to be 7’ tall Sam Walker’s last game for the U’s, in technically his third spell at the club.
[b]All caught up[/b]
With Sam Walker expecting to leave at the end of the season, John McGreal’s side lined up that day
Just to emphasise, it really was a beautiful day, not just warm but for early May actually hot. St James Park was undergoing renovation, with the old open away terrace behind the goal demolished, and a new stand under construction on the railway side of the ground opposite us. There was a decent following from the U’s too, with the drum coming along for the ride as well, and our own [b]Durham[/b] making up what must have been nearly 200 of the faithful that afternoon, including Brennan Dickenson taking the opportunity to sit with the fans.
[b]Least said the better to be honest[/b]
Slopping defending from Frankie Kent allowed Liam McAlinden to nip in on the left, loft the ball over the advancing Dillon Barnes and run on to his own ball for what really should have been an open goal – only he chose to cross the ball instead of score, and Robbie Simpson shanked his chance up and over the bar. It was a considerable let-off for the U’s, and should have been a wake-up call, but we hit the snooze button and slumbered on.
Dillon Barnes, who wasn’t to be honest filling me with confidence, did reasonably well diving full-length to keep out a curling long-range shot from Ryan Harley, but it was the sort of regulation save you would expect any ‘keeper to make. It was his dithering with ball in hand that was bothering me most – often racing out looking for the early throw to put the U’s on a counter-attack, but then failing to decide which of the options presented to him to take.
Barnes was beaten late on in the first half, from a looping Simpson header that just evaded him and nestled in the bottom corner, but we were saved by the lineman flagging for offside. We were more or less in line with it, and I’ll be honest it looked very close, but to be fair the Exeter players didn’t protest too much, so I guess it was the correct call. Our only meaningful contribution all half had been a tame effort from Ryan Gondoh (making his full debut) which goalkeeper Christy Pym watched go safely outside the post.
Into the second half, and still no one appeared to really want to give it a go, until we were thrown a very unlikely life-line. Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe had replaced Mikael Mandron at half-time, and was proving to be a bit of a livewire in the box. Going down under a clumsy challenge from Sweeney, the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Sammie Szmodics claimed the chance for himself, but I really wish he hadn’t. Pym dived to his right, but Sammie’s effort was weak and straight down the middle, and gave Pym the chance to clear it with his trailing foot.
That just about summed up our day to be honest, and barely ten or so minutes later we were to pay for the miss. Having already hit the post from a Dean Moxey effort, Sweeney then did well down the Exeter right, sending an inviting cross into the box. Frankie Kent looked in two minds, perhaps expecting Barnes to come out and claim it. Barnes stayed rooted to his line presumably expecting Kent to deal with it, and Simpson took full advantage to run in between and head home easily. It was no more than we deserved to be honest.
McGreal changed things around a few minutes later, bringing on Lapslie and Wright for Murray and Senior in a double substitution, and it did at least inject a bit of urgency into the U’s. A speculative (mishit or deflected possibly?) cross from Ogedi-Uzokwe looked to be sneaking under the crossbar, which required Pym to palm it over the bar, and a half-chance for Prosser required a defter touch than he had to successfully lob Pym in the dying seconds – that one finished on the roof of the net.
And that was that, bowing out of our 2017/18 campaign with a whimper in 13th place and our worst league finish for 23 years…
[b]Exeter 1 (Robbie Simpson 71’) Colchester United 0[/b]
With their victory, Exeter claimed top slot in the play-offs, and after a comfortable 0-0 away at Lincoln, and then a resounding 3-1 victory in the second leg, went on to play Coventry City in the final in front of over 50,000 fans. Coventry had finished 6th, five points behind Exeter, but it didn’t show as they comfortably beat the Grecians 3-1 in the final – the Exeter consolation coming in the last minute of the game.
Sam Walker did indeed leave in the summer for a bench-warming appointment at Championship side Reading. Over the following two seasons he made just 14 appearances for the Royals, half of which were as the ‘rotation’ goalkeeper for cup matches. However, just before Christmas he joined Blackpool on a one-week emergency loan after Blackpool’s goalkeeper Chris Maxwell tested positive for coronavirus, and this was extended by another seven days on 30th December, so he’ll be playing in their match at Bristol Rovers today (alongside Luke Garbutt as it happens).
If you can bring yourself, here are the Exeter City highlights from YouTube.
Up the U’s
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Letters from Wiltshire #34 by wessex_exile
I won’t dwell on Robbie’s latest message to the supporters – we’ve all read it, and we’ve all probably drawn our own conclusions about what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. To me, bottom line, I suspect the clock is now ticking for Steve Ball (at least), turn around this terrible form pretty damn quick, or start clearing out your locker. Regardless of personal opinions on any of the individuals concerned, I would like to think none of us actually wants to see people made redundant in the current climate. But, these are difficult times that require tough decisions. If Steve Ball is up to the job and can turn this around, I’ll be more than happy to support him. If he’s not, he has to go before irreparable harm is done…and we all know what that will look like, we’ve been there before…
Letters from Wiltshire #33 by wessex_exile
Today we face a trip to Crawley, not usually a venue that bears fruit for the U’s it has to be said. In nine visits we’ve only won once in the league, and once in the League Cup. Of course, we’ll all remember that League Cup victory, indeed many of us were probably there to see us progress through to 5th round and the dream fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford. All of our goal-scorers that night, Luke’s Norris and Gambin, and Cohen Bramall (okay, technically an O.G.), are no longer with us, so let’s hope at the very least that recent departee and subsequent returnee Frank Nouble can bag another like his late equaliser against Mansfield. Steve Ball commented during the week about how tight the league is at the moment, and he’s right that a couple of back to back victories would see us move significantly up the table away from danger – but we’ve got to win them first Steve – something we’ve failed to do since our 1-0 victory at Scunthorpe on December 8th.
Letters from Wiltshire #32 by wessex_exile
Fifty years ago yesterday, Colchester United of the 4th Division pulled off the greatest cup giant-killing ever, beating 1st Division Leeds United 3-2 at Layer Road. Watched by 16,000, and the Match of the Day cameras, Dick Graham’s U’s, a rag-tag band of mostly aging journeymen, defied the odds to defeat arguably the greatest club side in Europe at the time. “The greatest cup giant-killing ever” is a bold claim, and over the years various football magazines and websites have run their own polls of which was the greatest. Whilst that day at Layer Rd always features, as the years have gone by other feats fresher in the memory have been put forward as a candidate – we probably all remember Ronnie Radford’s screamer against Newcastle, Sutton’s exploits, or even Bradford City quite recently at Stamford Bridge – but these pale into insignificance when you pause to reflect on the Don Revie side that we beat that day. Sprake, Cooper, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Giles etc – all full internationals, all household names – the only one missing was Billy Bremner, and that was because he was injured. By comparison, all we had to offer was Ray Crawford – at his peak arguably on a par with some in the Leeds side, but that peak had been ten years earlier playing for Ipswich and England. Eleven heroes didn’t just try and hold out against Leeds United, they took the game to their illustrious opponents with such tenacity, grit and no small amount of flair, and before we knew it, the U’s were 3-0 in the lead. As legs tired, Leeds got back into the game with goals from Hunter and Giles, but we held firm – typified at the death by Graham Smith pulling off an impossible save to ensure the U’s achieved [b][u]the greatest cup giant-killing ever![/b][/u]
Letters from Wiltshire #31 by wessex_exile
And so the dust settles on another transfer window closing, and despite (my) expectations that the possibility of incoming business was going to be remote, we have instead seen a veritable flurry of activity, with no less than three coming in. Big Frank Nouble, making a very welcome return on loan from Plymouth Argyle, of course needs no introduction. Neither really does feisty Brendan Sarpong-Wiredu, here on loan last season, and this time signed full-time from Charlton Athletic for an undisclosed fee. Actually paying hard cash for someone did come as a surprise, presumably offset by the sale of Cohen Bramall to Lincoln for a similarly undisclosed fee. However, the fact that the Addicks have insisted on not only a sell-on clause, but a rarely used buy-back clause too, suggests (a) Wiredu’s signing fee probably wasn’t too high, and (b) Charlton are protecting those finances with these clauses. The last one, which would have been a complete surprise for me were it not for a contact leaking me the news earlier yesterday, is left-back Josh Doherty on loan from Crawley. Josh was only announced once outgoing left-back Bramall was confirmed, and presumably his loan is directly related to part-time fashion model, TV and radio celeb and former left-back Mark Wright signing for Crawley on a non-contract game-by-game basis in December. We have also released seven from the academy, Ollie Kensdale, Miquel Scarlett, Sammie McLeod, Michael Fernandes, Ollie Sims, Danny Collinge and Matt Weaire, and I’m sure we all wish them the best for the future.
Letters from Wiltshire #30 by wessex_exile
Friday night football – can’t beat it. Gives you that feelgood factor all weekend, sitting back to enjoy a stress-free Saturday afternoon watching others fail in your wake. Of course, you have to win first, which we’ve been struggling to do for a while now, so be prepared for the possibility of a miserable weekend just in case. We share this evening with Reading v AFC Bournemouth, albeit they kick-off an hour later than we do. In the real world, leaders of the UK’s five largest business groups have written to Boris demanding action on the substantial difficulties they are facing over Brexit bureaucracy, whilst French border authorities are reporting that two-thirds of lorries arriving from the UK are empty (i.e. no exports leaving the UK). Still, at least the NHS can enjoy their extra £350m per week…