A brief history of the Grecians
The early years
Exeter City Football Club were formed in 1904 by soccer enthusiasts following the merger of two local clubs. They moved into St James’ Park – then nothing more than a field – and entered a team into the East Devon League.
The Grecians quickly switched to the stronger Plymouth & District League, before taking the big step of turning professional, and at the same time entering the Southern League in 1908.
Whilst never winning any honours in the Southern League, Exeter nevertheless progressed greatly both on and off the field during their 12-year stay in the competition, although of course they, like so many other clubs, stopped playing for the duration of the First World War.
The tour of South America and joining the Football League
The club did make an historic tour of South America in 1914, during which time they played against teams in Argentina and Brazil. In the latter country they became the first club to play against the Brazilian international team. Exeter City were invited by the Football League to become founder members of the Third Division in 1920, which became regionalised into a southern section a year later. The historic first match in the Football League took place on Saturday 28th August 1920, when Brentford were the visitors to St James’ Park.
Disaster struck in the mid-1920s when the grandstand was destroyed by fire. For several matches the players had to change in a nearby public house in Sidwell Street. Gradually however, funds were raised to construct a new stand, the same one that is still at the Park today. Exeter City soon found that the increased costs involved in being a Football League side were a real burden, and they had to sell some of their best players in order to balance the books. These included goalkeeper Dick ‘Pincher’ Pym and inside forward Harold Blackmore, who were both sold to Bolton Wanderers, although part of the transfer fee received for Pym helped towards the purchase of St James’ Park allowing the club to continue to own the ground until 1995.
Another player who was to go on to great things was locally-born winger Cliff Bastin. As a 16-year-old he made an instant impact and was quickly snapped up by Arsenal, where his name was later to feature among the club’s all-time greats. He featured in the all-conquering Highbury side of the late-1920s and early-1930s.
Back at St James’ Park however, the early-1930s were among the most successful in the Exeter City’s history. In 1931 City enjoyed an excellent run in the FA Cup reaching the sixth round before losing to Sunderland in a replay at St James Park in front of a record crowd of 20,984.
Two years later Exeter City achieved their highest league position when they finished as runners-up in the Third Division South, only one club being promoted at that time.
Financial worries and rejuvenation Once again War intervened, and Exeter City, unlike many other clubs, stopped playing between 1939 and 1945. The Grecians found themselves in the newly formed Fourth Division in 1958, where they remained until the 1963/64 season, when they won promotion for the first time in the club’s history.
There had been an amazing transformation at the club, for in 1961, the alarm bells were sounding. Financial problems had bedevilled the club, and there were very real fears that Exeter City would go out of existence altogether.
The stay in the Third Division was to be short one however, as Exeter were relegated after two years. It was to be 1977 before the club managed to win promotion again, this time managed by Bobby Saxton. The spell in the Third Division proved to be a much more successful one, lasting seven years, before dropping back into the League’s basement division.
Exeter also enjoyed another memorable run in the FA Cup in 1981, again reaching the sixth round.
In 1990 Terry Cooper’s team won the Fourth Division Championship, but the club were back in the bottom Division four years later and facing mounting financial problems which culminated in November 1994, when the club had to appoint Administrators to run their affairs. St James’ Park was sold to Beazer Homes for a figure of around £650,000. Exeter City Council stepped in to buy back the ground from Beazer Homes at the end of the 1995/96 season and then leased it back to the club.
This was a way of maintaining League football in the city. With the club coming out of administration on 1st August 1996, the traumatic days were finally coming to an end and for the first time in many months the club at last were able to look to the future.
Finances continued to improve, and the club embarked on a redevelopment scheme for St James’ Park, which included the Big Bank end of the ground and the demolition of the Cowshed terrace to be replaced with an all-seater stand, together with refurbishment of the former St James’ School building into new offices, social club and corporate hospitality/conference and banqueting facilities.
The fans buy back their club Unfortunately the close-season in 2003 proved to be the most traumatic in the club’s history. Police raided the club and took the chairman, his wife and the vice-chairman for questioning. Debts were mounting and the majority shareholder asked the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust to take over the day to day running of the club.
The club’s history has been played out predominantly in the bottom division of the Football League. At the end of the 2002/03 season City were relegated to the Football Conference, meaning that the club would start its centenary year outside of the League that have been a member of for over 80 years.
Despite the ongoing off-field problems, the team started well in the Conference with a small squad, and many of the promising trainees featured at some stage. The Supporters’ Trust became the majority shareholders after acquiring the shares from Ivor Doble, and the aim was to stabilise the finances, which involved a CVA and to turn Exeter City FC into a true community run club.
The club celebrated its centenary with a prestigious friendly against a Brazil Masters XI (including World Cup winning captain Dunga) at St James’ Park during the summer of 2004, also marking the 90th anniversary of the Grecians’ tour to South America.
After battling through the first and second rounds of the FA Cup in 2004/05, defeating Football League sides, Doncaster Rovers and Grimsby Town respectively, Exeter were drawn away at Manchester United. They produced an amazing result, drawing 0-0, thus earning a replay back at St James’ Park, which was televised live. The dream ended with a 2-0 defeat, but not before the club’s debts were pretty well wiped out thanks to the match receipts from the two ties.
For the second season running the Grecians just missed out on a play-off spot in the Conference by one point at the end of the 2004/05 season. However, the Club were the second-best supported non-league club in the country with an average home attendance figure only bettered by promoted side Carlisle United.
The team started the 2005/06 season in fine form and topped the Conference table for a while. However, they slipped off the leading positions in the second half of the campaign to eventually end in 7th place. City had a great run in the FA Trophy before losing at the semi-final stage to Grays Athletic over two legs.
The Tisdale era: a new dawn
In June 2006, manager Alex Inglethorpe departed to take over a youth coach position at Tottenham Hotspur and he was replaced at St James’ Park by Paul Tisdale who was formerly with Team Bath.
Tisdale transformed the club’s fortunes in his first three seasons in charge.
An unforgettable play-off semi-final in 2006/07 saw the Grecians beat Oxford United on penalties to set up the club’s first ever trip to Wembley where they were beaten by Morecambe.
But the Grecians came back strongly the next season and qualified for the play-offs with a game to spare. After being beaten 2-1 by Torquay at St James’ Park in the semi-final first leg, Tisdale’s side pulled off one of the club’s greatest ever comebacks with four goals in an unforgettable second half at Plainmoor to win 5-3 on aggregate and set up a return to the national stadium.
Rob Edwards’ first half header won the match for City against Cambridge United and the Grecians were promoted to League Two after five seasons of non-league football.
Things would get even better in the 2008/09 season as the club clinched back-to-back promotions on the final day with a 1-0 victory at Rotherham thanks to Richard Logan’s far post header which saw the club return to the third tier of English football for the first time for 15 years.