Manager previews visit of Burton to SJPExeter City’s fixture against Burton Albion at St James Park on Saturday offers the Grecians the opportunity to go into a play-off position for the first time in over a year.
The previous campaign started brightly before tapering off; a home defeat to Southend United in November 2013 took City outside the all-important top-seven places, where they would remain for the remainder of the season.
Yet despite a slow start to the current season, which saw the Grecians at the foot of the table in September, Exeter have since won eight and lost just once in the last dozen Sky Bet League 2 games and are now knocking on the door at the right end of the table.
With no other League 2 games taking place this weekend, it offers both Exeter and Burton a chance to strengthen their positions at the top end of the division. Grecians manager Paul Tisdale is particularly keen to see his side take the opportunity that presents itself to hike the team up into the play-off places before the weekend is over.
“Managing is all about spinning the moment and this could go both ways,” said Paul. “We could steal a march on our opponents in the league and get three points over them while they all stand still, or we could lose the game and miss an opportunity and have one more game ticked off our calendar.
“I think both sides will be looking at gaining three points – someone is going have to go away unhappy. We both want to win.
“It’s about creating that tone in your side that you’re bullish and positive – not reckless, but having some kind of purpose to it. This Saturday is a great purpose about us to get three points and jump into the play-offs.”
Exeter and Burton have already clashed once already this season – the Brewers were 1-0 winners at the Pirelli Stadium thanks to a Stuart Beavon volley just before half-time.
However that was back in August when the Grecians were scrabbling around for points – since then Exeter have become one of the form-teams in the division and have seen the momentum grow.
And while Tis isn’t taking recent form for granted, he acknowledged that the team had evolved since those early weeks of the season.
“We’re playing better now, and have a deeper, stronger squad than we had before,” Paul continued. “The whole psyche of team is upbeat and positive.
“August was a difficult month – we were up against it, had a poor start, and the pressure was on. It was a real tough game that day [against Burton].
“We’re enjoying better times – that still doesn’t mean we’re going to win on Saturday. We’re going to have to earn our victory if we have the opportunity against Burton second time around.
“We are on a good course of results, and we have to keep it that way.”
Burton have themselves undergone a notable change in that time. Gary Rowett has since left the club, and took the vacant position at Birmingham City.
The vacancy has been filled by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – known primarily for his goalscoring exploits in the Premier League for Leeds United and Chelsea – and he becomes the latest household name to manage the Brewers after the likes of Peter Taylor, Neil Warnock and Nigel Clough in bygone years.
Hasselbaink, who managed Royal Antwerp in Belgium last season, joins the eclectic group that is League 2 managers and Tis felt that this division was a great opportunity for anyone looking to learn their trade.
“We all need an opportunity,” Paul explained. “You can’t always predict or plan your opportunities – Jimmy is obviously eager to make a profession of managing and coaching, and I see no better opportunity than getting in somewhere like League 2 and having the opportunity to make mistakes and do your work.
“I don’t know Jimmy, but I imagine he has gone into a very steady club and he’ll appreciate his opportunity.”
Saturday’s fixture also sees the return of faces old and new to St James Park – Ryan Harley will be in contention for a run-out in front of the home fans for the first time in over three years, while Alex Nicholls returns after two months away, when Northampton recalled him from a loan spell in October.
With veteran forward Clinton Morrison also thrown into the mix, it demonstrates the level of firepower that Exeter have introduced into the ranks in recent weeks to add to what has become an increasingly prolific forward line.
“There have been many games this year when I have looked at the two teams after the hour-mark – be it Bury, Southend or Shrewsbury – and I’ve thought ‘their bench looks strong here’, and they’ve got options,” said Tis.
“We have had options, but possibly not quite as strong and diverse as the opposition. We’re beginning to get ours now.
“It’s challenging for a manager to know which decisions to make. But at the same time it’s a good problem to have.”