Thirty years ago, Exeter City were crowned champions of the old Fourth Division on Saturday, April 28, 1990.
It remains to date the Grecians only league title and came in remarkable circumstances as they went the whole season unbeaten at home – winning 20 of their 23 matches at SJP. In this feature journalist Simon Carter, a fan who watched this season unfold from the stands, takes us back into the memorable times.
For students of world history, the 10 months between August 1989 and May 1990 were a remarkable, tumultuous time indeed.
The Berlin Wall came down, leading to the reunifying of West and East Germany; the Iron Curtain also spectacularly collapsed, with the ending of communism in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Poland; Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years in South African jails; and closer to home, a huge riot erupted in central London following a mass protest against the Tory government’s despised Poll Tax.
However, much closer to home - in fact, right here at St James Park - we also witnessed something the like of which had never before been witnessed, and have never once looked like being repeated in the three decades since.
City have had two very good cup runs 1930/31 and 1980/81; three other promotion from the fourth tier of English football (1963/64, 1976/77 and 2008/09), and a play-off final triumph in the National Conference 2007/08), but none of them can realistically hold a candle when compared to the sheer majesty of season 1989/90.
It wasn’t just the fact we won the title, the only one in our 115-year history, joyous though that undoubtedly was. It was the record-breaking way we did it, and in a manner completely out of context with the club’s entire Football League history - before and since.
It proudly stands Everest-like above any other season. Not only our sole title, but one claimed with the most points in the club’s history (89), the most league wins in the club’s history (28) and the best post-war goal difference in the club’s history (plus 35). We’ve only had seven plus goal differences in 24 FL seasons since.
Most memorably at all, it was triumphantly won with the best home record in the club’s history. It is a record that has never remotely looked like even being equalled, let alone beaten, and it almost certainly never will be.
Played 23, won 20, drew three, lost none. That was our home league record in 1989/90, the joint second best in the entire post-war Football League/Premier League period. We had never ever completed a full season without losing a home league game, and needless to say we’ve not done so since. In fact, in 24 subsequent Football League seasons we’ve never got to even November before suffering our first home defeat.
Darran Rowbotham also struck 30 league and cup goals. Only six men had previously achieved such a feat for the club in our Football League history, and only two of them - Fred Binney and Tony Kellow - had done so in post-war football. Not one City player has managed to reach 30 goals since 1989/90. Rowbotham, of course, could have scored many more - a serious knee injury saw him miss the last 14 league games of the season.
But that was Exeter in 1989/90. Even when our top scorer suffered a bad injury with almost a third of the league season still remaining, we still won the title - and by a massive 10 points as well.
When the players embarked on a lap on hour with the trophy prior to the last home game of the season against Burnley, the Cowshed rocked to the beat of ‘Terry Cooper’s Red and White Army, we’re so good it’s unbelievable.’
Thankfully, almost three decades later, I can remember that game - and many of the ones that proceeded it. And do you know what? All these years later, I don’t think I’ve ever sung a more factually accurate song.
We really were so good! And it really was unbelievable.
And all these years later, these decades later, it still is.
Still is, and always will be. Unbelievable.
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