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.
A little context can go a very long way. And to understand the remarkable metamorphosis which Exeter City underwent in the two years leading up to the lifting of the 1989/90 Fourth Division title make it even more remarkable.
The curtain was brought down on the misery that was 1987/88 with a 2-1 home defeat against Halifax - a losing finale to caretaker manager John Delve’s time in charge. In fairness, the 1981 FA Cup legend had got used to disappointment - City had won just four out of the 27 league games since Colin Appleton resigned the previous December. The club finished third bottom of the entire Football League and only 1,602 bothered to watch Halifax’s visit.
This was the City team that lost to Halifax: Mel Gwinnett, Steve Harrower, Keith Viney, Roy Carter, Shaun Taylor, Richard Cooper, Paul Olsson, John Delve (Paul Batty), Dean Edwards, Brendan O'Connell, Darran Rowbotham.
Fast forward two years and only Taylor and Batty started the promotion-winning game against Southend - though Rowbotham would no doubt have done so but for injury.
In all, 18 players made more than 10 league appearances in 1989/90. Of those, only Taylor, Rowbotham, Batty and Scott Hiley had made their debuts prior to Cooper's arrival. I know Steve Neville and Jim McNichol had both played for the club before Cooper's appointment, but the squad who carved their names into ECFC folklore in 89/90 was very much the manager, Terry Cooper’s creation.
One of Cooper’s first moves was to bring back Steve Neville to SJP for his third spell at Exeter. He then signed Lee Rogers and gave a debut to youngster Chris Vinnicombe, who joined Rangers, a few months into the 1989/90 season. Richard Dryden then joined along with keepers Dave Walter and Kevin Miller, both from non-league clubs. Cooper then made three other signings in the first few months of 1989.
Much-travelled midfielder Ian Benjamin, 27, arrived from Chester, winger Brian McDermott, 28, from Cardiff and powerful striker Richard Young, 20, from Southend United. Centre half Jim McNichol returned to Exeter for a second spell in July 1989 aged 31 following three years at Torquay and Clive Whitehead, 33, arrived boasting years of top-flight knowledge from spells with Bristol City.
However, out of all the signings mentioned above, none were as impressive as the capture of Danny Bailey. The 25-year-old signed from sixth tier Isthmian Leaguers Wealdstone with just three Football League appearances to his name. Cooper, though, had obviously seen something in the energetic central midfielder that no-one else had. Outside of Tony Kellow, no Exeter City player in history has ever had such an instant impact after being catapulted into the club via the depths of the non-league game.
The squad: Danny Bailey, Paul Batty, Ian Benjamin, Mark Cooper, Tony Coyle, Richard Dryden, Gary Elkins, Paul Shelby, Tony Frankland, Karl Goddard, Steve Harrower, Scott Hiley, Tom Kelly, Angus Macpherson, Brian McDermott, Jim McNichol, Kevin Miller, Steve Neville, Lee Rogers, Darran Rowbotham, Ben Rowe, Clive Stafford, Kevin Summerfield, Shaun Taylor, Chris Vinnicombe, Dave Walter, Clive Whitehead, Richard Young.
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