This season marks the 30th anniversary of Exeter City winning what remains the club’s only divisional title in the 99 years since the club were elected to the Football League. To celebrate the anniversary, SIMON CARTER - a former sports journalist at the Express & Echo and author of a 2016 book on his life following the Grecians - will be taking us all back to 1989/90. Here, he looks at the start of the season.
Two days before the curtain was lifted on Exeter City’s first title campaign, Terry Cooper spoke what would prove to be prophetic words: “I’m very optimistic and the supporters are too,” he said.
“This year we have a much better squad. This time last year I didn’t know the players. I feel I know them all now and we have a better-balanced squad.
“This club is in a better position now that it has been for a number of years. We’ve got a lot of assets on the field. With players like Shaun Taylor and Chris Vinnicombe, you’re talking big money. And there are others to come through like Scott Hiley. This is an exciting time for Exeter City.”
For once, this wasn’t football manager hyperbole. It was the truth.
ECFC 1 Doncaster 0
August 19, 1989
‘Absolute rubbish’ - that was how Terry Cooper summed up the first game of the historic 89/90 championship campaign. ‘We were lucky to get the three points,’ he told the Express & Echo after a performance where City’s goalkeeper produced heroics.
Writing in the E&E, Trina Lake said: ‘Dave Walter stole the honours with an immaculate opening day display. But for his brilliance in goal, Doncaster might well have left St James Park with at least the point they probably deserved, if not all three.
‘He made three key saves in an all-action seven-minute spell at the end to protect City’s fragile lead.’
Cooper, who handed competitive City debuts to Danny Bailey and Clive Whitehead, added: ‘We’ve played absolute rubbish and won. That’s no bad habit. We would probably have buckled and lost last season.’
Steve Neville grabbed the only goal after only 10 minutes to ensure the first home league win was chalked up.
City: Walter, McNichol, Vinnicombe, Rogers, Taylor, Whitehead, Rowbotham, Bailey, McDermott (Hiley, 46), Neville, Dryden (Young, 77). Att: 3,033
Hartlepool 0 ECFC 3
August 26, 1989
For only the fourth time since 1958, City started a league season with two successive victories. And as a result, they proudly stood top of the embryonic Fourth Division table.
There was only one change from the previous weekend - Jim McNichol failing a fitness test on a thigh injury. Scott Hiley continued to deputise after impressing in the League Cup win against Swansea in midweek. The hosts were forced to hand 19-year-old keeper Graham Carr his competitive first team debut - and it was a first appearance to forget.
Carr dropped two Brian McDermott crosses for City’s first and third goals - Richard Dryden firing into an empty net on 38 minutes and Darran Rowbotham doing likewise on 72 minutes.
McDermott also enjoyed an assist for the second goal - his corner on the stroke of half-time being headed in by Shaun Taylor.
It was only City’s fourth win in 23 visits to the Victoria Ground, and Cooper said it was ‘a performance which oozed confidence.’
The same could not be said of the hapless Carr, who never played for Pools again.
City: Walter, Hiley, Vinnicombe, Rogers, Taylor, Whitehead (Benjamin, 46), Rowbotham, Bailey, McDermott, Neville, Dryden.
ECFC 0 Carlisle 0
September 2, 1989
Ahead of the game, Terry Cooper said: ‘We’re six points better off than we were this time last season and we’ve got six more than the club at the bottom. Avoiding relegation still has to be our first priority.’
A frustrating afternoon saw City fail to break down an ultra-defensive Carlisle outfit, a result which would prove to be the only home league game this season they failed to score in.
The frustrations boiled over 11 minutes from time when Steve Neville was dismissed by referee Keith Cooper for his second bookable offence - both cases of dissent.
Fined a fortnight’s wages for the red card, the manager stated. ‘He gets no sympathy from me for talking back to the referee and linesmen. He got what he deserved.’
Three Grecians needed hospital X-rays after the game - Shaun Taylor (cheekbone), Lee Rogers (ankle) and Clive Whitehead (shin). Rogers was carried off just before half-time with Whitehead dropping in alongside Taylor.
On the positive side, City were now the only club in the top four divisions not to have conceded a league goal.
City: Walter, Hiley, Vinnicombe, Rogers (Young, 44), Taylor, Whitehead, Rowbotham, Bailey, McDermott, Neville, Dryden.
Burnley 1 ECFC 0
September 9, 1989
For the second game running City failed to net - but they would only fire five more blanks in their next 42 Fourth Division matches.
Terry Cooper was left fuming by the manner of the Clarets’ winner - a 45th minute penalty awarded by Welsh ref Ffrangcon Roberts and converted by Winston White. The official adjudged Clive Whitehead had pushed Peter Mumby as they jumped for a White cross.
‘The man in the middle has cost us the game,’ declared Cooper. ‘Their players didn’t appeal and the crowd didn’t react, so that’s got to tell you something. We were camped in their territory in the second half.’
Danny Bailey went close with a thunderous volley and man of the match Lee Rogers had an 88th minute header hacked off the line.
City: Walter, Hiley, Vinnicombe, Rogers, Taylor, Whitehead, Rowbotham (Young, 86), Bailey, McDermott, Neville, Dryden.
ECFC 3 Cambridge 2
September 16, 1989
Danny Bailey called on the Exeter public to turn up at St James Park in greater numbers after an entertaining victory.
Only 2,754 watched City come from 1-2 down at half-time to win courtesy of Richard Dryden’s 52nd minute leveller and Darran Rowbotham’s 82nd minute decider.
It was to prove City’s lowest league crowd of the campaign, and Bailey told the E&E: ‘If we could get more of them (fans) coming to games it would be better. We’re an entertaining side and there aren’t many Fourth Division teams that can play football like us.’
Rowbotham had put City, minus the suspended Steve Neville, into a first half lead before the visitors hit back through Phil Chapple and ex-Grecian Alan Kimble (penalty).
Terry Cooper was left purring at the latest performance from teenage left back Chris Vinnicombe. ‘If Chris doesn’t play for England, I’ll eat my hat,’ he confidently declared.
He went on to make several England under-21 appearances, but none for the full side.
City: Walter, Hiley, Vinnicombe, Rogers, Taylor, Whitehead, Rowbotham, Bailey, McDermott, Dryden, Young (Rowe, 83).
Scunthorpe 5 ECFC 4
September 23, 1989
23 Scunthorpe (A)
Terry Cooper slammed his players after they had conspired to chuck away an early 2-0 lead at Glanford Park.
‘Promotion is nothing more than a pipe dream as far as I am concerned. We’re not good enough - we don’t have the steel to see it through,’ he fumed. ‘How they hell can you expect to get promotion when you score four goals away and don’t even get a point?’
Shaun Taylor and Lee Rogers were singled out for criticism, with the manager admitting: ‘The two centre backs have had a lot of praise this year, but they deserve a lot of flak for this game. They played like teddy bears.’
Fresh from a stunning 3-0 League Cup win over two divisions higher Blackburn, City stormed into a 2-0 lead after 19 minutes - Chris Vinnicombe netting his maiden competitive goal and Steve Neville converting a Darran Rowbotham cross.
Home debutant Mark Lillis - signed for £40,000 from Aston Villa - netted in the 37th minute and Ian Hamilton levelled shortly after.
Lillis completed the comeback on the hour mark before Richard Dryden levelled with a deflected effort nine minutes later.
Kevin Taylor and Hamilton put the hosts 5-3 up and City’s afternoon went from bad to worse when ‘teddy’ boy Rogers was red carded seven minutes from time for a second bookable offence.
It was 10-man City who grabbed the game’s ninth goal, though, Steve Neville scoring on 89 minutes.
City: Walter, Hiley, Vinnicombe, Rogers, Taylor, Whitehead, Rowbotham, Bailey, McDermott (Young, 55), Neville, Dryden.