Julian Tagg is president and director of external affairs at Exeter City Football Club. In this monthly column, written for the Express & Echo, he brings an exclusive look behind the scenes at St James Park.
So, this is my final column of the year. And what a year. At the best of times football is a rollercoaster, and there has certainly been some highs and lows this year. Another analogy that I like to apply to football is that it is like a being a hamster stuck in its wheel, going round and round. Every day is a treadmill, it’s constant, it never stops. And every now and then external forces build up and suddenly you are a hamster in a wheel inside a pressure cooker! It’s then that the volume of effort, work and time required from staff, players and volunteers becomes hugely pressured; but there’s one thing you can be sure of at Exeter City, everyone digs deep and rises to the challenge.
Reflecting on the year gone by, we certainly had some points of real pressure, can it only be 10 months ago that were heading into the final weeks spending most of it in the top three or four positions in the league and for it all to end the way it did at Wembley – but let’s not dwell on that…
In March, just days before the whole country when into lockdown, we welcomed our new sponsors, Carpetright, to the club – and our thanks go to them for their ongoing amazing support - along with all our other many sponsors, small and large, who have continued to back us through these uncertain times.
As with all clubs, we were hit hard by the pandemic and playing behind closed doors and back in March there were so many unknowns and so little information. Our partner charity CITY Community Trust adapted its services to support the community, collecting and delivering more than £17,000 worth of shopping, prescriptions and food parcels to vulnerable people. Even the squad and management got involved with supporting the community, with Matt calling members of the Sporting Memories group. And the team at CITY Community Trust have still been delivering, right up to Christmas with the Exeter Festive Campaign which supported local families in need with Christmas food and gift hampers.
June saw the return of fans – but not quite as we know it – they turned up in their hundreds to fill the stand, albeit in cut out form. It was great to see the likes of Chris Martin, Ade Edmondson and, er, Ryan Lowe in the stands. They even got a trip to Wembley courtesy of the Supporters’ Trust – but again, let’s not go there…
In July we heard that actual living fans would be able to return in September, but as was becoming normal, we still had little information and didn’t know how this would look. The manager was working as hard as ever in the summer developing the playing squad and we saw some changes and said goodbye to some real club stalwarts, like Lee Holmes, Craig Woodman and Dean Moxey - although it was great to see Dean back at the park a week or two ago. All our former players are welcome back any time – and to prove it, we even let Jimmy Giles in the stadium…
Additionally in July, Exeter City Council extended the club’s lease on St James Park for a further 25 years; thanks to the city council who have always supported us, something we are reminded of every time we look across to our fantastic Stagecoach Adam Stansfield stand.
Incredibly, and something which is a true reflection of our fans, in July we had sold more than1,000 season tickets as fans stepped up to back us – something we are so grateful for and won’t forget in a hurry.
Young Ben Chrisene was sold to Aston Villa in August. He’s definitely another one to watch, although his sale may not hit the headlines as regularly as Watkins or Ampadu. Talking of Ben, and whilst we will never forget our Stanno, it was fitting to see the number nine shirt being worn by another Ben, Ben Seymour – a player we all have high hopes and expectations for. Ben’s just one of many players emerging through the Academy. And what a year the Academy has had! We’ve started games with as many as 10 of our own in the squad. You’ll regularly hear me extolling the virtues of our Academy, but even I didn’t anticipate the level of success we have seen this year – I don’t think it will be long before the entire squad is made up of Academy graduates!
There are so many people who go the extra mile at our club, every club talks about inclusivity and family values, but I truly believe it is our ownership model which sets us apart and means we live by those values every day. There is one group of people who give up their time and work hard for our club who are rarely mentioned - and that’s the members of the board. Consisting of our Supporters’ Trust and club directors, they do an immense amount of work behind the scenes and it’s certainly not an easy task with so many varied opinions and perspectives. They rarely get any thanks or acknowledgement, but they should. So, it’s thanks to them, our staff, our coaching and playing team, our volunteers and the many people who make the club what it is.
Boxing Day saw us drawing 1-1 with Forest Green Rovers, but with our hardworking team, which has recently scored as many as five or six goals in a game – we’ve got to be pretty happy with the direction we’re heading. We’re looking forward to the coming months, although that pressure cooker is about to get notched up a little bit more with the visit of Sheffield Wednesday to St James Park on January 9 in the third round of the FA Cup.
Here’s to a better 2021 for us all – don’t forget the future’s bright, the future’s red and white!