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Club News

⏮️ 2023/24 in Review

A look back at the season just gone

1 May 2024

Club News

⏮️ 2023/24 in Review

A look back at the season just gone

1 May 2024

With the 2023/24 season now at and end, we've a taken a look back at the last nine months in red and white.

This article was originally published in two parts in the Stevenage and Oxford United match day programmes.


Forty-seven long days after the referee blew for full-time against Morecambe, the first of Gary Caldwell’s troops reported to the Cliff Hill for the start of pre-season. Three recognisable stripes now donned players and staff’s training kit while new signing Vincent Harper also joined the team for fitness testing. The departure of several players hung an aura of a squad rebuild in the air, as Caldwell looked to ready his players for what had just been announced as the season’s opener – Wycombe away.

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Away at Tiverton in the first friendly, several triallists were named in the starting eleven. Full-back Julien Dacosta netted the game’s only goal, but it was a man who had been playing in Tivvy’s league just a few months before that caught supporter’s eyes. Reece Cole dominated the first half, striking the bar with an impressive effort. He would become City’s third signing of the summer, with five others joining before the opening day.


The Adams Park away end couldn’t quite believe their eyes – nine minutes in to the new season the scoreboard read 2-0 City with Sam Nombe having the opportunity to add a third from the penalty spot. While the spot kick was saved, James Scott scored added a third to the most complete Exeter opening day performance in living memory.

Kyle Taylor then marked his first competitive home appearance in almost 17 months with a goal at home in the EFL Cup, complemented by James Scott’s winner to see off Crawley Town.

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Not content with one Finn in the squad, Caldwell added a second with Illmari Niskanen joining from Dundee. International clearance forms delayed Illmari’s debut until a home match against Reading, who City were meeting in the league for the first time at home since an incredible 6-4 victory for the Royals in 1993.

On a scorching hot August afternoon, different drama was on the menu was Reece Cole wrote the headlines, firing home his first City goal from Nombe’s layoff in the depths of added time, securing a 2-1 win. However, with that first came a last, as soon after that match Nombe departed for Matt Taylor’s Rotherham United for a club record fee.


Initially, the loss of Nombe didn’t seem to affect City, as the Grecians won 1-0 at Burton with Cole playing in a false nine position and Ryan Trevitt scoring. That couldn’t be continued though against Leyton Orient, as injuries and international callups left the squad threadbare.

Nonetheless, it was fitting that this was the game, chosen to celebrate 20 years of Trust ownership, saw 16-year-old academy graduate Jake Richards make his first start. Despite a wondergoal from Demetri Mitchell, two Orient strikes saw City lose at home for the first time.


Caleb Watts netted on his debut a week later as City returned to winning ways, before a Premier League side visited St James Park for the first time since 2018. Luton made the journey for the third round of the EFL Cup, facing a defensive back six, deployed by Caldwell to keep Town at bay. That move paid off as Mitchell scored the game’s only goal and City beat top flight opposition for the first time since 1980.


Everything seemed to go downhill after the first 45 minutes of October. James Scott had put the Grecians 1-0 up at Charlton, before an equaliser came in the dying moments of the half. Wrongful dismissal of Will Aimson saw City’s gameplan fall apart as the hosts ran out 4-1 winners, the only positive being Vil Sinisalo’s first penalty save of the season.

The month didn’t get too much better from there – the only point gained came after Trevitt netted an equaliser at home to Lincoln, casting doubt for some supporters about the visit of Middlesbrough in the Fourth Round of the cup.


This marked City's deepest foray into the competition, yet their journey would end here. Despite two remarkable goals from Trevitt, the Grecians fell short against Boro in the first meeting between the sides.


Like unfortunate London buses, as soon as City exited one competition, they went out of another – Wigan won 2-0 in the FA Cup. Results in the league reached their lowest ebb at Bolton, however there were reasons to be proud during the international break. Sinisalo made his Finland debut while Vincent Harper was called up to the Kenya squad for the first time.

A 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury at the end of the month showed signs of a tide turning, as the Grecians registered their first clean sheet since mid-September.


While many point to that first league win in over 100 days against Wycombe as the turning point, the second half away at Stevenage ten days before saw a spark ignite in the ten men on the pitch that got Grecians in the away end united behind their team once again.


The first half couldn’t have gone any worse – Jack Aitchison got sent off with an avoidable yellow before today’s opponents opened the scoring just before halftime, but the introduction of Yanic Wildschut and a tactical shift at the break saw City come out an inspired side. Wildschut’s goal and some resolute defending allowed City to emerge from Hertfordshire with a well-earned point. That vital Boxing Day win – courtesy of Sonny Cox’s head and Sinisalo’s penalty save in the dying seconds gave the Grecians optimism heading into 2024.


While 2023 ended with hope being relit, New Years Day brought a sobering reality check away in Berkshire. The Grecians debuted at the Madejski Stadium, but Zak Jules and Dion Rankine’s first goals were countered by three from Reading, a result placing City below the dreaded drop line for the first time.

That made the subsequent home game against Carlisle crucial; the Cumbrians now trailed City by just three points. However, buoyed by the inclusion of new signing Luke Harris to the starting lineup, City scored two home league goals for the first time since August. Reece Cole and Sonny Cox’s strikes rendered United’s late effort meaningless, and moved City out of the relegation zone as quick as they fell in.


More signings joined the ranks as Gary Caldwell fortified his squad, adding Ben Purrington alongside new attacking options, Millenic Alli and Mo Eisa.

The month concluded with a flourish – back-to-back impressive away victories at top half opposition pushed City further up the league. Sonny Cox capitalised on Jack Aitchison’s good work at Bristol Rovers before Jack got himself on the scoresheet, notching the first at his former club Barnsley. Cole got the other in South Yorkshire in what Caldwell described as the best 45 minutes he’d seen us produce while in charge.


Transfer deadline day brought an unexpected arrival in the form of Ryan Woods from Hull, who inherited his namesake Trevitt’s number eight shirt, after his recall. Matt Taylor then returned to Exeter, and his Bristol Rovers came away with three points from the ex-manager’s former home.

However, that was quickly forgotten in five fabulous minutes against Peterborough the following Tuesday. Despite trailing 1-0 at halftime, City’s fortunes were given a lift when the Posh were reduced to 10 men. Captain Reece Cole lead by example, equalising with a spectacular freekick which crashed in off the bar, before providing the cross which re-bounded off a Blue defender to secure three valuable points against playoff contenders.


It was now time for Caldwell to visit a stadium he called home for many years as the Grecians travelled to Wigan Athletic. That game saw the Grecians dubbed ‘Deflexter City’ on social media and the win propelled everyone back down to Devon with the Champs’ Tequlia stuck in their head.

That winning form couldn’t be continued to the end of the shortest month though, as only one point came from the final three matches – Vincent Harper scored his first goal in a 1-1 draw against Fleetwood.


Redemption was on the cards when St James Park hosted high-flying Bolton at the start of March. Memories of that nightmare in Greater Manchester faded into the background though amid pre-match talk of an improved Grecians team. On the pitch, a first half Wanderers lead was reversed by the Sonny Cox show, as the 19-year-old showed why he had been spoken about in glowing terms for so long with two incredible strikes just minutes after the interval.

Even though a late equaliser showed why Wanderers were a team fighting for promotion, it was City who came away with all the credit.


Buoyed by this momentum, Exeter then ventured to Shrewsbury on Tuesday, where they confronted a new challenge against a low Town defence after they were reduced to 10 men in the opening minutes. The numerical disadvantage initially galvanised the hosts, intensifying their defensive resolve, but a flurry of goals in 15 dazzling minutes before the halftime whistle showed City’s quality.  Will Aimson’s perfect backheel opened the scoring before Luke Harris scored his first and Jack Aitchison added another, allowing City to calmly control an uneventful second half.

Back at SJP that Saturday, City faced a contrasting scenario as this time they found themselves reduced to 10 men; Zak Jules was unusually sent off in the tunnel. Undeterred, Exeter fiercely defended a 1-0 halftime lead, epitomising a resilience missing at points during the first half of the campaign.

Good Friday was okay for 80 minutes, as Ben Purrington’s first goal put City ahead early on against Charlton but a late equaliser put a frown on some faces.


There was no jest in Reece Cole as he stepped up in front of an expectant away end at Cheltenham Town. Deadlocked at 1-1, the match appeared to be heading for a draw when a handball in the box presented Cole with the opportunity to clinch all three points. Unfazed, the midfielder calmly dispatched the penalty, starting City’s month perfectly on April 1st.


Steve Evans’ Stevenage were next on Cole’s hit list – his goal was the difference between the two sides before a rearranged trip to Leyton Orient.

Over 600 supporters journeyed to the capital and were rewarded with a dramatic fightback. Late goals from Alli, his first for the club, and Aimson orchestrated a remarkable comeback, salvaging a crucial point from 2-0 down and mathematically dismissing any lingering fears of relegation.

But the Grecians weren’t content to rest there, and decided to challenge themselves once again in the following two fixtures. Away at a Port Vale side fighting for their life, City yet again found themselves trailing by two goals. Inspired by Caldwell’s halftime talk, the Grecians came out a different side and Alli and Jules pegged the game back before a moment of brilliance.


On for his first league appearance since September, Pedro Borges deftly flicked the ball over two defender’s heads, creating space in-behind for Harris to smash a first-time volley home. Alli’s late tap-in sealed the win, rounding off a scintillating second-half performance with a backflip. 

A different task was on the cards at Northampton last week, as Ryan Woods’ red card reduced City to 10 men after they had already taken the lead. However, not even an equaliser from the home team could thwart the Grecians, as centre-back Aimson shoved his way up to second in this season’s top-scorers list with a late finish at the back post, extending the unbeaten run to nine games.

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