Doom army of St James Park

Simon Turnbull compares the plight of Exeter to the might of Newcastle
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It Has been one of those weeks at St James Park. One of the directors warned that the club was in danger of "going to the wall". And the manager prepared for the new campaign without any paid-for signings. His captain of last season has turned down a new contract and joined Winsford United. Then, just when it all appeared hopeless, they go to Mansfield and win the first game of the Division Three season yesterday.

Meanwhile, in Newcastle, they had to come to terms with defeat at Wembley followed by a losing start to the Premiership at Goodison Park yesterday. Is it time to open the cheque-book again, this time for Paolo Maldini?

The St James Parks of English football are 395 miles apart as the crow, or magpie, might fly. In metaphorical terms, the distance is more like a million miles. On the day Alan Shearer was paraded at St James' Park, Newcastle, a 35-year-old lorry driver from St Helens was taken on trial at St James Park, Exeter. Three days later, Peter Fox, Exeter City's goalkeeper and manager, made the club's first cash offer for two-and-a-half years. "It might not be a lot but it's our pounds 15m," Fox said of the undisclosed bid, understood to be pounds 15,000, which failed to tempt Portsmouth to part with the striker Lee Bradbury.

Kevin Keegan has had strikers on his mind this week, what with the pounds 6m Les Ferdinand injured, the pounds 7.5m Faustino Asprilla suspended for the trip to Everton yesterday and all the worry about who the pounds 15m Shearer's partner might be. Down in Devon, the very prospect of strikers has re-awoken fears that Exeter City, formed 1904, might not make it to the Millennium.

Stuart Dawe, a member of the board at St James Park (the one where the visiting Magpies were shot down 3-0 in an FA Cup fifth round replay in 1981), warned that a strike called by the Professional Footballers' Association "could force poorer clubs like us to the wall". "It would be a serious threat," he maintained. "Clubs down in the Third Division find it difficult enough to survive anyway, without the threat of being cut off from their employees. The PFA have got pounds 8.2m in their coffers. If clubs like us got an extra pounds 50,000 it would make a difference. The way things are going, by the year 2000 there might not be a Third Division. I can see a part- time Third Division, if at all, unless some drastic action is taken by the FA, the Football League and the PFA to give us a bigger share of the pot."

The financial strings have been drawn so tight at Exeter the imposition of a lower maximum wage this season, believed to be pounds 450, meant a move to Winsford United as player-manager was a more attractive proposition for Mark Came, City's captain and player of the year last season. The weekly wage bill still amounts to much more than home gates of 3,500 can cover, and the club is still paying off debts which dragged it to the very brink of closure last year.

Forced into voluntary liquidation with liabilities in excess of pounds 2m, Exeter missed a 31 May deadline to come up with a rescue package. It was faxed, after the sale of St James Park to Beazer Homes, three minutes before the Football League's management committee met the following morning. With the help of Exeter City Council, which bought back the ground and now holds it in trust, and pounds 500,000 from the sale of Martin Phillips to Manchester City, the club came out of administration this summer.

A pounds 210,000 cut of the Nationwide League's pounds 35m television deal with Sky will help but the weeks ahead will be worrying ones for Dawe and his fellow directors. Survival may well come down to the sale of another talented youngster, such as Barry McConnell, a teenager who scored a cracking pre-season winner against Chelsea.

"It is very difficult for us to survive," Dawe said. "But we have made a lot of changes at Exeter and we're going to give it a good crack. The obvious way forward would be for a Premiership club to adopt a club like us. We could give youngsters League experience and bring them along."

Newcastle United, for one, could do with a nursery. They no longer have a reserve team because Kevin Keegan did not want their home pitch messed up for Premiership games. There could be no more suitable home from home for his fledgling Magpies than St James Park.