Football FA Cup: Exeter back from the brink

Date with Everton is fitting reward for Devon club's recovery from financial crisis.
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EXETER CITY'S local paper, the Express, is counting down to the year 2000 with a series entitled Millennium Moments, a top 10 of the most memorable sporting events of the south-west region.

As things stand, the No 1 hit which will feature in the New Year's Day edition is the 4-0 thrashing which City administered to Newcastle United in season 1980-81 to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

Oh happy days of Bobby Kellow! Since that heady achievement, however, Exeter's history has seen darker days. Indeed the current players, who will seek to enrich the club's FA Cup record in their home third-round tie against Everton today, are enabled to do so only by virtue of the club's dramatic avoidance of extinction four years ago.

On that nervy occasion a roomful of angry creditors were assuaged by the arrival of a fax from the Football League accepting the financial assurances offered by the local council at the 11th hour. The fax came through just five minutes before the deadline. Local observers, in fact, maintain that only 90 seconds remained on the clock.

Whatever. Exeter's future turned on that moment. Since when, under the guidance of the former Stoke City goalkeeper Peter Fox and his assistant Noel Blake, the powerful defender who played for Birmingham City, Stoke City, Luton Town, Bradford City and Dundee, the club has consolidated its position in the Third Division.

At the time of their crisis in 1995, however, their League status remained with them only because Macclesfield Town, the Conference champions, were controversially disallowed from taking their place because of a sub-standard ground.

Not, on the face of it, the ideal scenario to launch a career in team management. But as Blake, now 38, pointed out yesterday, the only way was up. "It was a big opportunity for us," he said. "We had the chance to build things gradually upwards." There has certainly been a lot of building since then. Once the council had relieved the club's financial worries by buying St James's Park and leasing it back, and the Football Trust had contributed a grant of pounds 1.9m, work began on reconstructing the ground to bring it into line with the League requirements for next season. Thus, with two new stands being constructed, the capacity for today's match is restricted to 6,100. The majority of Everton fans will watch on giant screens at Goodison.

Fox said: "There's been a buzz around the place among the players and supporters. These sorts of games are great for the club. I know there will only be 6,000 there but we could have sold out double or treble that.

"It's a little bit like an old-fashioned cup tie. The only thing we haven't got is a bad pitch. You look at the cup ties where big teams get beaten and it's normally a bad pitch - but ours is probably the best in the Third Division."

Fox and Blake had only been able to spend the grand total of pounds 40,000 on players in four years until last week's signing of the Finnish midfielder Jukka Vanninen. That lifted the total by an amount believed to be less than pounds 5,000.

"It was peanuts," Blake said. "I like to think we will have a bit more to spend. But time will tell." When you ask Fox if he is optimistic about more funds becoming available, he reacts with some incredulity. "Optimistic? Not very," he says with a chuckle. "We've got two main stands being built, so we have to accept that we are down the pecking order in terms of bringing new players in."

Even with a Jukka in the pack, Exeter's resources are stretched thin. They have been heavily reliant this year on their top scorer, Gary Alexander, a 20-year-old on loan from West Ham, although he has been one of a large number of players who have suffered injury, a factor which has seen the Devon club's outstanding early form dip dramatically in recent weeks. City hope their central defender Rob Dewhurst recovers from a back injury in time to help combat the looming threat of Francis Jeffers and Kevin Campbell.

While Everton were losing 5-1 at Old Trafford last Saturday, Exeter went down 4-0 at Hull. That performance persuaded the management to cancel the midweek stay at the Royal Marine camp in Poole, the location the club has used for big-match preparations in the past. Apparently many of the players were disappointed.

Nevertheless Blake, who reached two FA Cup quarter-finals with Birmingham and Luton, is hoping for something special today. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime for our players," he said.

And Fox added: "We've had some injuries and we haven't clicked back into gear. But we played some very good stuff against Torquay recently and if we play like that on Saturday, we've got a chance."

One thing is certain. If Blake's hopes should be fulfilled, that win over Newcastle will be moving down to No 2 in the local paper's Millennium chart.