Football: Grecians seek kickstart to 2000 odyssey

At the other St James Park, where survival itself is a good result, the implausible might just happen
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The Independent Online
READ THIS, Walter Smith, and tremble. Brazil 3 Exeter City 3. No, honestly, it did happen. Back in 1914, on a South American tour, Exeter were the first team to play Brazil in an international fixture, at the Laranjeiras Stadium in Rio. And the result might have been better had not our (better declare an interest here) first-choice goalkeeper, Dick Pym, been injured. In 1925 we beat Ajax 5-1 in Amsterdam. But from there some might say it has been not so much downhill as a bungee jump to oblivion for the Grecians.

Exeter City, founded 1904, elected to the Football League in 1920 as part of the new Third Division South, are one of those teams for whom continuing existence counts as a result. That chap on TV who goes off into the wilderness with just a safety pin and a plastic bag should try sitting in the dugout at St James Park (that's the St James Park, not that place on Tyneside) for a season or two if he really wants to know about survival.

The Nineties seem to have been particularly dismal; the twitch of the elastic from the old Fourth Division into the Third exactly 10 seasons ago, when we went up as champions by 10 clear points, unbeaten at home, may have been some sort of exercise in mass hallucination.

The problem, of course, is money. And location. In the Football League you can't go much further west. The neighbours are Torquay United, tokenly loathed, and the real enemy P******h A****e, a name spoken by a Grecian as often is Macbeth by a Thespian, but there is really only one team in Devon.

Terry Cooper took us up and departed; the efforts of his successor Alan Ball almost negated the reverence he will always be due for 1966; Cooper came back briefly and dismantled what was left of the team to the extent that had not Macclesfield's ground been inadequate we would have replaced them in the Conference for the 1995-96 season.

Peter Fox, who served as assistant and goalkeeper under both men, has held the poisoned chalice for four years, with his old Stoke comrade Noel Blake as right-hand man. It says a lot for his regime that our only concern last May, safe in mid-table, was to finish above P******h. Which we did, thanks to that Jimmy Glass goal; it meant as much to us as to Carlisle. Fox, 42, is a decent, family man who has committed himself to a permanent home in Devon, not far from the club's Cat & Fiddle training ground. He's a footballing journeyman: the youngest ever first-team player at Sheffield Wednesday at 15 and a half ("There was an injury crisis and I had to play, I broke my toe during the game but we still won"); sent on loan to Barnsley, spent a summer playing in Hawaii, moved to West Ham; then 15 years and more than 400 games between the sticks for Stoke City, where he is still something of a legend.

No international honours, no cup medals, but he is still in love with the game that has been his life for 27 years. And he wants to see his little club through.

Exeter have had their share of crises and been to the brink and back financially. Every available penny at present goes towards ground refurbishment in line with the Taylor recommendations; the home supporters' open-air terrace, the Big Bank, is currently being replaced with a smart grandstand, and the famous Cowshed is next on the list. Another upward bounce for the Grecians in 2000.

Fox has represented stability. "There had been so much upheaval that what we needed above all was continuity," he said. "And now we're not one of the teams that are going to go bust next week, we're not fighting against relegation, the waters are a lot calmer.

"Success has been just surviving, but we're better than that now. We've got some good players and if we can keep everyone fit we'll have half a chance of looking at the play-offs.

"But that is not to say it's not uphill. The biggest thing about coming to a small club is that you realise you can't compete in the transfer market. To have a successful team you've got to have the financial clout. So we have to do it the hard way.

"But that's becoming more difficult with the Premiership clubs coming down and spotting local young talent. We lost one lad to Manchester United recently, but if Alex Ferguson and Peter Fox knock on a kid's door you know which one he'll follow."

Fox's entire expenditure has been pounds 18,000 on Chris Curran, pounds 17,500 on Steve Flack and pounds 10,000 on Shaun Gale. The rest are largely free transfers or products of the City youth scheme. Stuart Naylor, the veteran goalkeeper, had just about retired. "He was painting his house when I rang him," said Fox, "and he wasn't sure whether he wanted another season. But he's got a spring in his step again and he's very calming to have there at the back."

After trashing non-League Eastwood Town and Aldershot, the FA Cup third- round reward for Peter Fox's red-and-white army (we're so good, it's unbelievable) is Everton. In 1931 we reached the sixth round and took Sunderland to a replay at St James, losing 2-4 before a record 20,984 crowd, but because of the building work the Merseysiders, who scraped through their only previous FA Cup clash with City 1-0 at Goodison in 1986, will face only 6,000-odd. Fox is enough of a realist to know that the best to be had of a glamour draw is a decent payday, but enough of a footballer to know that there is always, there must be, hope in the heart. "To lose they're going to have to come and have an off-day or not fancy it," he said. "It's going to be about our players, the Jason Reeses and John Gittens and Gary Alexanders, having not just good games, but great games.

"And you hope that our 5,000 supporters can help, get right behind them and maybe get the likes of [Don] Hutchison and [John] Collins, who have played at Hampden and Wembley, on edge. They'll be slumming it; St James is 90 years old and they won't all fit in the away dressing-room, with mould on the walls and one toilet between them."

With that great Cup run 69 years ago came an Exeter legend, Dido the seagull, who circled St James and perched on a crossbar. Watch the skies on Saturday.