Michael Jackson, Uri Geller, fans' songs: it's the Ex factor

Exeter, who host Liverpool in Carling Cup tonight, have a recent history of cravats, debt and a jailed chairman

Liverpool fans with long memories might recall St James' Park from the last time they played Exeter in the League Cup – they won 6-0, part of an 11-0 aggregate victory, with Kenny Dalglish scoring for an improbably strong team.

Thirty years on, those Liverpool supporters who have made the trip for tonight's Carling Cup tie will notice the away terrace is still unencumbered by a roof. However, if facilities are modest, Exeter's story in the past decade is a quietly remarkable one of fans refusing to let their club die, despite overwhelming odds heavily tinged with farce. Until AFC Wimbledon's promotion, Exeter's were the only Football League fans able to sing "We own our football club".

In 2003, at the end of a season which began with Michael Jackson performing at the Park – and being invited to be a vice-president by Uri Geller – Exeter were relegated to the Conference. The debts were mountainous and, when the dust settled, the two co-chairmen were arrested (one, John Russell, was subsequently jailed for fraudulent trading).

It took Exeter five long years to rejoin the League but the atmosphere was transformed overnight. Hundreds of fans chipped in £500 to help pay immediate debts, membership of the fledgling Supporters' Trust rocketed and dozens of people worked for nothing but the reward of keeping the club going.

It was a terrible struggle with transfer embargoes and a dreaded CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement) to negotiate – a now familiar tale of supporters only gaining control once their club had become an economic basket case.

Then, in 2005, the FA Cup truly bestowed some magic when Exeter drew Manchester United away in the third round and secured a barely credible 0-0 draw. Sir Alex Ferguson selected Scholes, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo for the replay but if the two games didn't quite save the club, as often stated, they did finally wipe the slate clean.

A year later, Spurs legend Steve Perryman, City's director of football, astutely invited Paul Tisdale for an interview and the players' efforts finally began to match those of the supporters. Tisdale had been forced to retire with a bad back but had a reputation for smart thinking at Team Bath, sharing business ideas with his friend Ray Kelvin, the founder of Ted Baker clothing.

Tisdale may very well be the only English manager to wear a cravat on the touchline and, in a showbiz touch, brought himself on as a sub at Hillsborough on the final day of last season – 13 years after his last Football League appearance.

In his five years, City have risen from fifth in the Conference to eighth in League One last year. Besides successive promotions, seven players have gone on to the Championship. While Dalglish's spending is numbered in the tens of millions, Tisdale has only ever spent £50,000 on Troy Archibald-Henville, who is close to paying for himself through replica shirt stencils.

Tisdale might have been in the Premier League by now, having twice turned down Swansea, but Exeter agrees with him and most fans can't believe their luck. Players still leave for greener pastures but vice-chairman Julian Tagg likes to point out that, in not owing any money, City "are among the 10 wealthiest clubs in the country". True to the Trust ethos, prices are up tonight, but only by £1 to cover policing. Exeter's man to watch is Guillem Bauza, a beautifully balanced striker who featured alongside Fernando Torres in Spain's junior teams.

If and when Liverpool return, they may see signs of a £25m redevelopment plan incorporating 500 student flats. In the meantime, Tisdale is taking a typically pragmatic view. "The more you can relax and play free, the better. I'll be giving the players less information than I normally do because it's not a standard League One fixture. We got lucky with the draw and it is a big day for the club. I just hope the players play their best. It's about me persuading them not to worry about who is wearing the opposite numbers and let themselves enjoy it."

Nick Spencer is the author of 'Never Say Die: The Remarkable Rise of Exeter City'

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