Exeter nearly lose their way in dreamland

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Yesterday, a week after holding Manchester United to that famous scoreless stalemate at Old Trafford in front of a crowd of 67,551 in the third round of the FA Cup, Exeter City switched from the theatre of dreams to the local rep of reality. And this time, let's not muck about, they were the ones who were lucky to nick a draw. Against Billericay Town, watched by 1,500 die-hards, our heroes nearly crashed to earth in the third round of the FA Trophy, saved only by two late goals. From Sir Matt Busby Way to Blunts Wall Road could be construed as the sublime to the ridiculous. But really, no, not really.

Yesterday, a week after holding Manchester United to that famous scoreless stalemate at Old Trafford in front of a crowd of 67,551 in the third round of the FA Cup, Exeter City switched from the theatre of dreams to the local rep of reality. And this time, let's not muck about, they were the ones who were lucky to nick a draw. Against Billericay Town, watched by 1,500 die-hards, our heroes nearly crashed to earth in the third round of the FA Trophy, saved only by two late goals. From Sir Matt Busby Way to Blunts Wall Road could be construed as the sublime to the ridiculous. But really, no, not really.

For Exeter, the non-League cup competition is one we can win. With the best will in the world, and despite the fact that, as a result of the Manchester scoreline, my concept of possibility has become so distorted that I would believe our manager, Alex Inglethorpe, if he announced that the Grecians were going to win the Champions' League, the South African Test series and the next general election, we are not going to win the FA Cup. After all, fourth-round opponents Middlesbrough are a banana skin waiting to be trodden on.

In a neat role-reversal, the boot was firmly on the other foot yesterday, with Exeter the Conference giants taking on the Ryman League underdogs. But Saint Alex, as he is now informally known, and surely will be actually in the future, could hardly make the same mistake yesterday as his oppo did a week previously.

He did not play the reserves to dispatch summarily perceived inferior opposition, even if the ploy was mainly for the very good reason that when you read the ECFC teamsheet it's a case of, er, that's about it.

We've got only about a team-and-a-half fit at the moment, and for most of the match the curse of the cup seemed destined to strike. The Grecians were being bundled out by a spirited Billericay side who attacked with a recklessness that might have seemed excessive in the front rank of the Light Brigade and ravaged what I will loosely call our defence like trainee Vikings on work experience. They were the more up for it, and 2-0 up with seven minutes to go. Our missed penalty in the third minute did not help either.

But though there was a certain symmetry about the two fixtures - both have gone to an unwanted replay - Inglethorpe's substitutions did at least work. For Ronaldo and Scholes read Dean Moxey and Sean Devine. The latter scored the vital equaliser a minute after Jake Edwards had headed in.

The current Exeter run of excellence - it's not just the Old Trafford result, because before that we'd won five of six league matches and are hovering on the brink of the play-offs with three matches in hand - has been masterminded by Inglethorpe and the club's director of football, Steve Perryman.

But it has been an unaccustomed glorious beacon in what is normally a fog of mediocrity. At the start of a season, normal supporters' practice is to work out how many points are needed to avoid relegation, with a heart heavy from decades of failure and angst. You support the Grecians in the hope that they avoid shame and too much disappointment. To expect anything more you'd have to be mazed as a wheelbarrow. As well plan a romance with Colin Firth.

Exeter City, though, matter as much to Exeter fans as Man U to Man U fans. In fact it could be argued that our team matter more deeply to a higher percentage of the Exeter faithful, because it is impossible to maintain only a vague or occasional interest in a moderate lower-ranking team. But lower-league football is more fun, with more sense of enjoyment and fewer expectations. The top League involves such deadly seriousness; that draw with Exeter City was the stuff to cause blinds to be lowered and garments to be rent, though probably not in Didsbury and Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Yesterday, we sighed with relief, shrugged our shoulders and went home.

But at Old Trafford we had a gas from start to finish. The camaraderie began on the M6 - every other car north of Birmingham was decked in red and white - and continued in service stations on the way home, when we were given a standing ovation by a group of Canvey Island fans, our fellows from the Conference, on their way home from a drubbing at Morecambe.

From the East Stand, we outsang and outchanted the home fans for 93 minutes, starting with the Grecian anthems like "Cider, Cider" (ad infinitum to the tune of "Amazing Grace") and upgrading to taunts: "Shall We Sing A Song For You"; "Have You Ever Played Brazil?" - daringly, as Scholes, Ronaldo and Smith came on, "Ooooarya, ooooarya"; and, finally and insultingly as those endless minutes ticked away, "Champions' League? You're 'avin A Larf" and "Can We Play You Every Week?"

We left, in light-headed unison, to "Who The F*** Are Man United?" We will find out when the wounded rhinoceros comes to St James Park on Wednesday night, though what the 1,500-strong Man U contingent will make of the six open-air concrete steppings that comprise the away end remains to be seen.

Exeter City are not a sleeping giant, not even a big lad having forty winks, and the adventure, which has well-documentedly secured our financial future, will be over. But right now, there's no ridiculous. Just sublime.

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