Oh, to be a Grecian yearning

Exeter's joy is already unbounded, as devotee Sue Montgomery reveals
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The Independent Football

So, Wayne Rooney, along with Van Nistelrooy, is out of the squad. The news spreads like wildfire, by email, by text, by telephone. Grecians worldwide begin to fantasise. That really lets us into the soft underbelly, eh?

A dream? Well, yes, of course, but with substantive fact attached. The reality is that on Saturday, Exeter City play Man-chester United at Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup. Crikey, now there's a sentence. But believe me, there is more behind it than just a story of plucky non-League minnows taking on the might and legend of the Premiership.

I have, at this point, to declare an interest. I sponsor the gloves of one of Exeter's goalkeepers, Martin Rice. Thus, I bear a heavy burden of responsibility. The only betting on the match will be how many goals the noble West Country custodian lets into the onion bag. Or possibly during what minute the first Exocet from Giggs zaps past the hapless fingers. Can I demand a refund?

But back to the tale. There is a groundswell of opinion that Tony Cascarino, the Orpington-born Millwall stalwart, should be awarded the freedom of the City of Exeter. It was he who drew out ball 64 to ensure that it was we who netted the Big One, Man U away. And by that random pluck of chance, he may have ensured the future of a tiny club in their centenary season. My club. City 'til I die. Cut me and I bleed red and white.

The differences in the finances of Man U and Exeter are infinitely more than the 86 places that separate them in the hierarchy. Rooney's wages alone would pay our bills. The Grecians have a proud history - oh, all right, a history; mostly, we've aspired to mediocrity - but lately it has been touch and go whether we would be consigned to it. A series of finan-cial crises, not uncommon in the lower reaches, had us on the brink of oblivion.

But thanks to the efforts of fans, mostly too numerous to mention - but Ian Huxham, now managing director, must be - we have survived, in the hands now of the Supporters' Trust. Yes, this is our second season in the Conference and we still have massive debts, but the proceeds from Saturday's game - estimated at half-a-million-plus - will be a huge lifeline. Not an absolute lifesaver, but more than a drop in the ocean.

To have gone out of business would have been a sorry affair. OK, we have not won 15 League titles, 11 FA Cups, and so on. Our League honours extend to being Div Three founder members in 1920; 1933 Div Three (South) runners-up; 1934 Div Three (South) Cup winners; 1977 Div Four runners-up; 1990 Div Four champions. I was there, with scarf upraised, in the goalmouth at St James Park the night the latter trophy was paraded, and thought there was little else to do in life but lie down and die. But only in May I was standing on the Big Bank singing the National Anthem along with an opera diva. How many teams, at any level, can say they will have played Brazil and Man U within a 12-month period?

We have met Saturday's opponents just the once before in the Cup, on 4 Jan 1969, at home in the third round. I have the programme before me as I write. "Welcome the European Champions," it says, "to Exeter's greatest sporting occasion." The visitors' teamsheet makes impressive reading: Stiles N, Best G, Charlton B, Law D. In front of a crowd of 18,500 we held them to 1-3, and we'd settle for that again. I fear we will not be matching our previous best Cup runs - we've reached the sixth round twice, in 1931 and 1981 - but in the end it will matter less who wins or loses, but that the game is played.

Our first FA Cup match was in 1908, when we beat Weymouth 14-0. The niggardly allowance of 9,000 tickets for the latest was sold within four days. The traditional Cup pilgrimage is on: special trains and flights (our sponsors are Flybe, and our players have been asked by the home side, out of respect for Munich, not to use the aeroplane celebration when they score. Yeah, right); not a coach remains unhired in Devon; the M5 and M6 will be nose-to-tail on Saturday. The South Coast Grecians, the London Grecians, the Yorkshire Grecians, the Lake District Grecians, the Newmarket Grecians are mobilised.

And there are Exeter hotbeds further afield, too. Exiled Grecians are coming in from all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, Switzerland, Belgium, France, the States. There will be 18 Norwegians in attendance, more than half the registered members of the Exeter City Supporters Club of Norway. Apparently only 0.25 per cent of the Man U equivalent are making the trip. Pah! Or, as they say in those parts: "Del meg i to - og det spruter rødt & hvitt blod".