Simon Hart: Exeter are celebrating England Under-20 call-ups as youth policy works out

Life Beyond the Premier League

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The Independent Online

It has been a good week in the life of Exeter City. The Devon club secured a third straight League Two victory at home against high-flying Bury on Saturday and today celebrated England Under-20 call-ups for home-grown midfielder Matt Grimes and goalkeeper Christy Pym. In the process the Grecians underlined once more the virtues of a supporter-owned club swimming against the tide in modern football.

In Paul Tisdale, Exeter have the English game’s second longest-serving manager after Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger and in times of trouble they keep focused on the bigger picture. Tisdale, 41, began the campaign without a win in eight games and a minority of disgruntled fans set up a petition calling for his dismissal but at the “other” St James’ Park there is an admirably stable environment to work in. “We were concerned about our position but there was no panic,” he tells The Independent. “Everybody from secretary to kit lady to ground staff to players, we all kept a considered view.”

Tisdale reflects that a transfer embargo – imposed after the club took out a £200,000 Professional Footballers’ Association loan owing to cash-flow problems – was at the root of “the hardest start we have had”. It stopped him signing any players until the season was under way. “We lost around 10 players in May and only brought in two at the back end of August. I lost two months in the summer.”

He also had to cope with a trip to Rio for three pre-season games to mark the centenary of Exeter’s 1914 match against the Brazil national team. “It was wonderful for our 150 supporters who followed us,” he explains, but hardly ideal preparation for the new campaign. “If you were planning to prepare for a League Two season you would not do what we did – we came back tired, with four or five players ill.”

Tisdale has been in the Exeter job since June 2006, leading them from the Conference to League One before relegation back to League Two in 2012. The one-time Southampton midfielder – whose flamboyant touchline attire famously includes cravats – recalls that he felt he “never belonged or fitted the environment” in 10 years as a player and instead it was at Bath University that he took his first steps into coaching, guiding Team Bath into the first round of the FA Cup in 2002.

As in Bath, his priority now is to develop young people and “create a home-grown team”. Hence his delight at the “wonderful accolade” of that England call-up for Grimes and Pym – the only players from the bottom two divisions involved. “We are true to our word and develop our own players,” adds Tisdale, noting with pride that their youngsters reached last term’s Under-21 Premier League Cup quarter-finals. “You’re missing out on good young players because the manager is changing and players are falling between cracks. We finished last season at Hartlepool with 10 home-grown players all playing in a 2-0 win. That is a very strong statistic. We need to do it, it is part of our business plan.” A football club with a long-term plan? It’ll never catch on.

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