LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Exeter City

Grecians regain integrity thanks to supporters’ trust

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

For a club that’s never risen higher than the third flight, Exeter City have written a fair amount of football history.

The first team to play Brazil, a successful pioneer of the fan-owned model and responsible for memorable performances in the FA Cup, the Grecians have been based at the same St James Park ground for all their near 120-year history.

An amalgamation of Exeter United and St Sidwell’s, the club was a Southern League team when its squad set off for a tour of South America on the eve of World War I.

Invited at the request of the Argentine FA, Exeter City played six games in Buenos Aires then two in Rio. There they faced a Brazil XI, the first national selection of the later five-time World Cup winners. The game was played at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, later to stage a centenary exhibition match with Exeter in the summer of 2014.

St James Park/Paul Martin

Much has happened in those 100-plus years. Founder members of the Third Division (South) in 1920, Exeter had to meet significant travel expenses for games at Grimsby, Norwich and the like, selling players such as goalkeeper Dick Pym to Bolton and, later, the great Cliff Bastin to Arsenal.

Despite this, two years after Bastin’s departure, goals from prolific Cornish striker Percy Varco fuelled a cup run to the quarter-finals. A draw at mighty Sunderland brought a record 21,000 crowd to St James Park for the replay, a 4-2 win for the visitors.

Varco was replaced by Fred Whitlow, whose 33 league goals in 1932-33 remains a club record. Sadly runners-up spot in Division Three (South) was not enough for promotion.

Promotion of any kind, in fact, would not be achieved until 1964. With ex-Liverpool striker Alan Banks, a club record signing that season, Exeter gained fourth place in Division Four – despite exhausting journeys to Carlisle, Hartlepool, Barrow and Workington.

Within two seasons, the Grecians were back down in the Fourth.

The Centre Spot/Peterjon Cresswell

Under player-manager Bobby Saxton, Exeter returned for a longer stint from 1977, goals coming through the 1980s from Falmouth-born Tony Kellow. The expense of hiring famous ex-international players – Terry Cooper, Alan Ball – as managers helped forced the sale of St James Park and saw Exeter go into administration.

Worse was to follow. With local jeweller Ivor Doble still chairman, things took a bizarre turn when dubious psychic Uri Geller arrived, placing magic crystals around the goal to prevent Exeter’s slide out of the Football League.

Despite winning their last three matches, including the last with a 90th-minute goal from Steve Flack, Exeter plummeted to the Conference.

St James Park mural/Paul Martin

As management collapsed in scandal and disgrace, the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust bought the club from Doble for £20,000, walking into his store one morning with the cheque.

Buoyed by staging a centenary game with a Brazil XI in 2004, fan-run Exeter appointed Alex Inglethorpe as manager. Given a dream draw at Manchester United in the FA Cup, Inglethorpe’s non-league men performed miracles in front of 9,000 travelling Exeter fans, a 0-0 draw bringing Alex Ferguson’s team to St James Park for the live-TV replay. Still in black to mark the club’s centenary, Exeter fell to an early goal from Cristiano Ronaldo, soon to be nutmegged as the Grecians fought back.

Chances fell to Sean Devine but still no equaliser came. A late Wayne Rooney goal settled the tie, whose near £1 million takings cleared the club’s debts.

St James Park mural/Paul Martin

Inglethorpe then gave way to Paul Tidsdale, who first led Exeter to a memorable if doomed play-off against Morecambe at Wembley in 2007, then a successful revisit a year later. Rob Edwards’ header beat Cambridge and ended Exeter’s five-year absence from the Football League.

Also vital that day, young, left-sided Exeter-born Dean Moxey and striker Richard Logan maintained good form to get Exeter up to League One in only one season. Overcoming the sudden death of another play-off hero, Adam Stansfield, Exeter finished eighth in 2010-11, equally their highest post-war league placing.

With Tidsdale still in place, the Grecians made the League Two play-off final two years in succession. In 2017, a 95th-minute winner by Jack Stacey beat his former on-loan club Carlisle in a heart-stopping semi-final at St James Park – though Blackpool had too much for Exeter at Wembley. A year later, after a 3-1 win over Lincoln, 50,000 watched the Grecians succumb to a superior Coventry side at Wembley.

Matt Taylor, an Exeter centre-back for the Conference play-off final of 2008, then replaced the long-serving Tidsdale for the 2018-19 campaign. As the astutely fan-run club rebuilt the sideline Stagecoach Stand, naming it after Adam Stansfield, City missed out on a play-off place on the last day of the season.

Making the knock-out stage in 2020, the Grecians edged Colchester in extra-time of the semi-final but were outplayed by Northampton in a one-way final after Moxey was sent off on the hour. Taylor’s men then narrowly missed out on the chance to make amends in 2020-21, a fixture pile-up in March coinciding with a poor run in the league.

Goals for his boyhood club in 2021-22 allowed Matt Jay to push Exeter into the upper rungs of League Two following two long unbeaten runs.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Home of Exeter United before the newly formed Exeter City moved there in 1904, St James Park was developed slowly over decades before major improvements this century. Opened in October 2018, the new Stagecoach Adam Stansfield Stand replaced the original, built in 1926 after a fire destroyed the previous one. Any major further work was hampered by the club’s cash flow and its location by the rail line. Now it provides 1,600 of the 3,700 seats, the terraces at either end bringing the overall capacity to around 8.700.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the Big Bank home end was overhauled and roofed, and 2001 that the all-seater Main Stand replaced the Cowshed. The Big Bank remains the largest standing terrace in English football and provides the atmosphere on match days.

With the small open terrace, Marsh Kia, on St James Road also rebuilt and now covered, away fans are kept out of the rain. Seated sectors L and M in the IP Office Main Stand are also allocated to accommodate visiting supporters.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

St James Park stands alongside its namesake station, on the same line as Exeter Central (2mins) and St Davids (6mins), requiring a simple change from mainline services. Trains are frequent. The station lies behind the Old Grandstand, a short climb up.

From the city centre, St James Park is a 15-minute walk. Buses F1 and F2 run from the High Street, past the bus station and up Sidwell Street to the Old Tiverton Road by the stadium. Buses 1, 1A, 1C, K and P run along Blackboy Road, also close, and past a couple of pre-match pubs.

The sat nav code for St James Park is EX4 6PX. There’s no match-day parking at the ground and on-street parking is extremely limited. A 27-bay car park in Belmont Road (EX1 2HF), by the roundabout a 10min walk from the ground, charges £4.40 for up to 3hrs, £5.50 for up to 4hrs. It’s free after 6pm. At nearby Parr Street (EX1 2BE), another council-run pay-and-display car park has the same tariff system. There are far more spaces at Leighton Terrace car park (EX4 6PD) near the Odeon, but it’s only open until 7pm, same tariffs.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

With average attendances less than half the ground’s capacity of 8,600-plus, availability is rarely a problem – except for big cup ties and derbies against Plymouth.

During the week, tickets are sold at the club shop (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm), over the phone (01392 413 952, Mon-Fri 10am-3pm) and onlineMatch-day sales (noon-kick-off, final whistle-5pm) are from the ticket booth on Red Square. Visiting supporters have their own ticket booth (1.30pm-3pm) behind the away end. For all enquiries, contact tickets@ecfc.co.uk

To sit in the sideline IP Office/Stagecoach Stands costs £25, £22 for over-65s and 18-23s, £12 for under-18s. A £1 charge is added across the board on match days. To stand on the Big Bank or away terraces costs £19, £16 for over-65s and 18-23s, £7 for under-18s, again with a £1 levy on the day.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The club shop (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, match days noon-kick-off, final whistle-5pm) is in Red Square by reception. Current home shirts are not so much red-and-white stripes as all red with two white stripes down the midriff. Away tops are black with red trim, and some groovy red pattern going on near the waist, while third choice is sky blue with darker blotches.

Souvenirs include Aidan Hamilton’s excellent history The Story of Exeter’s St James’ Park – Land of Grecian Glory, pin badges in various designs and a collection of mobile cases in various Exeter kits down the seasons.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

If you’re coming from St James Park station, St Anne’s Well on Well Street is an easy and pleasant diversion. Live TV games, full breakfasts and Sunday roasts are the attractions here – as well as the location, under 10mins from the away end. Visiting fans welcome.

If you’re coming from town, then The Bowling Green on Blackboy Road is friendly, traditional and independent, featured in good beer guides, with regular live music and a garden for sunny days. Further along, at the corner of Mount Pleasant Road and still within a short walk of the ground, Henry’s attracts a younger clientele with its drinks promotions. It follows the Grecians but would also serve sensible away fans Devon cider and traditional hand-pulled ales.

At the ground, the modern, friendly Centre Spot accommodates both sets of supporters. Local ales and ciders are on offer, TV football is shown on many screens pre- and post-match and a terrace opens in the warmer months. Exeter club history is displayed in imaginative fashion, rather than just a few old photos thrown up here and there – in fact, the Centre Spot is one of the best stadium bars in the country.

Other drinks outlets can be found lining Red Square, the family-friendly, match-day fan zone around the club shop.

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