|Letters from Wiltshire #41|
Written by wessex_exile on Tuesday, 30th Mar 2021 19:11
This afternoon the U’s take on Bradford City in a bid to gather sufficient points to stay clear of the bottom two. It’ll be a tough gig though, even if (as I suspect) Bradford City have left it a bit too late to challenge the play-off spots. They were on a decent run of form, that is until defeats at Newport, Carlisle, Scunthorpe and a goalless draw at home to Oldham put paid to any lingering promotion hopes. For us, it’s simple, to stay out of the bottom two, for all intents and purposes we only need to gain half (or more) of the points that Grimsby or Southend do. Sounds easy, just wish I felt more confident we will…
[b]Exeter City v Colchester United
Durham’s not going to be happy, but the random match selector for Letters from Wiltshire #41 has gone back almost exactly 11 years, and the tail-end of the 2009/2010 season with a visit to Exeter City. Ironically, it was this season but in reverse – back then the U’s were aiming to cement a place in the Coca Cola League 1 play-offs, and Exeter were down the bottom fretting about relegation. They were 8pts clear, and probably weren’t far from being safe, but still needed points to be absolutely certain.
Remarkably, this is the only game in my memorabilia collection that dates to the Boothroyd era. I know sometimes the (ahem) direct playing style took some getting used to under Aidy, but did I actually stop buying programmes as a form of protest? Obviously not, but it could be argued that I made up for it purchasing my copy of [i]The Grecian[/i] on the day, weighing in at a whopping 96 pages, and easily the most substantial in my collection (excluding the Wembley ones naturally).
Normally, this would be a good thing as something to read on the train journey home, but this was to be a busy weekend, so me and Alfie drove down for this match. Em was on an early shift in the morning, and we had to get back in time (and in good order) to collect my other two kids in readiness for us all to go to a friends’ wedding on Saturday. Alfie was quite young at the time, so I think for the first time ever, I decided to go in the visitors seating for this match, which back then was the last block of the now demolished Grandstand, next to the away terrace.
Aidy Boothroyd had arrived in September, after the debacle of Paul Lambert’s U’s smashing Norwich 7-1 on the opening day of the season, and then walking out to become their manager straight after. Joe Dunne was caretaker for a few matches before Aidy Boothroyd was appointed. Aidy had some pedigree too, touted as one of the young up and coming innovative English managers, he’d had a reasonably successful spell at Watford for three years – but after leaving ‘by mutual consent’, had been out of work for roughly a year before joining the U’s.
He started well at the U’s too, with only four defeats in a run from early September through late February to keep us firmly in the play-off positions, albeit one of those defeats was the ignominious 5-0 reversal at home to Lambert’s Norwich City (still, 7-6 on aggregate, how’d you like them apples Delia?). However, late February was when the wheels started to come off and going into this game at Exeter we’d lost three and drawn three, and desperately needed points to keep our play-off hopes alive.
[b]On the day[/b]
At the time, Exeter City were managed by Paul Tisdale, ironically one of the names being mentioned quite a bit as potentially our new manager before Wayne Brown was appointed. Of course, if Wayne doesn’t get us out of the doggy-doo, Tisdale’s name may be mentioned quite a bit more as well. Not too many familiar faces in the Exeter line-up, probably with the exception of Marcus Stewart, who back in the day had been a formidable striker for the likes of Bristol Rovers, Huddersfield, Ipswich and Sunderland. But that had been a while earlier, and at 37 he was clearly at the tail-end of his career – still dangerous though.
Despite their lowly position, Exeter City – roared on by a bumper Easter weekend crowd, including a couple of hundred from Essex – started the brightest. With the U’s struggling to get a grip on the game, Barry Corr, latching on to an inch-perfect pass from warhorse Marcus Stewart flashed a cross-shot right across the face of Ben Williams’ goal which just needed a touch from anyone (on either side) to be a guaranteed 1-0 lead for the Grecians.
There wasn’t though, and after that lucky escape, slowly the U’s started to assert themselves more on the game. We should have taken the lead in truth, about 20 minutes in. A David Prutton header looked certain to score, but ‘keeper Paul Jones pulled off a stunning one-hand block, only for the ball to rebound to Ian Henderson in the box. Henderson let fly, but defender Richard Duffy threw himself in the way to save a certain goal. Prutton went even closer shortly after, blasting a free-kick against the crossbar, and I was beginning to wonder if it was going to be another one of those days.
Mind you, Exeter were giving as good as they were getting, and it took a brilliant piece of last-ditch defending from Okuonghae to hook the ball off the line from underneath his own crossbar to prevent Steve Tully from opening the scoring. The pivotal moment, of sorts, was an injury to Exeter defender Rob Edwards just before the half hour mark. Bringing on Stuart Fleetwood, Tisdale was either forced to, or chose to make a formation change too – and one that the U’s weren’t prepared for, nor adapted to particularly well.
Five minutes later, Exeter City were in front. Good work from Marcus Stewart saw Fleetwood wriggle free of the attentions of Okuonghae, latch on to the pass and prod low past a helpless Ben Williams. Not content with one, and with the U’s still trying to adapt their game plan, it was Exeter’s turn to hit the woodwork just before half-time, with Ryan Harley’s free-kick clipping the top of the bar, though it looked like Ben had it covered.
We looked better balanced into the second half, and spent most of it looking for an equaliser, without creating too many clear-cut chances, whilst Exeter looked happier to soak up most of the pressure and try and catch us on the break. Just before the hour mark Boothroyd subbed Henderson for Anthony Wordsworth, a change that improved matters. Almost immediately, Wordsworth announced his arrival with a drilled 30-yard free-kick, which again smashed against the crossbar. Two more changes by Aidy as the half wore on, bringing on Gillespie and Vincent for Platt and Ifil, tried to unlock the Exeter defence.
Again, Woody went close with a goal-bound header with less than ten minutes to go, but again Jones was up to the task with a fine diving save to keep it out. Eventually, inevitably, with the U’s pressing hard for an equaliser and committing more and more men forward, the sucker-punch came along. In injury-time Exeter broke forward and seizing their chance Richard Logan forced a fine save from Ben Williams. Fleetwood picked up the loose ball at the edge of the box and fired in a second shot which seemed to strike Gillespie’s arm, and despite protestations, referee Phil Gibbs had no hesitation pointing to the spot.
As Ryan Harley gleefully buried the opportunity past Ben Williams to make it 2-0, many U’s fans were already streaming out of the ground – they’d seen enough, and the winless run continued.
[b]Exeter City 2 (Stuart Fleetwood 33’; Ryan Harley 90’p) Colchester United 0[/b]
In his post-match interview Boothroyd commented “[i]I am disappointed with that. We've done really well. We have done enough to create chances, we have had more closes [/i][sic][i] and shots than we have had for a long time. It was an outstanding save by their keeper Paul Jones to keep out David Prutton. Goals change games[/i]”.
The result left the U’s hanging on to the last play-off spot by the skin of our teeth. The very next game, a home defeat against promotion contenders Millwall, would see us finally leave the play-off zone, where we’d been constantly since 12th September. We’d never get back either, as the poor end of season run continued, leaving the U’s just two places but a significant 8pts short of the play-offs.
An 8th place finish should normally have been something to celebrate, but slipping out of contention in that final run of games when we’d done all the hard work up to that point left a bitter taste in the mouth. Aidy Boothroyd was courted by Coventry City for their vacant manager’s position, and Robbie seemed happy to agree to it – perhaps wary he couldn’t bankroll too many more seasons under Boothroyd without some return?
I certainly wasn’t complaining too much – undeniably there had been success, but the tactics had been a bit too one-dimensional and direct for my liking. I won’t deny it was effective, and Boothroyd’s win stats put him right at the top of the manager list alongside Parky and Lambert in our recent (i.e. last 25 years) past, it just wasn’t the prettiest to watch.
Mind you, what wouldn’t I give for a few of them between now and the end of the season…
Up the U’s
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