FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.50: EXETER AWAY

Article by Paul Beasley Tuesday, April 30th, 2024  

FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.50: EXETER AWAY

EXETER CITY 1 OXFORD UNITED 2

So here we are. Our season has been extended and that’s thanks to Des Buckingham and the players. No way did I think he would turn it around as we dropped away from the summit and often couldn’t even beat pretty poor opponents. There didn’t seem to me to be enough winning mentality within the team to reverse the plummet. The League table tells me I was wrong.

Since our spanking at Bolton we’ve won five, drawn two and lost just once to get us not just above the line into 6th spot but one place better than that.

The one straw I’d always clutched onto was my oft stated belief that this isn’t the strongest L1 we’ve been in since we came back up to this level and the side making the last play-off slot wouldn’t need to be anywhere near outstanding.

I thought the likeliest outcome on the day would be that either Barnsley or Lincoln wouldn’t win. Possibly both, but if I’d had to place a wager I would have gone for a Tykes win over Northampton –  even though they are on an unbelievably awful run – and the Imps failing to beat Pompey. But I also thought we would do likewise and fail to take advantage. We’re well capable of delivering disappointment and after losing to Lincoln and only drawing with Stevenage, the direction of travel felt downward once more. A great opportunity spaffed away. A resilient side going places would surely already have secured a top six place.

I was wrong (again) about us. We took the lead in the 12th minute and never relinquished it even if the Exeter goal seven minutes into the second half made the bums get even squeakier.

Although my focus was just about 100% on what was happening at St James Park it was what was taking place elsewhere that very much could have been our undoing. Barnsley took the lead in the 18th minute. Lincoln missed a penalty in the 53rd minute. If that had gone in we would have dropped to 7th place. As it was Pompey didn’t take the lead at Sincil Bank until the 81st minute so there was about half an hour when we were living very precariously. When there was a degree of leaping up and down in the away seats which didn’t match the action before us I instinctively knew the reason. Thank you Mr Peart-Harris.

From then on in I felt as comfortable as one can be in these situations knowing how quickly things can turn around. A goal here, a goal there.  These goals came. 90+6 brought a Northampton equaliser meaning we’d be facing Peterborough not Bolton. Most fans are well happy with that but the 5-0 drubbing we handed out just over a fortnight ago is bound to be a motivator to them. On March 12th Bolton turned us over by the same score of course.

It helped that the Grecians are a footballing side, trying to play the game the right way.

Our early settler was all down to the alertness, harrying, determination and finishing of Mark Harris. Elliott Moore played a low ball forward into the centre circle but Harris’s attempted flick didn’t find a colleague and possession was lost. That didn’t deter him and when home captain Pierce Sweeney almost immediately found the ball at his feet he dwelt a fraction too long before attempting a pass straight ahead. Sideways possession retention would have served his side better. Our no.9 ran through on goal and, from the edge of the area, bent the ball round keeper Viljami Sinisalo. That was a proper finish. Quite early on in the season I wrote that Ruben Rodrigues would out-score Harris. Wrong again.

From a corner Rodrigues nodded the ball down into the ground and, on the bounce, Ciaron Brown directed it on its way to the top corner of the goal. Sinisalo had other ideas and a fantastic flying save kept it out.

Although we kept a sensible shape we didn’t just sit on the lead and were looking to be positive when we had the ball. Eventually this brought its rewards when Josh Murphy was fouled in the penalty area. Two first time passes set up our winger’s run. The first from Harris, the second Cameron Brannagan. There were no complaints from the red and white stripes.

Brannagan sent the spot kick low and hard to Sinisalo’s right but fair play to the home stopper, he made a good attempt to prevent our second.

2-0 at the break, too good to be true? Not long into the second half that lead had been halved. Was Owen Dale the right man to initially be marking Millenic Alli from the corner? The scoring header was easily won. The corner was won by Dion Rankine, a half-time sub, and he gave Exeter more of a threat than they’d hitherto posed.

The incognito Yellows in the sea of red and white on the Thatcher’s Cider Big Bank terracing will have had to keep emotions hidden once more.

Just after the hour Harris poked one wide but we now looked a lot less likely to score than when we were kicking the other way.

Fin Stevens misjudged a high crossfield ball and allowed the Fin Ilmari Niskanen in behind him but thankfully there was no finish. I was increasingly thinking we need to be a bit more professional about this.

Moore blocked a ball fired in to the six-yard box at the expense of a corner and via the upright. The nerves were getting tauter but the team never panicked. Having our captain back was a bonus, he makes a difference.

So job done and it was still not yet 3 o’clock when football is meant to be played on a Saturday but I’m not going to complain when the outcome is as it was. Silly o’clock will do for me.

This early kick off meant Friday night in Exeter. Didn’t want to risk travel problems early Saturday morning. This gave time for a few beers, ciders, and JD and cokes.

The Pig & Pickle, a micro pub in Fore Street, isn’t in the Good Beer Guide. It clearly should be. It was very early Friday evening when we got there so perhaps understandable that it wasn’t packed with punters but was doing a steady trade. Three hand pumps. Two for ale and one for cider. It would be rude not to try the cider as well as the beer, especially after we’d been allowed a sample. A bit further up the same street is the Royal Oak. GBG listed and quite rammed.  And at 88 Fore St the Tamarind Bay Indian restaurant. It was recommended, we went for it and were not disappointed.

Back into the city centre we headed for the Ship Inn where we knew other Oxford fans had gathered. I think I’d been there years ago but on this occasion found it very difficult to find. Got there eventually and stayed until closing time. The pre-match build up was building.

Next day it built some more. The Turks Head conveniently opened at 10:00 am so what better place to meet? I wasn’t thinking much about the beer/cider on offer as all focus was on what lay ahead at 12:30.

I don’t think there’s any argument that the post-match victory celebratory pint back in the Ship before catching the train home was consumed in very relaxed fashion.

Of course t didn’t take long for thoughts to turn to Peterborough though and the tension to start to build once more.

In the old days it was queuing round the block to get a ticket for a “big” game. Quite stressful if you looked at those in front of you when the unfounded fear of missing out kicked in. And it was time consuming. The digital age was supposed to make this much easier. Really? I was able to get our season ticket seats for myself and Mrs FV but not my son’s even though his Fan number is linked to mine. Just meant Ticket Master getting an additional £1 fee. Then the following day the scramble to get a guest ticket for a mate. Not many blue dots available at the allotted time of 17:30 but managed to get one. Then message saying you have not assigned the ticket. Tried that – no, my list of linked accounts didn’t pop up. Kept trying and a few minutes later it did. Assumed correctly that I could assign it to myself. Then a check of the printable e-ticket although having the correct turnstile, row and seat shown also declared “visiting supporters” and “proud to be posh”. Ticket Master should be anything but proud of themselves but as an almost monopoly can do what they want with no fear of losing business. Then there was this on the club website: “Due to the volume of Season Ticket holders who created new Yellows Accounts in error over the weekend, we have taken the decision to extend Season Ticket holders seat reservations until 3:00pm on Wednesday 1st May. General Admission tickets (if any remain) will still be available from 5:30pm Tuesday 30th April.” But that means the seats of any ST holders who don’t take them up will be put on sale to the general public/hangers on/genuine Yellows who have somehow missed out, a day later than originally planned. Can’t anything run smoothly?

Ticket Office staff must be under a considerable amount of pressure but fans need to remember it is not their fault. Whenever I’ve had to ring them or speak on a match day they’ve almost always been very helpful indeed over the years.

(I’m having a word with myself). Hey, be positive. We’re in the play-offs for the third time in five years. It’s easy to forget that after last season which left such a stain. If we’d been successful in 19/20 or 20/21 the outcome would have been the same as it will be now, Championship football. But in those two seasons it all felt rather plastic and artificial. We drew with Pompey in the semis 1-1 home and away and won through to Wembley on penalties where we fell short against Wycombe. No fans were present. To quote Jock Stein “Football is nothing without fans.”

A year later a few of us were privileged enough to be allowed into the Kassam for the first leg of the semi-final. No away fans. Much of the ground closed and social distancing, correctly, the order of the day. Happy to be there but it didn’t feel right. Losing 3-0 didn’t help either.

This time it will be the real deal with packed grounds home and away. 

THE LEFTOVER FINANCIAL ANALYSIS by COLIN BARSON

LINCOLN CITY

Lincoln are a strange club to buttonhole. It would be easy to say that they’re a similar sized club to us, from a similar sized city, if you only looked at the last four or five years, but history tells us something different.

Being of a certain age, I always think of Lincoln as a Division Four team, with the odd foray into Division Three (in old money) if they’re doing well. So, I was surprised to see that they’ve spent 34 years in the second tier. Upon closer inspection I notice that 22 of those were over 100 years ago, when there were only two divisions, and the last of the other 12 was 65 years ago. Since 1960 they’ve spent 41 years in the fourth tier and six years in the fifth. So, I’m pleased that my mind isn’t playing tricks on me.

This is their fifth season in the third tier, and their gates have been similar to ours at about 8,500 average in that time. It’s fair to say Lincoln’s recent fortunes changed when they appointed the Cowley brothers as their management team, in 2016/2017, whilst in the National League.  Prior to that, they had spent only one year, of the previous 30, above the fourth tier. They had also only averaged over 5,000 once since 1978 (5,176 in 2007) and had sub 4,000 crowds 17 times and sub 3,000 crowds 11 times during that period. The Lincoln public seemed to take to the Cowleys and they had an immediate impact on the field of play, bringing two promotions and some FA Cup heroics too, and their attendances increased exponentially. They seem to have held onto most of the new fans to this day, making them a reasonable sized third tier club.

So, what of their finances and ownership? As we can see from the figures below, Lincoln sit very firmly in the middle of the table in nearly every metric, which I think is a credit to them, considering where they’ve come from, as a smaller club. To me it shows that good sustained growth can be achieved, if you have a plan, and you carry it through. They have the 11th highest attendances, 11th highest income, and the 11th highest expenditure. They have decent cash in the bank, and a positive equity. They’ve done all of this without really being a “trading club” in terms of player sales too. Instead they’ve preferred the route of loaning in young players from higher league clubs, such as Brennan Johnson and Morgan Whittaker, particularly during the post Cowley brothers’ period under Michael Appleton. They did, though, make a loss for the year of just over £2m and their 2023 accounts show a further loss of £2.6m for last season.

For quite a few years now Lincoln City have been majority fan owned, with the Red Imps Community Trust holding about 55% of the shares in the club. As we’ve seen with other clubs this can be a good, and stabilising factor, but it can also hold a club back somewhat, if they have ambitions to grow beyond their natural level. Exeter City have been lauded by me as a great example of good fan ownership, married to realistic expectations from the club’s fans. Portsmouth was one where it helped get them out of the brown stuff, when the club was under threat of going under, but ultimately couldn’t fulfil the ambitions of the fanbase, and more traditional owners/investors were found in the guise of the American Eisner family.

Lincoln have gone down a similar route recently with the introduction of American money. In 2021 the Arizona based Jabara family became involved in the club, initially as Directors and subsequently as majority shareholders. They were introduced to the club by former USA footballer Landon Donovan, who acts as their “strategic advisor” on footballing matters. The Jabara family are headed up by Harvey Jabara and the marvellously American named Missy, and children Jaxon and Jensen. To complete the full Americanisation they are members of the St George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona. They sound about as American as it is possible to be!

The Jabaras have a stake in the San Diego Padres MLB side and Donovan is Vice President of the San Diego Loyal Soccer Club, in the second tier USL Championship. In 2022 Lincoln entered into a partnership with San Diego Loyal, and Donovan had this to say recently:

“We want to build the Club globally, of course. Nobody could argue that being relevant in the United States is great for Clubs and I think there’s a lot of value in being globally known, but we know how great Lincoln City is, we know how great the city is and the most important thing is to be sustainable. Lincoln were out here last summer and spent a week in San Diego to see what our training environment was like, what our matchdays are like here and to see if there were any takeaways to take back to the LNER Stadium. It doesn’t mean that if you see something happen at our stadium in San Diego, you’re suddenly going to see it happen at Lincoln City, but I think we can all learn from each other.

For example, Harvey is unique in that he has a lot of experience in baseball. And I’m sure people in the UK might say, ‘what does baseball have to do with English football?’ But there are best practices we can all learn, just by understanding how things are run as a business. There are lots of ways to be successful and if we can all help each other, that can only be beneficial”

The Jabaras have certainly put a fair bit of money into Lincoln since arriving, most of it as equity too, so they don’t seem to be as crazy and out there as one might initially think they would be. They talk about sustainability and have put money into community projects and stadium improvement projects, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I’ll finish with a short anecdote about the aforementioned Michael Appleton. I turned up on that sunny September 2019 afternoon for our game against Lincoln, and there in the Boardroom was the recently appointed Michael Appleton, who was adopting a watching brief before officially taking over on the following Monday. This was, of course, the game where we won 6-0. I spoke with Michael, and his wife Jess, and reminisced about his time at Oxford, while also telling the Lincoln Directors that they’d got a good guy, who if they backed him, would bring them success.

As the game unfolded, and we toyed with Lincoln, I could see Michael looking increasingly agitated, sitting just behind me, probably wondering what the hell he’d let himself in for? After the game I asked Michael what he thought, and in his deadpan Mancunian tone he said to “At least I suppose it’s too early for any Appleton Out chants. That’ll probably be next week!”

STEVENAGE

As you can see from the normal figures below, Stevenage don’t bother to tell us anything, hiding behind unaudited small company accounts.

This doesn’t surprise me one bit, as I’d put Stevenage in the same well-balanced club bracket as Wycombe. Meaning they’ve got a chip on both shoulders.

If they can’t be bothered to report, then I can’t be bothered to go looking for the numbers. The end.

Have a good summer everyone!

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