By Alex Molyneux
July 17 2007
Although only mid-July, the initial disillusionment of a few fans seems to have been eradicated through some promising buys and impressive results. After the heartache of a play-off final defeat, the team needed to pick itself up quickly. The disappointment wasn’t helped by the mini-exodus that subsequently occurred, with the main destination for departing players being rivals Torquay United. The flurry of players leaving gave some City fans cause for concern. It is generally agreed that, individually, the team could account for the players who have left. Yet, with such a large amount of players departing, the developed familiarity which had been built up over the course of last season could well be jeopardised, as the heart of the team was ripped out. Billy Jones’ departure to Crewe Alexandra was certainly a knock, but the £50,000 received plus a signing on fee somewhat cushioned the blow, seeing as Alex Inglethorpe originally signed him on a free transfer. Jones featured in every one of City’s league and cup games last season; his style revolved around defensive consistency and an integral part of the attack, particularly from set-pieces.
Fan-favourite Jon Challinor had already rejected new contract terms earlier in the year and was widely expected to leave for pastures new. With a collection of league clubs apparently interested, Challinor shocked the City fans by penning a deal with his hometown club and league rivals, Rushden & Diamonds. Despite providing great attacking threat, Jon’s best position was never truly found, resulting in Tisdale finding it difficult to fit him in the side. There were times last season when he was not a first-team regular, but his goals and vision will certainly be missed.
Perhaps City’s main problem of the summer was player-assistant manager Paul Buckle’s instalment as manager of Torquay United, following their relegation from League Two. Torquay’s fortuitous cash injection allowed Buckle to raid his former club among many others, as he goes about rebuilding a team which can challenge for the title. Tisdale claims that every player has his price, and the prices of captain Chris Todd and Lee Phillips were evidently met as they joined Torquay on long-term deals. Buckle also snapped up released goalkeeper Martin Rice, who hadn’t been offered a new contract by City after times of acrimony last season. It is also suspected that Buckle sabotaged some of Exeter’s transfer targets – Buckle signed ex-Aldershot striker Tim Sills, a player widely linked with Exeter.
Another disappointment was the release of Patrick Ada. Unfortunately, the Cameroonian-born defender he never managed to break into City’s first team, yet he was always present to provide much-needed pace at the back. Without Ada on City’s books, the defence appears to be rather short of rapidity. Ada recently signed for newly-promoted Histon.
With so many departures and a reasonable intake of transfer funds, City fans began to look forward to a number of big-name signings in the transfer market. Tisdale took two prospects from his former club Team Bath, namely centre-back Matt Taylor, and captain and winger Neil Saunders. He also signed the experienced goalkeeper Andy Marriott, who was a hero when playing for Torquay a few seasons ago. Despite being thirty-six years of age, he is expected to take then number one jersey, and aid the development of young Paul Jones. After these three signings, activity seemed to come to a halt which sparked impatience with some of the Exeter fans. There was a short, yet for some agonising wait until Tisdale finally unveiled his star signing. Striker Steve Basham underwent an astonishing ten-day medical before signing a two-year contract with the Grecians. Having played and scored at a much higher level, he is seen as a player who can add great attacking threat to City’s line-up. At the end of last season he was released by Oxford United manager Jim Smith, after missing the second-half of the season through injury, ironically acquired against Exeter on New Year’s Day. Despite the release, Basham was a favourite with the Oxford United fans and regarded as one of their better players. However, the club was obviously unwilling to gamble on his fitness, allowing Exeter to step in. Basham is considered a player of versatility; not only does he score goals but he brings others into the game and can sit back in midfield. Paul Tisdale said of him, "He has a good pedigree and brings the best out of players around him. I'm looking forward to working with him."
So at this point in time, Exeter has made four new signings. Yet, perhaps we can say Exeter has signed nine new players. Being a community club with an impressive youth team, Tisdale offered professional deals to five youth players last season, all of whom signed. The contracts would not have been offered if the management didn’t think the players could make the step up, so conceivably we can expect some promising performances from some of these youth players, including the likes of prolific Dean Stamp, and the highly-regarded Liam Sercombe.
Moreover, with the basis of the squad well and truly in place, City were perfectly poised to kick-off their pre-season friendlies with a tour of Cornwall. The tour was an overall success, with a 7-1 win over St. Blazey, a 1-1 draw with Bodmin Town and a 3-0 win against FA Vase winners Truro. Stansfield, Mackie and Stamp all found the net multiple times, and the performances were steady for a team who were once again getting used to playing together. Unfortunately, young centre-back Danny Seaborne suffered a serious injury against Bodmin Town, and without the full extent of the injury known, the City faithful will be praying for good news. It is believed that he has damaged his anterior cruciate ligaments, which could potentially rule him out for the entire season. Tisdale was furious with the reckless challenge which caused the injury, an incident which marred the tour to some degree.
City followed up their tour of Cornwall with an impressive display against Championship side Norwich City, culminating in a 2-1 victory. The match was Norwich’s first of the pre-season, so unsurprisingly they looked fairly rusty. In contrast, the effervescent display by City in the first half may have surprised some supporters, seeing as it was Exeter’s fourth match in five days. But fatigue did not seem an issue, as the team played some delicate and attractive passing football, which led to an early two-goal lead, leaving the likes of Dion Dublin, Luke Chadwick and Jamie Cureton shell-shocked. The goal-scorers, Jamie Mackie and Adam Stansfield looked particularly impressive as they gave lively performances. Home debutant Matt Taylor also made a positive impression on the home crowd; his solid performance at centre-back earning him Man of the Match. Unfortunately, Basham did not feature in the match, presumably allowing him to build up his fitness in a slower and more cautious manner as he recovers from his long-term injury.
On the whole, Exeter City’s build up to the 07/08 season seems to be gaining momentum, as the initial disappointment seems to be fading in the face of fresh promise. If Exeter’s performance against Norwich is anything to go by, the season ahead should be more productive than the last. The team seemed at ease and played with style and fluency. There may be further signings still to come, but Tisdale seems to have demonstrated that the current crop of players is perfectly capable of turning in great performances. The team now prepare for the testimonial of City legend Scott Hiley on Wednesday night, followed by a home match against League One side Port Vale.