21 November 2014

Harley returns as Exeter reunion continues

Exeter City announced yesterday that fan favourite Ryan Harley is to return after a three-year absence - the second member of the famous 'class of 2010-11' to rejoin this season following David Noble. The duo were pivotal to the Grecians' rise to their joint-highest league finish in 2011, so could the reunion signal a return to those heady days?

First and foremost, the timing of Harley's arrival is significant. Whilst he is one of the most talented players to have represented City in modern times, the last three years have been a struggle. Games have been hard to come by for the 29 year-old, firstly at Brighton and more recently for Mark Cooper's Swindon. He's yet to make a first-team appearance this season so the reintroduction will be gradual. Return to full match fitness could take four or five weeks, by which time Matt Grimes is likely to be close to his expected City departure. Swansea and Nottingham Forest are rumoured to be among the clubs interested in the England under-20 starlet.

In a season that started so poorly with a PFA embargo, an injury crisis and a Brazil hangover, momentum has been slowly building and Harley's return will add to that. City have been boosted by the excellent performances of Christian Ribeiro and Liam Sercombe since their returns from injury and a push for the play-offs is by no means out of reach. This is echoed by Paul Tisdale, who when asked where Exeter will finish at an East Devon Grecians event last month said, "If we have 1 – 3 players injured we’ll be in the play-offs."

With Harley back, Grimes probable departure will not be the big blow it would have been and the hefty transfer fee likely to come in January will be a huge boost to the club, both in terms of rectifying the financial shortfall and potentially allowing Tis to add another player or two to the squad in January. The Trust ownership model relies on lucrative FA Cup runs or youth players being sold on, so it isn't a coincidence that City have struggled both on and off the field without a notable financial injection.

Whether or not Harley and Noble can go on to replicate their former glories with the Grecians remains to be seen, but the mood resonating from both the club and supporters is a far cry from the start of the season when both league and financial futures were being questioned. There are still areas that need to be addressed - defence is an area that surely needs an addition in January - though I wouldn't at all be surprised to see Tis guide City to another play-offs in May and, dare I say it, a promotion showdown with Argyle at Wembley?

11 October 2014

Overhaul needed to limit international apathy

With England and the Republic of Ireland both predictably thumping toothless opposition in the shape of San Marino and Gibraltar this week, the time has come for UEFA to look into whether these glorified pub-teams should be given automatic entry into main qualifying for major tournaments.

Some may argue that as sovereign states they have as much entitlement to contest this as every other nation, but you also have to ask whether they are competitive enough to make their presence worthwhile and not turn the format into a politically-correct mockery. San Marino certainly aren't - in 124 games they have one victory against fellow minnows Liechtenstein. The manner with which they were trounced by an average England on Thursday evening should set alarm bells ringing for UEFA, who have made much of their 'Week of Football' initiative in this international campaign. The fact is, who wants to watch this banal drivel? It was a testament to the loyalty of England supporters that over 50,000 turned up at Wembley to watch a televised attack v defence training exercise.

Compare it to the FA Cup, which is revered the world over for its giant-killings. The likes of Sutton & Hereford, however, had to pass through rounds of qualifying to reach the big stage where their memorable scalps took place. The tournament would be a farce if every team eligible, from the Premier League down to the Spartan South Midlands League, entered at the same stage. It should be no different at international level.

Although on a much different scale, the same system could apply to Europe's minnows, who need to have to earn the right to face Germany, Italy, Spain et al in competitive internationals. This could be achieved by placing the six lowest-ranked sides in their own qualifying group, with the top two progressing to the play-off stage to take on those who have qualified for the play-offs in the traditional way. It will not only make things more interesting for these teams, but also rid us of the nonsensical borefests that England and Ireland fans have had to endure this week.

12 July 2014

World Cup Unknowns XI

The World Cup is drawing to a close, so here's my selection of some of the tournament's star performers who you may not have heard of prior to the event

GK: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
The eccentric Mexican ‘keeper impressed us all with some outstanding reflex saves to help seal his country’s passage through to the knockout stage. The 28 year-old thwarted the Dutch on numerous occasions and it took a thunderous Wesley Sneijder strike and a penalty to deny Ochoa and his teammates late on. His heroics in Brazil have attracted interest from clubs throughout Europe who are keen to add the now former Ajaccio stopper to their ranks.

RB: Fabian Johnson (USA)
The USA’s proud and gutsy performances at the tournament were personified no more so than by right-back Fabian Johnson, whose defending and intelligent forays up and down the right-wing earned him numerous plaudits. Johnson is by trade a left-back, making his showings in the red, white and blue even more impressive.

CB: Konstantinos Manolas (Greece)
Whilst Greece may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing side to watch, their defending was typically staunch. In 23 year-old Kostas Manolas, they have unearthed a young Greek warrior. The nimble, intelligent Olympiacos centre-back formed a solid partnership with Sokratis Papastathopoulos (yes I copied and pasted that surname), helping Greece reach the knockout stages where the luck of penalties deserted them.

CB: Matt Besler (USA)
The little known Sporting Kansas City defender became a national hero in the States after a series of fine performances, most notably against Belgian and Portugal, where Besler helped nullify the substantial threat of Cristiano Ronaldo. The 27 year-old is attracting interested from Premier League sides as a result, meaning his MLS club have been quick to try and tie down their in-demand skipper.

LB: José Holebas (Greece)
Completing the ‘Ameri-Greek’ defence is 30 year-old left back Holebas, who throughout the tournament was Galanolefki’s main, sometimes only attacking outlet – bombing down the wing and whipping teasing crosses into the box. In that sense the importance of the Olympiacos man in Greece’s progress is somewhat understated.

RM: Graham Zusi (USA)
Another United States and Sporting Kansas City player, Graham Zusi was another of Jurgen Klinsmann’s men who, despite being an unknown outside America, impressed on the biggest stage of all. The 27 year-old recognises his technical and agility limits and plays to his strengths - the biggest being sharp passing that Johnson benefitted from the most. Zusi is usually a central midfielder, highlighting the ability of Klinsmann to get the most out of his squad.

CM: Charles Aránguiz (Chile)
Aranguiz was an integral part of the Chile side that knocked out the World Champions and so nearly the hosts too. His terrier-like pressing in the centre of the park won back possession numerous times, leading to the swift counter attacks we became accustomed to from the South Americans. The 25 year-old currently plies his trade with Brazilian side Internacional.

CM: Celso Borges (Costa Rica)
Joining Aranguiz in midfield is Costa Rica’s Celso Borges, one of the star men to lead the unfancied side to the quarter-finals. The combative box-to-box midfielder provided an extra layer of defence when needed, particularly when down to ten men against the Greeks, as well as keeping things ticking over in the centre of the park. Don’t expect him to remain at Swedish side AIK Stockholm for long.

LM: Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)
In what was a hit-and-miss tournament for Nigeria, Ahmed Musa enhanced his reputation as his country’s main attacking threat. Whilst the progress of Victor Moses has stagnated, CSKA Moscow winger Musa hit top form with two goals against finalists Argentina, including a sensational strike after a mazy run. At just 21 years of age, he could be a star in the making.

ST: Enner Valencia (Ecuador)
Undoubtedly Ecuador’s star man in Brazil, Valancia notched all three goals as La Tricolor exited valiantly at the first hurdle, attracting interest from Europe. West Ham are believed to be close to sealing the signing of the 25 year-old Pachuca striker.

ST: Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)
The forgotten man at Arsenal prior to the tournament, Campbell was shipped out on loan to Olympiacos last season, where he impressed in the Champions League against Manchester United. Further good displays in Brazil have put the lively forward back into the thoughts of Arsene Wenger, and the 22 year-old looks set to start the new season with the Gunners.

20 April 2014

Exeter v Torquay preview: One More Big Performance Needed

With victory sending Torquay down and all but guaranteeing our League status, a lot more than bragging rights are at stake in this Devon Derby.

City have plenty to build on following Friday's impressive point at high-flying Chesterfield. Whilst Danny Coles' reintroduction went down like a lead balloon, the skipper was solid at the back, and it was only for a Danny Butterfield conceded penalty that the Spireites got something out of the game.

John O'Flynn started up top on his own, a decision Paul Tisdale must have regretted when the Irishman missed a sitter at 1-0. Tom Nichols was given much-needed time to recharge his batteries, though, and surely the City star will be back leading the line against Torquay.

Another who will hopefully be given the nod is young David Wheeler. The winger will relish the prospect of running at cumbersome Gulls centre-back Aaron Downes, as he did to such success at Plainmoor. Let's hope Tis' gives him an opportunity to do it again.

One of our weak spots for me this season has been our fullbacks. Both Butterfield and Woodman lack the pace and technical ability that City fullbacks of old used to strengthen attacks. Whilst Butterfield is solid defensively, I hope Tisdale opts for the more attacking option of Aaron Dawson. Remember how well he and Wheeler linked up during the brilliant Under-21 cup run of earlier in the season.

Whilst it's been a mostly forgettable campaign for the Grecians, particularly at home, spare a thought for the Torquay fans who are looking up where North Ferriby is for next season. It's a village north of the Humber, by the way...

The Gulls' demise began when Martin Ling was put on sick leave in February last year. The former City man has recently revealed that depression was the cause. Alan Knill took the reigns on an interim basis and successfully avoided relegation ...but only just. 

Knill was appointed full-time when Ling was dismissed for footballing reasons by Thea Bristow after the club "just escaped relegation" - despite Ling having nothing to do with their slide from mid-table. The former Scunthorpe boss continued his dodgy record in the first half of the season, with his side winning just five games, leaving them in the drop zone. After back-to-back Devon Derby defeats, enough was enough for the Yellows' board and Knill was sent packing.

Former Gulls' captain Chris Hargreaves, who I 4-1 think will remember the last time he faced the Grecians, was appointed as Knill's successor. The rookie manager has struggled to make an impact though, and Torquay are all but certain to be playing non-league football once again next season. They won't give up the fight until it's mathematically impossible, however, so City will have to play well to preserve their 100% Devon Derby win-rate.

If ever there was a need for a rare home win, it's here. Three points are vital as high-flying Scunthorpe, still unbeaten under Russ Wilcox, are next up. Let's hope come 5pm we'll be celebrating survival and replicating the 'We'll Meet Again' scenes made famous against Argyle back in 2011.

Prediction: Exeter 2-0 Torquay 

26 March 2014

Derby Delight as City ease relegation fears

Exeter City all but extinguished any lingering relegation fears and dented Plymouth Argyle's play-off hopes with a stylish 2-1 comeback victory at Home Park in the Devon Derby last night.

It capped a memorable few days for City boss Paul Tisdale, who came under increasing pressure with City dropping down the table, but he has masterminded back-to-back wins that many fans couldn't have dreamt of following the season-low home defeat to Northampton.

Argyle were the side to take the lead in the derby, however. City captain Danny Coles, who impressively intercepted a number of crosses early on, undid his good work by deciding to block an out-of-reach cross with his hand - a straightforward penalty decision for referee Robert Madley. Reuben Reid duly converted from the spot for his 20th goal of the season, putting the home side in front on the stroke of half-time. A frustrating half for the travelling faithful as, despite some fine passing moves and dominating for large spells, Exeter were indecisive when getting in or around the penalty area.

After the break it was a largely similar story in terms of the balance of play, though City upped the tempo and started testing Argyle's defence more. On 58 minutes Paul Tisdale made the decisive substitution, replacing the hard-working Matt Gill with the more attack minded Matt Grimes. The youngster's introduction immediately added more pace to the midfield and his accurate forward passing meant that City began stretching the Pilgrims' back line. Not long later, the visitors' got the equaliser their play merited - Sercombe's long range effort took a wicked deflection, apparently off Tom Nichols' nose, and looped over the helpless Jake Cole.

With half-an-hour still to go, Exeter were in complete control. Richards went close after he was played in by Nichols immediately after the restart, and veteran midfielder Matt Oakley also spurned a good opportnity. Argyle were hanging on, but the pressure finally told on the 83rd minute - Tom Nichols turned brilliantly into the right-hand channel and played a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of strike partner Eliot Richards, who stroked home to the delirium of the away fans.

It was a marvellous second-half showing from the Grecians. Not only did they just outscore Argyle, they completely outplayed them. The slick passing football on show was in contrast to the home side's direct approach which increased upon the late introduction of Marvin Morgan.

City's homegrown trio were the star performers: Tom Nichols put in an Stanno-like display - quick, combative and tireless. The 20 year-old has been one of the few positives to come from this largely disappointing campaign and a new contract for Tom must be one of Paul Tisdale's main priorities in the summer.

Matt Grimes was typically impressive, whilst Liam Sercombe deserves plaudits for a much-improved display in the second-half which laid the foundations for the comeback.

Finally, a note in recognition of Tisdale's part in the win. Many were questioning him after the woeful run which saw the Grecians slump down the table, myself included, but the way in which City took charge after the interval oozed class. He won the tactical battle over John Sheridan, exploiting the hosts' 3-5-2 formation.

This win has lifted the doom that had descended on St James' Park. Once a few more points are on the board, hopefully on Saturday against Accrington, we can look ahead to next season with optimism knowing we have among our ranks some of the best young footballers in the division.