Growing the Grecians #77 – 2016/17 season review

Re-read Growing the Grecians #76.


After being in the play-offs last season (narrowly losing to Newcastle United over 2 legs) and being predicted to finish 7th, promotion wasn’t necessarily the biggest surprise in the world (our promotion from League One to the Championship was far more unlikely), but it’s great to achieve it. Our form in the first half of the season (we went unbeaten in 19 games) was the key to promotion; when we struggled to score in December and January, we were able to stay in the mix and finally achieved promotion with a game to spare. It was a little disappointing to not win the title after such a strong start, but promotion was the main aim; the title would have been a bonus.

It’s always difficult to pick key games, but I think that there were a couple of important victories through the season. The first was away at Birmingham in November when we won 2-1. That win extended our lead to 8 points and was probably the first point that I genuinely thought promotion was achievable. The second was the 6-1 away win at Derby in April. We went into the game having been outplayed by Birmingham at home in the previous match and a 6 point lead over Blackburn in third with 5 games to go; the result and performance showed that we were able to move on from that and I felt confident that we would get the job done in the final games.

In the wider world, the play-off final saw Leeds United take on West Ham United. Joining ourselves and Birmingham in the Premier League is… Leeds United. Although the better side throughout, they required extra time to beat West Ham 3-1. The F.A. Cup saw Tottenham Hotspur take on Chelsea in the final, with Spurs lifting the trophy after a 3-1 win.

Inevitably, some managers lost their jobs at the end of the season. Barnsley sack Keith Hill (they appoint Steve Eyre), Crystal Palace sack Nigel Clough (they appoint Andy Thorn), Middlesbrough sack Dean Smith (they appoint Paul Jewell) and Peterborough United sack Ian Craney (they appoint David Moyes). In Germany, Mainz sack Michael Frontzeck and the media make me favourite for the job, but I tell them I have no interest. Southampton sack Peter Grant following their relegation from the Premier League and I’m made favourite to replace him. I tell the media I have no interest in the job, but it doesn’t deter Southampton and they offer me the job. I reject the offer.

The end of season awards are made:

Championship Player of the Season: Ignacio Scocco (Blackburn Rovers)
Championship Young Player of the Season: Kenny Mulready (Bristol City, on loan from Manchester United)
Championship Goal of the Season: Pablo Berrera (West Ham United). Oliver Norwood’s strike against Norwich City comes second.
Championship Leading Goalscorer: Federico Cenci – 31 goals.
Championship Manager of the Season: Me

Jagos Vukovic, Jonny Hayes and Federico Cenci are named in the Championship Team of the Season.

Jay Spearing and Federico Cenci are inducted into the Exeter City Overall Best XI, although only on the bench. I would suspect that as long as Cenci stays and his form continues, he will be named in the Overall Best starting XI at the end of next season. Unsurprisingly, Cenci is named Fans Player of the Year. His average rating of 7.49 from 44 games sets a new Exeter City record, beating the previous record of 7.44 from 37 games by Michel in the 2015/16 season. What will next season bring?

Read Growing the Grecians #78.

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.

Growing the Grecians #75 – Party at the Park

The final game of the season and after our priceless draw at Portman Road, there’s nothing to play for; we’re up and can’t win the title, Barnsley are relegated. A chance for the fans to salute their heroes and say farewell to a player who has been very important during our stay in the Championship.

Date: Sunday 7th May 2017
Opponent: Barnsley (23rd)
Venue: St. James Park
Odds: Exeter City=Evens, Draw=11/5, Barnsley=11/5
Weather: Dry, 19C
Referee: Mr. Billy Siddall

Gennaro Riccardi is making his 75th career league appearance. Michel returns for Jay Spearing as we take a more attacking approach. There’s also one other change. Alain Besse makes way for Dacian Varga, who is retiring at the end of the season. He joined when we got promoted to the Championship and is making his 180th and final game for the club.

The carnival atmosphere before kick-off steps up a notch in the third minute when Federico Cenci plays in Jonny Hayes, who scores his 7th goal of the season from 12 yards. Conga lines can be seen snaking their way across the Big Bank.

Three minutes after setting up the opener, Cenci spins his marker and shoots from 18 yards. Steele dives down and is able to push the ball around the post with his fingertips. It’s certainly a strong start in front of our fans.

Varga has a chance to score in the 19th minute, but his shot from 18 yards goes wide. A minute later, Cenci plays Varga in, giving him a great chance to score on his final appearance. He shoots from 12 yards. Steele saves and the loose ball is collected by Hayes. He’s only four yards out, but it’s a tight angle. No problem. Our second and Hayes’ second (his 8th of the season) keeps the party going. What a great end to the season!

Bradley Johnson shoots from 30 yards in the 29th minute and Steele catches the ball. A minute later, Wordsworth hits a soft cross/shot from the left. Bond inexplicably fumbles the ball and Roman pulls a goal back for the visitors from a yards. The annual Christmas goalkeeping nightmares DVD has a new clip!

We look to restore our two-goal lead. Hayes crosses from the right in the 34th minute and Cenci heads just over from 8 yards. Four minutes later, Hayes passes to Cenci. He shrugs off a defender and powers his 31st goal of the season in from 16 yards. Resume the party!

The half ends with Dunne picking up a booking from Mr. Siddall three minutes before the break for a foul on Michel.

Six minutes into the second half, Oliver Norwood takes an inswinging corner. Cenci, 6 yards out at the near post, heads just over.

Barnsley start to come more into the game. Vela shoots from 12 yards in the 56th minute and Bond is forced to turn it behind for a corner. Four minutes later, Dunne shoots just over from 18 yards. The next chance falls a minute later and it falls our way. Cenci unleashes a powerful effort from 25 yards and is only denied by a full-length diving save by Steele.

In the 64th minute, Norwood makes way for Jay Spearing. Spearing’s contract is up at the end of the season, so this is likely to be his swansong in front of the fans. It doesn’t seem to have an impact on us pushing forwards; a minute later, Steele catches a 25 yard shot from Johnson.

The mood is slightly dampened in the 68th minute when Silva crosses from the right and Wordsworth brings the visitors back within one from 10 yards. It certainly spurs them on and they go looking for an equalier. Silve goes close to levelling the score in the 71st minute, but his shot goes just over.

Two minutes later, Varga plays one of his trademark defence-splitting passes. It falls to the feet of Cenci. He shoots from 12 yards, but is unable to get it on target. Wordsworth has his name taken in the 74th minute for a foul on Hayes.

In the final ten minutes, we push on to restore our two-goal lead. Hayes fires just over from 16 yards in the 80th minute. In the 88th minute, Hayes passes to Cenci and he runs into the box before shooting from 12 yards. It goes wide. It’s Cenci’s last involvement as he’s replaced with Michele Marconi before the goal kick is taken. It’s a chance for St. James Park to show their gratitude for the outstanding performances from Cenci this season that have propelled us to promotion.

The final action of note is in the 90th minute. Johnson slips in Varga. He’s 16 yards out. He places his shot and scores. A fairytale ending, scoring with what’s likely to be his final touch. I don’t know who is writing his scripts, but they couldn’t have done any better. Oh no! The linesman’s flag is up. Varga was a fraction offside. It’s disallowed. I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed by a goal being disallowed and I’m sure that all the fans feel the same way.

Result: Exeter City 3-2 Barnsley
Man of the Match: Jonny Hayes
Ratings: GK-Bond (5.8), DR-Zapotoka (6.8), DCR-D’Avanzo (6.8), DCL-Vukovic (6.8), DL-Riccardi (6.8), MCR-Norwood (6.9, sub 64), MCL-Johnson (6.7), AMR-Hayes (9.3, 2G, A), AMC-Michel (7.2), AML-Varga (7.2, A), ST-Cenci (8.6, G, A). Subs-Spearing (5.8, on 64), Marconi (on 88). Unused-McCarey, Rentea, Gazzoli.
Attendance: 8,648
League Position: 2nd
Match Stats:

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Incredibly, despite our promotion, it’s not a sell-out. Evidently some people decided that with nothing to play for, the game would be a dull affair. It turns out they were wrong. We looked very good going forward and could (perhaps should) have had more. Barnsley also played their part in a very watchable game. Jonny Hayes’ performance earns him a place in Team of the Week.

We finish in second and receive £25,000. Brighton take the final play-off spot. The final league table looks like:

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The final words must go to Dacian Varga, who has had 5 great seasons with the club. His 180 appearances saw him notch up 34 goals and 47 assists. He will be missed by all at the club.

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Read Growing the Grecians #76.

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.

Growing the Grecians #74 – Can we get promoted with our second chance?

Two games to go. Six points clear of third-placed Blackburn. Surely we’re there. And yet. There’s still a doubt. Our lead over them was cut by two points last time out. If we lose our two remaining games and Blackburn win theirs, they’re going up on goal difference. And it can happen. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve caused it to happen. Championship Manager 01/02 when we pipped Tranmere Rovers to the League One title with a scenario exactly the same as this. So we need a point.

Date: Saturday 29th April 2017
Opponent: Ipswich Town (19th)
Venue: Portman Road
Odds: Ipswich Town=13/8, Draw=2/1, Exeter City=6/4
Weather: Wet, 17C
Referee: Mr. Stuart Attwell

I make one change from our last outing, with a defensive midfielder in Jay Spearing replacing an attacking midfielder in Michel. This has served me well throughout the season and hopefully will again today. A more defensive midfielder should increase our chances of a draw, which is all we need. Although in our last away game with a defensive midfielder in place, we went goal-crazy, so who knows!

Six minutes in and Ipswich win a corner. We clear and Federico Cenci gets the ball. The counter is on. He’s running with it. He crosses the halfway line. He’s 30 yards out. He’s 20 yards out. He’s in the area. He’s 12 yards out. He shoots. He… watches Welch make a comfortable catch. It would have been the perfect start, but not to be. However, can’t be too disappointed – we don’t actually need to score again this season to get promoted. Although it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Three minutes later, it’s the turn of Jonathan Bond to make a catch. He catches a 25 yards shot from Darrigi. Oliver Norwood shoots from 25 yards in the 15th minute and Welch is required to beat the ball away. A minute later, Welch denies Alain Besse from 16 yards.

We’ve had some pressure, but then Ipswich start to apply some and test our nerves. Bond is called into action in the 18th minute when he catches a shot from Majewski 12 yards out. Darrigi finds the side netting in the 25th minute from 10 yards out. A minute later, Majewski opens the scoring from 18 yards. Surely it’s not going to go down to the final day of the season…

On the half hour mark, Bradley Johnson fires in a shot from 25 yards that Welch catches. On the stroke of half time, Norwood takes an outswinging corner. It’s met by Cenci, who is 6 yards out at the near post. He heads it goalwards. It’s in! He’s levelled the score with his 29th goal of the season. We’re going up!!!!

It’s a slow start to the second half. Ipswich don’t really have anything to play for, so hopefully they’ll be happy to accept the draw. I know I certainly would!

The first action of note occurs in the 58th minute when Johnson shoots from 18 yards. Unfortunately, it’s a long way wide. On the hour mark, Cenci meets an outswinging Norwood corner. He’s unmarked and 6 yards out at the near post. He heads it goalwards. It’s… an outstanding diving stop by Welch and he hold on, preventing us from even scrambling in a rebound.

We’re pressing for another goal though. Besse feeds Cenci in the 63rd minute and he shoots instantly from 10 yards, but only succeeds in finding the side netting. With 21 minutes to go, Jagos Vukovic passes to Cenci. His back it to goal. He turns his marker. He shoots powerfully from 18 yards. It’s under Welch. IT’S IN!!!! His 30th goal of the season. Surely that’s the goal that guarantees Premier League football at St. James Park next season!

Morrison looks to hit straight back for the hosts, but he shoots wide from 10 yards in the 73rd minute. Moments later, Johnson plays in Cenci. A chance to secure the score a hat-trick, secure the points and promotion. He shoots from 18 yards and is denied by an outstanding diving save by Welch. We do gain a corner, but nothing comes of it. Johnson shoots from 25 yards again in the 77th minute, but Welch catches.

Majewski comes close to pulling the hosts level in the 79th minute when he shoots from 12 yards. Bond makes an excellent diving stop to keep us in the lead. With 7 minutes to go, Torral crosses from the left. It hits Luca D’Avazo, wrong footing Bond and it’s an own goal. A draw is all we need, so it’s not a disaster. But it could be.

We’re a minute into stoppage time. The away fans are whistling, urging Mr. Attwell to blow the final whistle. We’re defending. We’ll take this and I won’t complain if Mr. Attwell blows up a couple of minutes early. We’ve players behind the ball and Ipswich aren’t going anywhere too fast. McAllister is 30 yards out. He decides that a shot is his best course of action. He strikes it well. But it’s wide. Two minutes later, Mr. Attwell blows the final whistle. WE ARE GOING UP!

Result: Ipswich Town 2-2 Exeter City
Man of the Match: Federico Cenci
Ratings: Gk-Bond (6.7), DR-Zapotoka (7.1), DCR-D’Avanzo (6.7), DCL-Vukovic (6.8, A),DL-Riccardi (6.6), DMC-Spearing (6.6), MCR-Norwood (7.9, A), MCL-Johnson (6.9), AMR-Hayes (6.9), AML-Besse (7.3), ST-Cenci (9.1, 2G). Unused-McCarey, Rentea, Michel, Gazzoli, Marconi.
Attendance: 18,352
League Position: 2nd
Match Stats:

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Am I disappointed we couldn’t hold on to secure the win? Not really. At the start of the game, I’d have happily accepted this as the final score and result. It’s all we needed to secure promotion, which was the aim. A win would have been nice (and deserved), but I’ve never been happier with a win turning into a draw in the last 10 minutes.

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Did we even need a draw? Did Blackburn win. Would it have gone to the final day? Who knows. I certainly wasn’t checking.

The results over the weekend see Birmingham secure the league title and Middlesbrough take the final relegation place. Blackburn, Leeds and West Ham will all be in the playoffs, so there’s a place up for grabs on the final day of the season.

Federico Cenci is named in Team of the Week for his double and Man of the Match performance. It’s fitting that he scored the goals that secured promotion. He also signs a new 5 year contract, removing a minimum fee clause. If he does go, I want much more than the £5,000,000 that had been in place.

Bertin Matip resumes full training, but is unlikely to play a part on the final day of the season as he’ll be lacking match fitness. Juho Virkki returns from his loan spell at Hereford United.

Philipp Langer requests to be removed from the transfer list and I agree. Whilst Langer wants to stay, Lasse Karlsen wants to go and requests to be placed on the transfer list. I accept his request.

The awards for April are made:

Player of the Month: Milan Lalkovic (Brighton and Hove Albion)
Young Player of the Month: Damian Evans (Leicester City)
Goal of the Month: Tarmo Kink (Hull City)
Manager of the Month: Sam Allardyce (Birmingham City)

Read Growing the Grecians #75.

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.

Growing the Grecians #73 – Can we get promoted with our first chance?

Three games of the season left. Eight points clear of third-placed Blackburn Rovers after beating Cardiff. We’ve definitely got one foot in the Premier League. But Blackburn can still pip us. A win and we’re guaranteed to go. However, we can lose all three remaining games and still get promoted. If I was the Blackburn manager, I’d be accepting that we’re going into the play-offs. As the Exeter manager, I’m concerned that’s where we’ll end up.

Date: Saturday 22nd April 2017
Opponent: Huddersfield Town (9th)
Venue: St. James Park
Odds: Exeter City=6/4, Draw=2/1, Huddersfield Town=13/8
Weather: Dry, 12C
Referee: Mr. Mike Dean

We have a chance to get promoted in front of our fans with two games to spare, so an excellent position to be in. The important thing will be to achieve promotion. Jonathan Bond lines up for his 150th career league appearance and it could certainly be a memorable one.

Oliver Norwood has a couple of early range finders. He shoots just over from 20 yards in the 6th minute and wide from 25 yards in the 7th minute. Dalla Valle also has a shot from 25 yards in the 14th minute, but he’s unable to keep it down and threaten Bond’s goal.

16 minutes in and a chance inside the area is fashioned. Michel passes to Federico Cenci and he runs into the area. He shoots from 16 yards, but it’s wide. He’s the player I’d have wanted the chance to go to, so I’m a little disappointed he couldn’t at least get it on target. A minute later, Danalache shoots from 12 yards, but thankfully it’s straight at Bond and he holds on.

The game quietens down, with the next chance coming in the 35th minute when Danalache shoots from 16 yards. He beats Bond, but the crossbar keeps the scores level. The crossbar at the other end of the pitch does the same a minute later when Cenci, 6 yards out at the near post, heads an inswinging Norwood corner.

We finish the first half on the front foot. Cenci strikes a thunderous free kick from 30 yards in the 41st minute that Cervi beats to safety. Norwood goes to recover the ball and gets booked in the process. Bradley Johnson shoots from 25 yards two minutes before half time, but is unable to keep it down. On the stroke of half time, Cenci has his name taken by Mr. Dean for a foul on Geng.

Jagos Vukovic has his name taken by Mr. Dean a minute into the second half for a foul on Danalache. Johnson tests Cervi from 20 yards in the 48th minute and five minutes later, finds the side netting from 25 yards. A goal (and one that will hopefully seal promotion) seems to be coming…

Johnson passes to Cenci in the 56th minute. Cenci is 18 yards out. He shoots. It’s over. A minute later, Johnson passes to Cenci again. Again, he shoots from 18 yards. It’s on target. Cervi saves, conceding a corner. 61 minutes in and an outswinging Norwood corner is met 6 yards out at the near post by Cenci. His header is going in, but Cervi catches and keeps the score level.

We continue to look for a goal that could secure promotion. In the 68th minute, Alain Besse shoots from 18 yards and Cervi pushes it over the bar. Norwood takes the resulting corner. It’s an outswinger. Johnson is 6 yards out at the near post. He heads it. Over.

For all our pressure, the scores are level. I’m concerned that we’re going to get undone by a sucker punch. With 16 minutes to go, Copp shoots from 20 yards. Bond make a regulation save with ease.

The crossbar is rattled for the third time when the clock reaches 78 minutes. It’s Norwood who is denied from 25 yards. McDermott enters Mr. Dean’s book in the 79th minute for a foul on Gennaro Riccardi. Michel shoots from 18 yards in the 83rd minute and Cervi catches. With 5 minutes remaining, Johnson 6 yards out at the near post heads over an inswinging corner from Norwood.

In the final minute, Visser is 25 yards out. He looks up and unleashes a shot. It’s over. A point. Will it be enough?

Result: Exeter City 0-0 Huddersfield Town
Man of the Match: Gennaro Riccardi
Ratings: GK-Bond (6.9), DR-Zapotoka (7.2), DCR-D’Avanzo (7.0), DCL-Vukovic (6.7, booked), DL-Riccardi (7.3), MCR-Norwood (6.8, booked), MCL-Johnson (6.9), AMR-Hayes (6.7), AMC-Michel (7.0), AML-Besses (6.8), ST-Cenci (6.8). Unused-McCarey, Rentea, Spearing, Gazzoli, Marconi.
Attendance: 8,714
League Position: 2nd
Match Stats:

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We controlled the game and had the better of the chances, but ultimately could not finish anything off. It could be enough. Unless Blackburn have won, we’re promoted. Blackburn have…

We welcome back a number of players from loan spells: Charlie Hollett from Luton Town, Busao from Bristol Rovers, Richard Ibrahim from Plymouth Argyle, Nathan Holland from Yeovil Town and Dennis Judge from Newport County. We’re also likely to keep Will Keane and Ryan Mason, both of whom request to be removed from the transfer list.

At the bottom of the league, Barnsley become the second team to be relegate to League One. At the top, have we joined Birmingham? Are we promoted to the Premier League? We started the game 8 points ahead of Blackburn. A draw means that Blackburn need to have won to retain any chance of pipping us to promotion. They have. They are now 6 points behind.

Read Growing the Grecians #74.

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.

Growing the Grecians #72 – Can we take a step closer?

Four games left. Six points ahead of third. As outstanding as we were against Derby, it was still only worth three points. Blackburn’s win means that the gap stays at six points, although there is now one game less for them to overhaul us. A win in our last mid-week game would be a huge step for us.

Date: Tuesday 18th April 2017
Opponent: Cardiff City (11th)
Venue: St. James Park
Odds: Exeter City=5/4, Draw=11/5, Cardiff City=7/4
Weather: Dry, 8C
Referee: Mr. Howard Webb

Federico Cenci returns from his suspension and is straight back in to the starting line-up. It’s perhaps harsh on Michele Marconi (who is relegated to the bench) as he was outstanding last time out, but Cenci has been consistently excellent and lethal in front of goal. Cenci’s return marks his 100th league appearance. Jay Spearing makes way for Michel as I select a more attacking line-up in a home game.

The enforced lay-off seems to have had little impact on Cenci and he’s soon involved. The third minute to be precise. He passes to Jonny Hayes, who runs into the area and shoots from 12 yards. Marshall saves and pushes it away. Alain Besse is switched on and picks up the rebound 6 yards out. A dream start as the net ripples. But wait. He’s only found the side netting! The angle was a little tight, but he really should have done better with that. We can’t afford to waste chances and I hope we’re not going to be punished for it.

A minute later, Hayes crosses from the right and Michel shoots from 8 yards. Again, Marshall is unable to hold on, but Cardiff have had a wake-up call and reach this rebound first, clearing upfield. All the way up to Delfouneso. Who could counter if Bertin Matip doesn’t bring him down. Which he does. Mr. Webb is not impressed and takes Matip’s name.

Quarter of an hour in and things are going ok; we’ve had the only two chances and Marshall looks slightly jittery, so hopefully we can capitalise on that at some point. Lubomir Zapotoka has the ball and gifts it to Delfouneso. He’s in with only Jonathan Bond to beat. He shoots from 16 yards and puts it wide. A huge let off and it arguably equals up the luck after Besse missed in the 6th minute.

Delfouneso goes closer two minutes later. Much closer. His header from 10 yards beats Bond and hits the bar. We’re able to react and put the ball behind for a corner, but Cardiff are certainly coming in to the game. Bruls finds our side netting from 8 yards in the 19th minute and I’m starting to get concerned at the chances that Cardiff are creating. A goal from us would help ease my nerves somewhat…

25 minutes in and Marshall takes a goal kick. Bradley Johnson meets it with a powerful header and Besse is on to it in a flash. He’s clear of all defenders and closing in on Marshall. Hopefully he can show more composure than he did 19 minutes ago. He elects to shoot from 18 yards. It’s under Marshall. It’s in! His 6th goal of the season has put us in the lead. A vital goal after some pressure from Cardiff.

Six minutes later, Delfouneso fires low from 16 yards, forcing Bond to get down quickly and well to concede a corner. Hayes shoots from 12 yards three minutes later, but Marshall doesn’t have to save as it’s not on target. Ibrahim Dagasan enters Mr. Webb’s book in the 37th minute. On the stroke of half time, Bertin Matip is forced to go off injured and Jay Spearing comes on to replace him.

Matip’s injury is a loss as he was on corner duty for us. Michel takes his place and three minutes into the second half, an inswinger is flicked on by Johnson at the near post. It’s going in until the Cardiff defender on the far post clears it off the line. Hayes also goes close to extending our lead in the 57th minute when he shoots from 12 yards, but a spectacular diving save from Marshall pushes the ball over the bar for a corner.

A inswinging corner 4 minutes later sees us double our lead. Michel’s corner is met by Cenci 6 yards out at the near post and Bruls panics, putting it into his own net. It’s a really important goal as it gives us a cushion. A six point lead with three games to go is an excellent position to be in.

Dunk enters Mr. Webb’s book in the 65th minute for a foul on Hayes. With 19 minutes to go, Johnson lifts the ball over the top. Hayes runs on to it and unleashes a volley from 12 yards. It’s a difficult skill to pull off and he doesn’t manage to do it successfully unfortunately, volleying wide. It’s turns out to be the end of Hayes’ involvement as I replace him with Adriano Gazzoli on the right wing in the 72nd minute after Bruls has his name taken by Mr. Webb for fouling Besse.

Our stroll to victory is interrupted in the 75th minute when an outswinging Sosvic corner is headed over by Dunk from 10 yards. A reminder that’s it’s not over yet. And unfortunately a reminder we don’t take heed of. With 10 minutes to go, Jones lifts a ball over the top and Cowie, beating the offside trap, runs on to it and scores from 16 yards. Game on. I’ll be incredibly disappointed if we throw away a two-goal lead in the last 10 minutes.

The Cardiff goal acts a wake-up call. Within a minute of them scoring, Johnson hits the post from 16 yards. Michel shoots just wide two minutes later. Seconds after Michel has shot wide, the ball is in the Cardiff area again as we pile on the pressure. Dunk brings down Cenci and Mr. Webb has no hesitation in pointing to the spot and giving Dunk his second yellow card and marching orders. The man advantage should see us home, but if Cenci can tuck the penalty away, I will feel much more confident. He steps up. The crowd holds its breath. It’s low to Marshall’s right. It’s in! St. James Park erupts! Three more valuable points in our quest for promotion. It’s Cenci’s 28th goal of the season.

Cardiff go close to pulling one back in the 87th minute when a free kick 30 yards out from Jones cannons off our bar, but we’re able to see the game out and have the final chance in the 89th minute when Gazzoli shoots wide from 25 yards. Delfouneso finds his name in Mr. Webb’s book in the second minute of stoppage time for a foul on Zapotoka. The crowd aren’t baying for another red, being happy celebrating another victory.

Result: Exeter City 3-1 Cardiff City
Man of the Match: Alain Besse
Ratings: GK-Bond (7.0), DR-Zapotoka (7.2), DCR-D’Avanzo (7.0), DCL-Vukovic (7.4), DL-Riccardi (7.1), MCR-Matip (6.9, booked, sub 45), MCL-Johnson (7.5, A), AMR-Hayes (6.6, sub 71), AMC-Michel (6.8), AML-Besse (8.0, G), ST-Cenci (7.6, G). Subs-Spearing (6.9, on 45), Gazzoli (6.7, on 71). Unused-McCarey, Rentea, Marconi.
Attendance: 8,714
League Position: 2nd
Match Stats:

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Another welcome win. It was important to build on the momentum from our big win at Derby and I was concerned that we might have had a ‘hangover’ performance in mid-week, but no sign of it. A nervy couple of minutes towards the end, but Cenci was able to calm them quickly with his well-taken penalty.

Bertin Matip picked up a thigh strain and will be out for 2 weeks, so that’s his season over unless I play him in the final game a couple of days after recovery. If required, I will. Hopefully I won’t need to.

We welcome back Karl Chaplin from his loan spell at Bristol Rovers and Miroslav Smejkal from his loan at Cambridge.

With three games to go, Crystal Palace become the first team to be relegated to League One. At the other end of the table, Birmingham City secure their promotion to the Premier League. Our win against Cardiff turns out to be a massive one for us as Blackburn only managed a draw. With three games to go, we have an eight point advantage over them. We could join Birmingham in the Premier League and be promoted as soon as Saturday

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.

Growing the Grecians #71 – Showing pride in the shirts

Five games to go and eleven points needed. After our loss against Birmingham City, this is my focus, not the title. Although if results go completely our way, I won’t turn the title down. We have three home games and two away games, so with the target of eleven points, the plan is to win the home games and draw the away ones. It sounds simple enough…

Date: Saturday 15th April 2017
Opponent: Derby County (8th)
Venue: Pride Park
Odds: Derby County=Evens, Draw=11/5, Exeter City=11/5
Weather: Gusty, 12C
Referee: Mr. Alan Beck

This is one of the two away games we have and I’ll be happy with a point. Whilst it’s difficult to play for a draw, I look to ensure that things stay tight as the attacking Michel is replaced with the defensive Jay Spearing in midfield.

A slow start would be fine by me. However, it doesn’t go like that. There’s action from the off. But it’s us on the front foot. Bradley Johnson shoots wide in the 4th minute from 18 yards. Fie minutes later, Alain Besse feeds Michele Marconi and he runs into the area and shoots from 16 yards. It’s… wide. Five minutes later, Bertin Matip’s inswinging corner is met by the head of Marconi 6 yards out at the near post, but he can’t get it on target. A promising start, but I’d be happier if we could convert a chance into a goal.

I’m soon happier. Much happier. 22 minutes in and Jonny Hayes slips in Marconi and he slots the ball under Fielding from 8 yards for his 12th goal of the season. Three minutes later, Hayes and Marconi exchange passes and Hayes scores his 6th goal of the season from 16 yards. Two minutes later, Johnson passes to Besse and he registers his 5th goal of the season with a cool finish under Fielding from 16 yards. With 33 minutes on the clock, Hayes plays in Marconi and he registers his 13th goal of the season with a first time finish from 8 yards. 11 minutes. 4 goals.

In the 37th minute, Griffiths has the ball in our area and isn’t really going anywhere. Luca D’Avanzo lunges in. Griffiths goes down. Mr. Beck’s whistle goes. Penalty! A way back in for Derby. Griffiths steps up and fires high to Jonathan Bond’s left to pull a goal back. With a minute to go until half time, Hanley meets an inswinging corner at the far post with his head. He’s 6 yards out and heads down. Bond gets down well to save and we complete the clearance by launching the ball upfield off the line.

A three goal lead is comfortable, but the scare before half time has got me worried. Surely we’re not going to score four goals in eleven minutes and still not win the game? If we do, I think we’ll end up in the play-offs.

Eight minutes into the second half, Hayes take a free kick 20 yards out. He finds Jagos Vukovic at the far post. He’s four yards out and powers a header straight at Fielding. It was more difficult not to score. Surely this isn’t going to be a crucial moment?

Griffiths goes close from 25 yards in the 64th minute as we continue to have success in limiting Derby’s chances. With 20 minutes to go, Hayes is replaced on the right wing by Adriano Gazzoli. Three minutes later, Besse chances his arm from 30 yards and Fielding has to be alert, tipping the ball over for a corner. Matip takes the resulting corner and swings it in to the near post. Marconi, 6 yards out at the near post, meets it. It’s in! His 14th goal of the season and the one that seals his hat-trick and has me accepting we’re definitely going to win this game (even though Derby haven’t shown much going forwards).

Michel replaces Johnson in the middle of the park with 12 minutes to go. Derby win a free kick 20 yards out with three minutes to go. It’s not going to be anything other than a consolation if it goes in. It doesn’t. Griffiths gets it over the wall, but can’t get it down again in time. Matip takes a free kick from the right with a minute to go. It’s another free kick that finds Vukovic 4 yards out at the far post. He makes no mistake this time and registers his 6th goal of the season to complete a comprehensive victory.

Before Derby can kick off, I replace Marconi with Philipp Langer. It gives the away fans the chance to applaud Marconi for an outstanding performance in an excellent victory.

Result: Derby County 1-6 Exeter City
Man of the Match: Michele Marconi
Ratings: GK-Bond (7.0), DR-Zapotoka (7.6), DCR-D’Avanzo (6.4), DCL-Vukovic (8.6, G), DL-Riccardi (7.0), DMC-Spearing (7.6), MCR-Matip (9.1, 2A), MCL-Johnson (7.6, A, sub 78), AMR-Hayes (9.0, G, 2A, sub 70), AML-Besse (8.6, G), ST-Marconi (9.7, 3G, A, sub 89). Subs-Gazzoli (6.9, on 70), Michel (on 78), Langer (on 89). Unused-McCarey, Rentea.
Attendance: 19,953
League Position: 2nd
Match Stats:

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Derby #FM12

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Wow. Just wow. I’d have been happy with a point, but am delighted with the response from the lads after losing the big game against Birmingham. Marconi looked like the striker he was in Autumn when he was scoring plenty before drying up over winter and Federico Cenci is available next time out, which is a lovely selection dilemma to have. The only downside on the day is that Blackburn also win. So we’re still only six points ahead, but now there’s only four games to go. Dare I dream?

Mathematically, the results secure play-off spots for Birmigham and ourselves. However, a six point lead with four games to go means that I’ll be disappointed if we have to take part in them.

Unsurprisingly, we have plenty of representatives in Team of the Week – Gennaro Riccardi, Jagos Vukovic, Bertin Matip, Jonny Hayes, Alain Besse and Michele Marconi all get the nod.

We welcome back Will Keane from his loan spell at Middlesbrough and Frankie Timmins from his loan spell at Burton Albion.

Read Growing the Grecians #72.

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.

Growing the Grecians #70 – The top two clash

An important away win at Bristol City (marred only by conceding the most bizarre of goals) set us up for our clash against league leaders Birmingham City. Unfortunately, it’s a fixture that we go in to without our leading scorer and talisman, Federico Cenci. His goals have been invaluable and I don’t mind my players going for the ball, but he picks bookings up regularly and I could do with having his services to call on for easily our biggest game of the season. If we can win, we can challenge for the title; lose and the focus will have to be on ensuring automatic promotion.

Date: Saturday 8th April 2017
Opponent: Birmingham City (1st)
Venue: St. James Park
Odds: Exeter City=6/4, Draw=2/1, Birmingham City=13/8
Weather: Wet, 15C
Referee: Mr. Mike Jones

It’s a crucial game and there’s three milestones being made. Michel is making his 250th career league appearance. Michele Marconi, Cenci’s replacement up front, makes his 100th league appearance for the club. And the third milestone? It’s mine. My 300th game in charge of my beloved Exeter City. Could my 300th game in charge be the one that is a big step into getting promoted into the Premier League? The next 90 minutes will reveal all!

Seconds after kick off, Rybus shoots wide across the face of goal from 10 yards. Whilst it could have been much worse, it’s hardly the kind of start that I wanted. The game settles down, but Birmingham are the better side. Spector shoots over from 30 yards in the 14th minute and Rybus can only shoot wide from 8 yards in the 22nd minute. Birmingham are doing a good job of preventing us building up any kind of momentum and creating some chances of their own.

Our first chance of note comes in the 29th minute. Bradley Johnson shoots from 16 yards, forcing Foster into a good save. Birmingham are able to react quickly, get to the rebound and clear to safety. Two minutes later, Altman shoots from 12 yards and we require the bar to come to our rescue before completing the clearance.

Our woodwork being struck seems to be the spur we have been waiting for and we finally seem to wake up. Johnson shoots from 25 yards in the 33rd minute and Foster catches comfortably. Whilst it may have been a comfortable save for him, at least we’re making him work and getting out way into the game. Three minutes later, Oliver Norwood takes an inswinging free kick from the left. He lands it on the head of Jagos Vukovic, who is 8 yards out. Vukovic powers a header at goal, forcing Foster to tip over the bar for a corner.

It’s as close as we get to a goal in the first half. But not as close as Birmingham get. Three minutes before the break, Bond parries a Blackstock shot from 18 yards and Beausejour rolls in the rebound from 12 yards to give the visitors a lead on the stroke of halftime. The dugout wall takes a beating as I can’t believe we’ve conceded at the end of an even half with few chances.

My half time words act as inspiration to the lads. Four minutes into the half, Johnson plays in Alain Besse. Besse takes a first time shot from 16 yards, forcing Foster into a save. Five minutes later, Johnson is involved in the action again. He’s 18 yards out and beats Foster. Unfortunately, the bar keeps Birmingham in the lead.

The bar has barely stopped rattling before Birmingham have their next chance. Altman is 12 yards out, but can’t keep his shot down. Although we need to to kick on and get at least a point, Birmingham do a great job in keeping the match dull. Gunter has name taken by Mr. Jones with 15 minutes to go for a foul on Besse.

With nine minutes to go, Norwood is able to fashion a chance for himself. He’s 25 yards out, so well within his range. If anything, it’s too close, shown by his shot going over the bar. Before Foster can take the goal kick, I replace Michel with Adriano Gazzoli.

The crossbar is rattled for the third time in the 85th minute. This time, it’s a shot from 20 yards. Spector is the player denied as Birmingham look to ensure they will be leaving with all three points. They do wrap the points up with a minute to go when Rybus fires home from 18 yards.

Result: Exeter City 0-2 Birmingham City
Man of the Match: Jonathan Bond
Ratings: GK-Bond (9.1), DR-Zapotoka (6.1), DCR-D’Avanzo (6.9), DCL-Vukovic (6.6), DL-Riccardi (6.8), MCR-Norwood (6.8), MCL-Johnson (6.6), AMR-Hayes (6.7), AMC-Michel (6.7, sub 81), AML-Besse (6.9), ST-Marconi (6.6). Sub-Gazzoli (on 81). Unused-McCarey, Rentea, Spearing, Langer.
Attendance: 8,714
League Position: 2nd
Match Stats:

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Birmingham #FM12

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No Cenci, no goals. A fairly even game in which late strikes in both half were enough to give Birmingham three points and all but ensure they will get promoted and win the title. Marconi was involved very little and I’m sure that Cenci would have made a difference. It might not have been enough, but he would have kept the Birmingham defence busy. It was an excellent away performance by Birmingham, very much mirroring our performance at St. Andrews earlier in the season.

Before the match, a loss would result in me conceding the title to Birmingham and focusing on winning automatic promotion. With five games to go, we’re six points ahead of Blackburn Rovers. Wins will be important as even going unbeaten until the end of the season might not be enough.

Jonathan Bond’s Man of the Match performance was surprising. Not his performance, but the fact that he was named Man of the Match. It’s unusual for a keeper to be Man of the Match, especially after a 2-0 loss at home. It gets better for him as he gets named in Team of the Week.

I welcome three players back from loan; Martin Koci, Rob McNally and Aaron Walker from Fleetwood Town, Bristol Rovers and Cambridge United respectively. Hopefully the loan experience will have helped them push for first team places.

Read Growing the Grecians #71.

Read from Growing the Grecians #1.