This was what the hardy souls who made the long journey from west London to deepest Devon would call an old-fashioned away day. For me, though, it was almost like a home game. I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting I had divided loyalties, but having adopted the Grecians as my club since starting my History degree at Exeter University two years ago, I’ve developed an affinity for a community club run entirely by their fans. So when a couple of mates of mine told me in the Lion after the last game of the season in May that we were going to play Exeter in pre-season, I thought I’d have a mini-break from London life.
I took an early train down and so arrived at the ground well before the 2pm kick-off with a camping bag full of my worldly belongings. As I took my seat in the away day, the Fulham boys were going through their warm-up. Chris Coleman, again ridiculously under-pressure from some fans who don’t remember the dark days, strolled across the pitch to sit a few rows in front of me. A few minutes later, Liam Rosenior – whose Dad started his management career in the south west – bounded up the stairs to catch up with an old mate and said a cheery hello.
The Premiership stars didn’t seem overly worried about the game that was about to start and it showed in the performance. Conference promotion hopefuls Exeter, who demonstrated their battling qualities by beating two League sides before pushing Manchester United all the way in an entertaining FA Cup reply a couple of years ago, had won their opening pre-season friendly 5-0 and their young players eagerly dived into tackles in a bid to impress new manager Paul Tisdale.
Adam Stansfield wasted a good chance to mark his first start for Exeter with a goal when he shot tamely at Antti Niemi and Jon Challinor, who was City’s best player when they looked like genuine title challengers for much of last season, drove wildly over from a good position moments later. Fulham were living dangerously and not even a fierce drive from Collins John, which was smartly tipped over by Martin Rice, could disguise their lethargic start.
After half an hour, a comedy of errors presented the home side with their winning goal. Omozusi, who looked like the young full-back on the wrong flank at left back, was punished for dwelling on the ball by Andy Taylor and Lee Phillips stole a march on the gormless Zat Knight. The danger seemed to have passed when Phillips rolled an innocuous cross across the six-yard line, but somehow Moritz Volz turned the ball past substitute goalkeeper Tony Warner.
The best part of the afternoon was the festive atmosphere amongst the good-humoured away fans. Every touch from the floppy-haired Jimmy Bullard, who looks like he’s got more energy than a Duracell bunny, was cheered and he soon had a new song: ‘Jimmy Bullard, Bullard/He’ll pass the ball 40 yards/He’s better than Frank Lampard/Jimmy Bullard, Bullard’. After a bit of sweet talking from that smooth operator, Ormondroyd (who has also kindly allowed us to use the photos he took) we were able to watch the second half from the terrace behind the goal where Darren Freeman scored his first goal for the Whites in that brilliant 96/97 promotion season.
Not that it made much difference as, despite the introduction of Pape Bouba Diop, Michael Brown and Liam Rosenior, Fulham still looked disinterested. New signing Gabriel Zakuani blocked a fierce drive from Challinor five minutes after the break and – after Diop had headed meekly at goal from close range – the Fulham defence was breached again, but Phillips failed to add the decisive touch to an inviting Challinor cross.
The players wondered off with smiles on their faces at their final whistle, which seemed a little odd, and I headed back into Exeter. On my way out, I overheard two St. James’ Park regulars discussing the game:
‘You know, Dave, we thought we had problems. What about them?’
‘Yeah, I know, mate. Premiership? Their having a laugh, aren’t they?’
Things can only get better, right?
EXETER CITY (4-3-3): Rice (Jones, 45); Woodards, Jones (Friend 73), Gill, Richardson (Todd 78); Ada (Seaborne 78), Taylor, Buckle (Clay 65); Stansfield (Mackie 65), Challinor (Moxey 73), Phillips (Wright 84).
FULHAM (4-5-1): Niemi (Warner 28, Crossley 60); Volz (Rosenior 45), Omozusi (N Jensen 45), Christanval (Zakuani 45), Knight (Pearce 45); Elliott (M Collins 45), Bullard (Diop 45), C Jensen (M Brown 45), W Brown (Ehui 45), Timlin; John (Helguson 45).