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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Something Old Something New

Nobes looks at the combination of a young manager and old-fashioned tactic fuelling the continued success of Exeter City.

Three's Company: Exeter's 3-5-2 formation is rarely seen these days

Remember the story of the plucky Non League side from Devon who went to FA Cup holders Manchester United and held Sir Alex Ferguson's side to a draw?

The year was 2005, and the club were Exeter City. Members of the Conference, they ended the season in 6th - missing out on a play off place by just a single point.

Their extended cup run probably hadn't helped their league form. Then again, nor had defeats to the likes of Farnborough, Canvey Island, and Northwich Victoria.

Despite that shock result at Old Trafford and a respectable 2-0 loss in the replay - both fixtures which brought in vital sources of income for City - there was still the reality for fans that they were a Non League club.

For a city which had enjoyed Football League status for over 80 years it was a bitter pill to swallow. However, the fortunes of their two closest rivals - Plymouth Argyle and Torquay United - only served to compound matters.

Argyle were enjoying life in the Championship and the Gulls were back in the third tier of English football - a full two levels above an Exeter side fast becoming the poor relations of Devon football.

Fast forward five years and, with Torquay in League Two and Plymouth struggling after relegation from the Championship in May, it's the Grecians who are currently the county's highest placed team.

Much of the credit for their turnaround in fortunes must go to manager Paul Tisdale. While unable to affect events at Home Park or Plainmoor, his revolution at Exeter has been nothing short of incredible.

In his first season he took City to the play-off final where they lost to Morecambe before making amends 12 months later to beat Cambridge at Wembley and seal a return to the Football League.

They instantly went through League Two, finishing 2nd, and last season defied the odds again to survive the drop thanks to a final day win, watched by more than 8,000 spectators, against Huddersfield.

The start to this campaign has seen that dramatic survival built upon with 16 points taken from the first 11 games earning them a spot comfortably in the middle of the table.

It has been a promising beginning tinged with tragedy, though, after the death of popular striker Adam Stansfield following a battle against bowel cancer.

The way staff and fans have pulled together is testament to the spirit engendered in a club who went close to going out of business after relegation from League Two in 2003.

Now, City - owned by their supporters - represent a model for other clubs looking to run themselves sensibly as well as punch above their weight in the pyramid.

Thanks to Tisdale, too, their achievements on the field of play have been garnered with a philosophy of playing the game the right way.

Indeed, it's hard not to admire the 37-year-old, who is fast establishing himself as the most sought after manager in the lower leagues.

Genial, intelligent, and softly-spoken, Tisdale is not a manager to be found berating the fourth official on the touchline or other managers through the back pages.

His immaculate conduct in the technical area is matched only by a natty dress-sense that leaves opposition managers appearing like paupers.

He has also shown remarkable loyalty to the Grecians - twice rebuffing approaches from Championship side Swansea - as well as rejecting overtures from Southampton, where he used to play.

His gradual climb up the footballing ladder - he first made his name achieving three promotions with Team Bath before taking the Exeter job - is an example to all young bosses starting their own career.

Smart in every sense of the word: Paul Tisdale is a rising star

Although he has admitted ambitions to move on at some point, the St James Park side have eyes on claiming a place in the Championship themselves. With Tisdale at the helm, they will feel it is not an impossible dream.

Of course, part of their future will, almost inevitably, mean a move away from their home of over a century. Although high on character, City's ground lacks the facilities a new stadium provides incremental revenue to a club with.

Looking at their strong home record - they are unbeaten at St James Park since February - the outdated facilities with fans close to the action plays into City's hands.

However, it's not the only thing from football's past which has helped Exeter's rise up the leagues. That's because Tisdale is an advocate of the rapidly disappearing 3-5-2 system.

Although English football always traditionally used a classic 4-4-2, there was a period in the '90s when wing-backs became all the rage.

Even national team coaches Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle utilised the system during their respective spells as England manager.

However, these days it's rare to see a side lining up with three centre backs and two wing backs. The reason itself sheds a light on the switch in emphasis that's taken place in football tactics.

While three central defenders were perfect in dealing with two centre forwards - leaving a spare man, or sweeper, at the back - the advent of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 causes that formation a problem.

Three centre backs lining up against one attacker is wasteful, and three against three fails to provide enough cover at the back.

Bringing back the wing backs to deal with that problem then leaves a side with limited attacking options - particularly out wide.

Even lower league managerial stalwarts like Ian Atkins and the late Keith Alexander eventually changed their ways and opted for a flat back four rather than their favoured 3-5-2.

So, why does Tisdale persist with it? Arguably, he can get away with it more in the lower divisions where 4-4-2 is still the most common formation that teams use.

It means City are still able to dominate things in midfield - crucial to the passing game they want to play.

However, the system also thrives because it gives the freedom to playmaker Ryan Harley - Exeter's most influential creative force. With eight goals already this term he is, unsurprisingly, being watched by clubs higher up the Football League.

Knowing there are two central midfielders covering behind him allows Harley the licence to roam forward and threaten opposition defences.

If a manager's job is to get the best out of his players, then Tisdale's decision to build his side around his best player must be seen as simple, but great management.

Of course, should he lose Harley in January, or fulfill his own ambitions of managing at a higher level, he may well find himself having to change his ways.

From what he has shown already though, that shouldn't be too big a problem for a manager who embodies the current progressive nature of the lower divisions.

His chance at a higher level will come eventually. Devon's top dogs will just hope it's not too soon.

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