The End of an Era For Paul Tisdale & Exeter City
For the second time in just a few weeks, the longest-serving manager in English professional football has left his post following the departure of Paul Tisdale from Exeter City. This means that there are no managers in English professional football that have been in their jobs for longer than 200% has been in existence, but more importantly it means that Exeter City will never be the same again. Gary Andrews ponders a trepidatious future for the Devon club.
In the end, it had a sense of inevitability. For the first time in the 12 years since a little known coach of university side Team Bath turned up to an interview at St James Park dressed like a PE teacher, Exeter City are looking for a new manager. Paul Tisdale’s reign as the longest serving manager in league football may have only lasted a few weeks, but just like Arsenal after Arsene Wenger, his departure marks the end of an era in Devon.
Unlike Wenger, however, there will be no last send off to a grateful home crowd, and no outpouring of emotion. Parting words from both club and their now ex-manager suggest a somewhat jilted ending to what seemed like a relationship built to last, while there are plenty of vocal Exeter supporters who will eager to crack open the champagne following the news. Whether they’re representative of the wider supporter base is questionable, but even going into last week’s playoff final, the sense was of one of a potential last hurrah for the long serving manager.
Unlike the day’s other managerial ejection – Leeds United dismissing Paul Heckingbottom after just four months – Tisdale’s departure has been 18 months in the pipeline, when the club served notice on his contract. If that seems like the longest sacking in football, to understand Tisdale’s decision to walk away from the club you have to go back to 2010, when the Grecians had just escaped relegation from League One.
Swansea City were looking for a replacement for Paulo Sousa and Tisdale was top of the list. He’d already turned them down the previous season after securing back-to-back promotions with Exeter, but this time around the Championship side seemed certain to get their man.
At this point in time, Tisdale was hot property and Exeter, determined to extract maximum value from their young manager, offered him a two year rolling contract. The deal made a lot of sense. For Tisdale it was surely a question of when not if a bigger side came calling, while for fan-owned cash-poor City it meant a sizeable compensation package. So when Tisdale unexpectedly turned down Swansea and Southampton, it somewhat changed the dynamic of the contract. With both sides seemingly happy to continue in a long-term relationship, it also meant Tisdale would be expensive to sack, should the situation arise.
Fast forward to October 2016, and the mood had soured. Exeter sat at the bottom of League Two, the culmination of two years of miserable home form. In his press conferences, Tisdale was constantly describing his players as the best group he’d ever coached, but for perhaps the first time in his Exeter tenure he was under serious pressure.
With Tisdale’s contract acting as a lightning rod his critics, matters came to a head at the Supporters’ Trust AGM where a motion was passed to serve notice on his contract. The Trust seemed to underestimate the possibility that their membership would move to sever ties with their long serving manager, and thus Exeter had their own version of Brexit, complete with their own tribes: The Tisdale Out brigage, the Tisdale In brigade and a third group who didn’t really want the manager out but weren’t comfortable with the contract.
It’s worth noting at this point that sections of the Exeter fanbase have never really taken to Tisdale. In his first season, it wasn’t uncommon to hear abuse directed towards the new manager, more often than not for his lack of passion, his thoughtful approach to the game and sometimes baffling tactics. Two Wembley appearances and two promotions and Tisdale appeared to have won the majority of the crowd over, but recent seasons saw a rise is dissent towards the long-standing manager, who occasionally responded in kind.
Initially Tisdale appeared to take the motion on his contract in his stride. The team proceeded to lift themselves from the foot of the table into the playoffs, backing up what the manager had been saying at the start of the season. A pulsating semi-final against Carlisle was followed by a flat performance against Blackpool at Wembley, but with the nucleus of a solid squad in place, the Grecians were well placed for a second tilt at promotion.
While this season has seen City finish in their highest position in League Two since 2009, off the field events have been a little less stable. Tisdale appeared to be in no hurry to sign a contract, while the Trust remained silent. The signs of a permanent break came in March, when Tisdale gave an interview to The Times. Clearly upset at the events of the previous year, he proceeded to make a series of pointed remarks questioning the ambition and set up of The Trust.
Then, in the penultimate game of the season at Stevenage, the atmosphere turned toxic. A small but vocal and angry group of fans spent the majority of the game abusing the manager and players, as well as other Exeter fans. Tisdale allegedly responded with a gesture back to the crowd. The mood online turned even more divided between Tisdale’s detractors and his supporters. Even if Exeter had beaten Coventry at Wembley, the manager’s departure felt inevitable.
Where this leaves both the club and their majority shareholder, the Supporters’ Trust, is unclear. The club’s statement, where they confirmed Tisdale had been offered a new contract but chose to let the deadline pass, spoke of unexpectedly needing to plan for a life beyond their manager, which seems curious given the length of time to negotiate a new deal.
Tisdale, for his part, offered a critique of the Trust in his post-match interview at Wembley, both on the model of funding and the governance that allowed supporters to serve notice on his contract. His rumoured choice of destination in MK Dons is equally telling.
The story of the relocation of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes and the subsequent rebirth of the club as AFC Wimbledon has been well told. But Wimbledon, along with Exeter, are one of the leading fan-owned clubs in English football. To leave a fan run club after over a decade to take up the reigns at a team that is the antithesis of everything the Trust movement stands for would be a strong statement, intentional or otherwise. Either way, it’s hard not to conclude that something has badly broken down behind the scenes at Exeter City.
With long-serving Director of Football Steve Perryman retiring, the footballing side of Exeter City has an uncertain look to it, while the fanbase is as divided as any time in this decade. It’s no understatement to say the next managerial appointment will be crucial.
In the middle of this sits The Trust, who have stayed largely silent. It’s 15 years since the fan-run organisation took control of the club following former chairman John Russell’s arrest for fraud, and while they’ve faced a number of financial crises since taking charge, this summer feels like it could be more crucial than any with the state of the club’s soul and it’s identity very much in a state of flux.
As for Tisdale, history records him as the club’s most successful ever manager. It’s hard to argue with two promotions and the club’s highest ever league finish, even if he’s fallen short at crucial games in the past two seasons. His reputation for tactical, fluid football is probably a bit exaggerated as the past years have seen a more direct approach, but his ability to build three excellent squads (along with one distinctly average vintage) in 12 years that have won or challenged for promotion is an impressive achievement given the financial constraints the club has often found itself in.
But Tisdale’s legacy will be more than just the distinctive dress sense and unusual tactics. Away from the pitch, he has funnelled significant budgets into improving the club’s Cat and Fiddle training ground, understanding that the better the facilities, the easier it becomes to sell the club to new recruits. The club’s academy has thrived in recent years as well. Five of the matchday squad against Coventry came through the youth ranks, while in recent years Matt Grimes, Ollie Watkins and Ethan Ampadu, now tipped as a potential breakout star at Chelsea, have all sold for over a million pounds. Add in six figure sums for Tom Nichols, Dean Moxey, and George Friend, and Exeter have produced a production line of young talent under Tisdale.
It’s no exaggeration to say he’s given fans from all generations some of their most memorable moments supporting Exeter City. If his predecessors – Alex Inglethorpe and the late Eamon Dolan revived pride in the club, then Tisdale has given Exeter their identity. Even away from Devon, he’ll remain one of English football’s more distinctive characters, preferring to think in long-term cycles rather than short term results. “He’s a very different type of manager,” one Exeter City staff member told the assembled press shortly after his unveiling. Twelve years on, that statement hasn’t changed, even if the world around him has.