Just over decade ago, Exeter City were struggling both on and off the pitch, battling to stave off both administration and relegation to non-league. Fast forward ten years and Exeter City are again battling to stave off relegation to non-league, punctuated with worrying messages about cash flow. But while their main issue in 2003 was the convicted fraudster at the helm, the Grecians’ main enemy this time around is something less obvious but equally worrying: apathy.
The latest low point came against a relegation-threatened but rejuvenated Northampton Town at St James Park last night. A sub-3000 crowd saw the Grecians collapse to another 1-0 home defeat and fail to muster a shot on target during the entire game against a team that has spent most of the season in the bottom two. Three points now separate the Cobblers from Exeter and with City failing to win a home game since October, a return to the Conference seem a distinct possibility. More worryingly, those who would normally rally the club over the on and off pitch issues have slipped quietly away
The story of Exeter City’s last decade is both remarkable and yet typical of the fluctuating fortunes of a football club. Relegated from the League in 2003 with debts of over four million and a chairman helping Her Majesty’s finest with their enquiries, the Supporters’ Trust took control to fight some rather substantial fires, becoming a trailblazer for fan ownership in the process.
Having narrowly avoided financial collapse, the Devonians were handed a lifeline when they drew Manchester United in the FA Cup in 2005. A goalless draw at Old Trafford and a replay at St James Park helped clear the debts and two years later City regained their league status under the guidance of Paul Tisdale, before securing a back-to-back promotion to League One. Two seasons later the Grecians narrowly missed out on the playoffs, but still secured their highest post-war finish. Here, it seemed was a club on the up.
It’s difficult to identify one particular cause of the decline from this period, although relegation the season after clearly didn’t help. In truth, even surviving in League One was an achievement for the Devon club. Funding from a mixture of Trust subscriptions, player sales and cup runs was always going to be dwarfed by the budgets of former Premier League sides like Leeds, Southampton and Sheffield United, so while not an inevitability, relegation was always going to be a distinct possibility.
But again, this doesn’t account for the ongoing slump. Fans who once were the catalyst for change with previous regimes and gave their free time to sweep the terraces after games have drifted away complaining of lack of engagement from the Trust and poor performances on the pitch, assuming they even bother to complain at all, while it’s not clear how, if at all, the Trust planned for any potential downturn when times were good.
A club that loses more games than it wins is always going to be a difficult sell but the poor form has now become a focal point for other ongoing issues, such as lack of engagement between Trust and membership. Where once fans proudly sung “We own our football club,” they now ask “Do we own our football club?”
In truth, Exeter’s ownership structure is a little more complex than simply a case of fans being in control. The Trust are the majority shareholder with 63% of the traceable shares, but the day-to-day running of the club is done by a board of directors, only two of whom are on the club board.
When it works, it works as two promotions in two years showed. When it doesn’t, it can lead to tensions from chairman all the way down to fans and when there’s problems, membership declines. Last April, Trust membership stood at 3,507. By February 2014, this had dropped to 2,963. While there are some non-footballing explanations for the drop – such as consolidating a mess of a membership database – it’s still a concern. Less members means less money and it asks a lot of existing members to raise subscriptions to cover this.
The Trust, trailblazing and unique in 2003 has seen other fan-run clubs such as Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon eclipse their star. The old Trust board, while not without it’s faults, has mostly been moved on due to rules limiting their time in power. This rule is sensibly designed to stop certain people entrenching themselves in control, but can also lead to a skills gap as new Trustees try to come up to speed with the challenges of running a football club.
In recent weeks, the club has talked ominously about financial challenges ahead, while older, more expensive players like Tommy Doherty and Alan Gow have been moved on, as a team of underperforming pros and raw youngsters continues on a major slump that has seen just three wins since October, none of them at home. Paul Tisdale is no longer the messiah but a manager in a serious slump with a fanbase starting to turn against him while the board show admirable loyalty during a protracted run that would have exceeded the patience of other chairmen.
Unlike the 2003 era of John Russell and Mike Lewis, there is no obvious outlet to direct protests against or galvanize the supporter base. Should fans protest against the team and manager? The club board? The Trust? Or, as increasingly seems the case, simply not bother on a Saturday afternoon.
With rising ticket prices, poor performances, perceived inertia from those in charge and an increasingly successful rugby club in the city, the people who are most likely to affect a change have drifted away while those who need to energise the supporter base – chiefly the Trust – are caught between so many issues and are struggling to get their own members excited, let alone a wider fanbase.
Yet while Exeter City clearly has many serious issues, it can be fixed. There is no dictator-like chairman at the top fighting the fans, just a group of people with good intentions, some of whom are currently floundering. An upturn on the pitch would help, but what the club needs is to revive the early energy the Trust had, push through fresh ideas and engage with a currently reluctant fanbase. But given the Trust had a hard enough time getting fresh faces to stand or vote in elections when times were good, this is a significant task.
Relegation to non-league would see the funding to Exeter’s impressive youth system cut. With money already tight, the fear is any further expenses could push the club over the edge. It would be a sorry end for a project that started with so much hope.
More broadly, the importance of Exeter to the fan ownership movement cannot be overstated. If City’s Trust fails after ten years in charge it reflects badly on those who have held the club up as a model of what can be achieved when fans take charge and gives more ammunition to those who seek to block fan takeovers at other troubled clubs.
It would be inevitable that the Trust at Exeter – or indeed any other fan-run club – would hit a sticky patch. It’s now up to those in charge at St James Park to show that supporters can guide a club through a bad as well as the good, even if that requires new faces and uncomfortable decisions for those charged with running Exeter City.