If the Premier League is now, for many, something approaching the ultimate footballing experience, there is probably something to be said for the argument that, in its quest for purity, quality, our game has lost something. The idiosyncracies of football at or near the top have been whitewashed out of sight over time, to be replaced by a scrubbed up and sanitised version of what we might call The British Football Experience. This is not only true at the top end of the game. The prediliction of smallers clubs to leave their ancestral homes for identikit stadia (for these, in spite of their modest proportions, lean more closely towards being “stadia” rather than “grounds” – or, at least, that is how they wish to be perceived) has been one of the defining characteristics of lower league football over the last two decades or so.
It’s a selfish pleasure, for sure – after all, it fails to take into account the match day comfort of those that are its regular visitors – but there remains something aesthetically pleasing about Exeter City’s St James Park. The line of houses that run a third the length of the touchline on one side of the pitch with people hanging out of the windows enjoying the free view, the small open terrace for away supporters away to the left, the red and white chequered goal nets. This is the football that time forgot and it is all the better for it. Yet Exeter City are, in their own, understated way, thoroughly modern. The club’s supporters trust took over their running of the club in its darkest hours and they have remained in charge of the club through promotions from the Blue Square Premier to League One and held their own in their new surroundings last season. Their form of late – just one win in nine since they demolished Sheffield Wednesday by five goals to one a week before Christmas – has been poor, but they haven’t been sucked into a relegation scrap just yet.
The last time Exeter were at Wembley, they were winning promotion back to the Football League. Dropping from the Football League hasn’t been an ignominy to befall their opponents for this Johnstones Paint Trophy semi-final second leg this evening, Brentford, but the Bees have had their own brushes with football’s grim reaper over the last few years and their majority shareholding is also owned by the club’s Supporters Trust, Bees United, although this is due to end in 2014, should minority shareholder Matthew Benham, who is funding the club through loans up until that point, take up his option to convert his loans to ownership of the club. What is worth remembering about this agreement is that Bees United will retain at least a minority shareholding in the club and that Griffin Park (which has, like so many other grounds in London over the years, attracted the interest of speculators and carpetbaggers over the years) will be secure in the event of a transfer of ownership. Brentford’s future is about as secure as a club of their size could hope for at the moment.
On the pitch, with ninety minutes separating one of these two clubs from Wembley, there seems little to choose between them. Brentford are a place above Exeter, but only goal difference separates them in the league and their last two meetings (this is, including the first leg of this tie, the third time that they have met in three weeks) both ended in 1-1 draws. On paper, in theory, as far as logic goes, there should be little more than the width of a cigarette paper between them. Exeter start brightly, although there is a hint of hesitation as they approach the edge of the Brentford penalty area itself. Brentford manage to soak these early exchanges up – it would be an overstatement to call it a “barrage” – and hit the home side with two solid, well-placed jabs midway through the half to leave Exeter chasing the game.
Myles Weston has been attracting admiring glances from the likes of Sheffield Wednesday over the last few weeks, and he proves to be the catalyst for Brentford this evening. After twenty minutes, he works himself a little space on the left-hand side, drives the ball across the face of goal and Sam Saunders, unmarked at the far post and two yards out, slams the ball into the roof of the net. Six minutes laters, the ball is back with Weston on the left-hand side. This time his cross is aerial and Gary Alexander is at the far post and heads in to double Brentford’s lead. For a club that has only a handful of previous appearances at Wembley, the scent of a place in the final in the nostrils. Throughout the remainder of the half, they play out a predictable and effective exercise in containment, limiting Exeter to a couple of long range efforts and half a shout for a penalty that is waved away by the referee.
If Exeter are to somehow find a way back into this match they need to start the second half incisively but, while they dominate possession throughout the opening fifteen minutes of the half, they seem to lack attacking guile and invention, and play with an air of lethargy which indicates that this season may well be ending two or three months late for a squad with stretched resources for League One. The introduction of substitute Richard Logan just before the hour mark, however, introduces a little more pep to their front line and within a couple of minutes he has dropped a header a couple of feet wide of the right-hand Brentford post and wriggled free of his marker and shot just wide of the other post. Exeter need more, but one goal would haul them back into this match, and it’s a start.
The spark, however, never quite arrives. Logan continues to looke spritely and with a shade over ten minutes to play a looping ball into the penalty area narrowly evades his outstretched boot. Exeter City, however, are almost out of ideas. Every pass seems to be a yard too long, every tackle that they win sees the ball bobble into no mans land rather than into a position that can they can do anything useful with. The Exeter home crowd does its best but, if the relationship between the crowd and the team on a match day can be described as symbiotic, this evening the Exeter doesn’t give the crowd much reason to roar them forward in the closing stages, but for Daniel Nardiello’s dipping shot, which drops over the crossbar and onto the roof of the goal and a long range shot in stoppage time from Jamie Cureton which brings a sprawling save from the Brentford goalkeeper Richard Lee. It’s Exeter’s first shot on target of the night and Nardiello finally finds a way through with thirty seconds left of the five additional minutes with a curling shot from the edge of the penalty area, but it’s too late to raise the tension levels at all.
Wembley will have to wait for another time for Exeter, whose aim for the rest of the season now will be to ensure League One survival for another season. Brentford are deserving victors this evening and may seek to look in an upwardly direction over the coming months. They are nine points from the play-offs, but League One has had the knockabout air of being a division in which anyone can beat anyone else and they will be looking in the opposite direction to Exeter, in spite of being level on points in the league with them at present. In addition to this, a trip to Wembley will be a day out and a chance to lift some silverware – they will play Huddersfield Town or Carlisle United in the final. The Johnstones Paint Trophy will never carry the weight of many of football’s other end of season trinkets, but its one more cup final than many other clubs the Brentford supporters in the conga line behind the goal with five minutes to play seemed happy enough with the way their evening had panned out.
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