UK's Lower Leagues - Where Soccer's Heart Remains
A trip to England's Exeter City FC revealed all.
The metaphorical penny dropped from the scaffolding above the old St. James Park grandstand, clanging against the floor of Exeter City’s temporary ‘press area’. Or what’s left of the stand anyway; thanks to shrewd financial planning, City have secured the necessary funds and began work to replace the stand entirely, as well as selling the land behind the Big Bank standing section to a developer of student houses. The grandstand now stands as a hollow shell, with no seats and only bare wooden planks to house the visiting press and watching Exeter staff. The sound rang clearly, above the singing of the fans and the trains snaking behind the stadium—lower-league football, at least at Exeter City, still captures the romance of the beautiful game that the higher quality leagues seem to have lost.
Ultimately, this 1-0 win over second-place Newport County would not have granted an early slot on the MSNBC highlights show. It was a scrappy affair that served to equally excite and infuriate intermittently throughout the ninety minutes, and only a fantastic Lee Holmes strike separated the two sides. But to look only at empirical judgments of the game and quality of player in comparison to the heights of the Premier League and Champions League betrays the magic that still faintly lives on in England’s lower leagues.
The atmosphere was buoyant throughout; Exeter fans, claiming ownership of the largest standing terrace in the Football League, were in full voice and served as a reminder to bigger teams in higher leagues that home support can lift a team throughout a season. Manchester City’s recent Tunnel Club development, where fans can pay premium prices to access a view of the players’ tunnel, interviews with managers and other exclusive content, has sparked a debate about clubs’ interaction with their fans and how they can recapture a sense of fan engagement. St. James Park seems to have this precious commodity already; no doubt fans in the Big Bank felt as if they could almost reach out and dance with Lee Holmes as he wheeled away in celebration of his goal on the hour mark. Your reporter then proceeded to sit down next to City’s goalscorer in a barbershop the Monday after the game—one cannot imagine this connection with the players is remotely felt at any of the big teams in the Premier League.
Perhaps last summer’s transfer dealings of Qatar-backed PSG, and their purchase of Neymar for £198m from Barcelona have once again sparked the debate over finances in football, and whether these ostentatious fees for players and agents have a ceiling. Exeter City, in this regard, have bucked the trend of their Premier League equivalents—the supporters own the club through the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust, and manager Paul Tisdale’s 11-year tenure at the club saw only two players join the club for a fee (the second being Jayden Stockley, signing from Aberdeen). This obsession with financial gain that often influences who Premier League clubs sign, where they tour in pre-season and their obsession with staying in the Premier League and aspiring for the Champions League, is not prevalent at Exeter. And this is something to be cherished; for all money’s benefits to bigger clubs, it can sever a club’s intimacy with its fans. It begins to pull the club’s motivations away from the wishes of an everyday punter on a Saturday and can tilt the club into being viewed, and run, as a business rather than a manifestation of local pride and the reflection of its often-illustrious history.
David Wheeler, who left Exeter to join QPR last summer, recently penned a heartfelt farewell to the fans and staff of the club. He noted how “Exeter is a fantastically weird and wonderful club, probably unlike any other. The dedicated volunteers and supporters are what gives the club its character and without them, it couldn’t function or compete.” One would be fair to assume that players hopping around football’s elite tier would not have enjoyed such a genuine connection with their club and its fans, and this personable trait is something Exeter should desperately cling to. Undoubtedly this romantic viewpoint would hardly trouble the shareholders at Arsenal, those in the Tunnel Club at Manchester City or those planning Chelsea’s marketing trips to the Far East as part of pre-season plans. And yet this fleeting rarity is what makes it so valuable. Sitting in the bare bones of the grandstand on a brisk September afternoon watching fans of all ages leap with joy as Lee Holmes, one of League football’s journeymen, celebrated with his teammates a few feet away, offers a glimpse at football’s romantic past. While it is nearly impossible to find this in Europe’s top leagues, it is still prevalent down in the depths of English football, serving as a light among shadows cast by the elite.