Matt Taylor had quite a task on his hands this season after Exeter City’s devastating loss in the playoff final last season – but they look in remarkably good shape so far…
The task of picking a football club back up again after losing a playoff final is tough enough.
But when you were possibly only in that playoff final rather than celebrating automatic promotion because the season was curtailed, you were absolutely thrashed in that playoff final and afterwards lost most of the team that got you there…well, let’s just say there probably aren’t many managers who would willingly swap places with Matt Taylor this season.
But the 2020/21 campaign has started out pretty well for Exeter City. They sit fourth in the table, having lost just one of their 12 games so far, but Taylor wonders whether the after effects of the Wembley evisceration at the hands of Northampton Town are yet to be fully felt.
“It was a devastating loss,” Taylor told The Totally Football League Show.
“Our weaknesses were really highlighted on the biggest stage that evening. But that wasn’t a fair reflection on our season.
“Generally we’d been pretty consistent throughout the season being close to those top three positions throughout the campaign. The season was obviously suspended nine/ten games sort, and we still fancied ourselves for those automatic positions.
“Footballers generally a motivate themselves. My worry, if I’ve got a worry this season, is at some stage the mental and physical burnout will come. I don’t know when or if it’ll come, but that’s one thing I’m worried about on the back of three of the last four years, playoff finals and very little break, and the amount of games this season. But it’s the same for all clubs and all managers, but that is one thing in the back of my mind which might well come at a certain stage throughout this season.”
Dealing with a high turnover of players is par for the course in the EFL, but it’s arguably been more pronounced for Taylor and Exeter this term.
“The squad was a lot stronger last season. Unfortunately, nine of those players left us – eight more senior ones and one player who was on loan – and we only recruited two players at the start of pre-season. A third came in in the form of Lewis Page midway through preseason.
“At the start of the season, I’ve got to be honest in terms of where I thought the squad was, we weren’t as strong as last season. But we’ve got more legs on the outside of the pitch, so if we can get a strong spine through the middle and a consistent spine, and some of the more senior one through the middle of the pitch, those legs on the outside I keep talking about and referring to, will be able to show that their ability.”
While their form has been good, their defence hasn’t been particularly strong. They’ve conceded 14 in 12 league games and let in two in eight matches, in all competitions.
“We’ve got an extra attacking dimension to our game this season,” says Taylor, “which has proved productive in terms of the goals ratio we’ve been scoring. You always want to keep clean sheets and you always want to score the first goal. The first goal at this level is absolutely key.
“The irony at the weekend was, we had a corner and then 10 seconds later they were putting the ball in the back of our net. We’ve got quite a young group as well who are still learning the game and learning the trade, but learning the trade on the job as well. So mistakes are going to be made. We’re far from the finished article, but the signs are really good in terms of what we want to get to. And there’s some promising positions on that football pitch which have probably exceeded our expectations at the start of the season.”
One piece of good news in the summer was the windfall Exeter received when Ollie Watkins moved from Brentford to Aston Villa. City received a reported £4million as a sell-on fee for the striker that they sold to Brentford back in 2017, but that won’t be going directly to Taylor’s transfer kitty.
“I hope so,” he says when asked if any of that money will be available to him. “I’m certainly going to ask for some.
“Exeter City work in a certain way. We’re owned by the trust, and we have to generate our own money, our own income. And that’s even more difficult when there’s no fans coming through the turnstiles. So a lot of it will be used to pay initial debts, to pay off some of the stadium, some investment in the training grounds and then the budget for the next couple of seasons.”
So with all of this in mind, what are Exeter’s realistic aims for the season ahead?
“At the start of every season, you want to get promoted. It’s a simple as that. But I was realistic with the changeover we had, losing those senior players and not recruiting as strongly as we would have liked. I was a little bit unsure of what we would be in terms of season, but we started off consistently and the league hasn’t settled down yet in terms of the teams with the biggest squads and the best players. They haven’t quite hit form yet, but I suspect they will do in the coming months.
“We’ve got to stay as close to it as we possibly can. If we have a positive recruitment drive in January and keep our form going on the pitch and we’ll be close to it. But a lot can happen between now and January.”
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