Sense of belonging: How fan-owned Exeter City are attracting the next generation

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The Grecians may have fallen short of promotion from League Two in recent seasons, but a sustainable model and the vibrancy of their much-envied home terrace continue to draw admirers

24 June ~ Although it can sound like a bad joke now, the turn of the millennium was seen at the time as an opportunity for renewal. I don’t know how many people intuitively extended that optimism to their football team, but Exeter City supporters probably felt more relief than hope come the first season finale of the 21st century. The home side had inched their way to safety and could just about enjoy the final Saturday afternoon against opponents that were still in acute danger of relegation. As it turned out, Shrewsbury Town also survived that day but neither of them would be able to avoid the drop for long, with Exeter especially having to not so much regroup as rebuild in order to continue. It was persistent threat that demanded renewal, not a shining new dawn that promised it.

If a clairvoyant had told me that in 20 years’ time, Exeter would still be in the same league, having been relegated in the meantime, I’d have asked for my money back. What was less predictable was the club’s rediscovered sense of worth, and the solidity of its place in the community based on a series of laudable achievements: the formation of the Supporters’ Trust and its subsequent ownership of the club, a growing familiarity with Wembley Stadium, an eighth-place finish in League One, a flourishing academy, and the sales of numerous players for the type of figures that were only recognisable to the club because they had once seen their like on debit ledgers. The training facilities have been upgraded, and an intermittent ground redevelopment programme of long duration has recently been completed.

It seemed then that Exeter was a city with a lot of football supporters from anywhere but Exeter, whether passing students or incoming professionals, and that it was frustrating not to be able to get them through the gates. Relying almost exclusively on the local fanbase appeared to be a strategy with no future in it. Looking around the terraces, it was evident that the average age of the supporter was only likely to grow until the inevitable occurred.

Concerns about Exeter City’s demise turned out to be premature on my part, not only because of the change in the way the club operated, but also because of the unforeseen increase in support from people who weren’t even around when I was guessing at the ages of their grandparents.

It is now quite common for home games to be noisy affairs, made so by the constant singing – accompanied by the inevitable percussion section – of a large and youthful contingent standing behind the goal. Much of their Latin American repertoire can hardly be called their own, and I’m sure that their boast of getting drunk on cider isn’t likely to be even legal for many of them, but their support is enthusiastic, dedicated and appreciated by the players.

How this has happened is difficult to pinpoint; better, perhaps, just to be grateful that it happened at all. The saturation coverage of the Premier League will have had some trickle-down effect, but it’s most likely to be a combination of other things: a happy consequence of the team’s renaissance on the pitch; the pride that comes with having a stake in the ownership of everything around you (“we own our football club” is surely one of the more exclusive chants); the club’s location in a city that remains relatively affluent even in these times of imperilled high street stores. It’s probably not too fantastic to also take into account the progress of the city’s rugby club. The transformation of Exeter Chiefs from a team that played inside a speedway track to the national champions and serial European competitors cannot fail to have some kind of influence. It may stretch credibility to bracket lineouts and rolling mauls with burgeoning science parks and other commercial developments, but the football club can feel sure that they are now contributing to a city that has built a reputation for successful professional team sport.

The fans express a real sense of belonging, and many of them stand on what is now reputedly the largest terrace at a football ground in England; some visiting supporters have been known to consider this with admiration and wish that their home ground might be developed in a similar way. If Exeter City’s ambitions are restrained, and their success on the pitch commendable but modest, the regard in which they are held is an achievement that is surprising but impossible to overstate. Howard Pattison

This article first appeared in WSC 388, July 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here