A day after the FA Cup final, the next game at Wembley is the conclusion of the Conference play-offs. Considering the hype and disappointment of the first game, how does the battle for League status fare? Cameron Carter writes

For the past seven years, Wembley has meant nothing more than a building site quite near Neasden and a not-bad place to get a South Indian curry. Now, suddenly, Wembley is back on the popular consciousness map and has regained its third syllable. All up the Metropolitan Line, families are singing: “Wemberlee, Wemberlee, We’re the mighty Morecambe and we’re off to Wemberlee.” In no sense could you fault the veracity of the song. As one soul they disembark at Wembley Park and amble to the new stadium.

It’s definitely a different crowd today. Yesterday, geographically scattered Chelsea and Man Utd fans turned up, as it were, in slippers with a newspaper under the arm for the FA Cup final. Today, it’s a community thing. Exeter has bundled a quarter of its population – that’s 30,000 men, women and children – on to coaches, while Morecambe has mustered about 10,000 of a possible 50,000 inhabitants. Bearing in mind that the average home gates for these clubs are 3,600 and 1,600 respectively, it’s clear that the day-trippers significantly outnumber the diehards. The fans approaching the steel and glass of new Wembley today are not seasoned in glory like their Saturday counterparts. Morecambe’s trophy cabinet houses the 1974 FA Trophy and the Bob Lord Spalding Cup from 1998. Exeter’s years in the League were notable for their lack of incident, discounting a couple of runs to the sixth round of the FA Cup, and since then there was the 2005 financially life-saving draw at Old Trafford.

Most are nicely turned out on the walk to Wembley, as if they have been requested to act as ambassadors for their town. Some people, however, refuse to be lost in a crowd. One long-haired Exeter fan, who either is a farmhand or dresses with precision as one, advertises his individuality by repeatedly bawling “Cider!”, in the manner of a dog barking at night. Nothing deflects him from this vital activity until he spots a perfectly formed wedge of horse shit in his path. The temptation is too much and, transported back to the idle hours of a rich rural childhood, he runs up and boots fresh turd all over his mates and anyone else not quick enough to interpret the gleam in his eye. Rather than a hurried lynching, this gets our man a big cheer and appreciative laughter from his fellows. The use of horse shit as a form of social glue is often overlooked by an urban-centred media.

The attendance of 40,000 marks a new record for a Conference play-off final. Unfortunately, the game does not begin as a festival of football. In fact, the opening exchanges suggest some sort of ­25th‑century exhibition of why football fell out of favour and was replaced in the people’s hearts by cross-stitch. The alarming aspect of this early ineptitude is the way both players and fans take it completely in their stride, as though it is only to be expected. A wildly misplaced pass is met not by a verbal whipping from team-mate or crowd but merely a readjustment of position by the nearest players and a patient wait for the throw-in.

The standard does gradually improve after Exeter score from a quickly taken ­seventh‑minute free-kick. With less alert colleagues still busy sorting out marking, Morecambe’s hirsute defender Chris Blackburn has to dive in at Jon Challinor, giving the latter plenty of time to turn and chip to the far post, where Lee Phillips heads home.

Slowly Morecambe begin to wake. A sudden burst of attacking activity culminates in Danny Carlton – there are a significant amount of players at this level named Lee or Danny – earning a penalty from a clumsy tackle by Chris Todd on the half-hour. Wayne Curtis’s penalty is beaten out by Paul “Not the Paul Jones” Jones and the Exeter keeper completes a double save with his legs as Curtis follows up. For the purists it is not quite the full Montgomery, but pretty close, and certainly the type of thing Jonesy must have dreamed about with his head lolling against the window of the coach as it crawled up Wembley Way. The Morecambe fans take all this rather well and are rewarded three minutes before half-time when Garry Thompson chases a through ball, muscles an inconvenient defender aside and, from 20 yards out, sweeps home past the advancing Jones off the underside of the bar.

At half-time the sun appears, so I place my reporter’s bag on the seat to my left, drape my coat over the seat to my right and soaked it up like a seal pup. This mood of tranquillity was never going to last. The trouble with your non-glory-soaked fans is that they do tend to go a bit mad on their special days, which includes buying readily available merchandise such as the sound-signalling aural hell that is the klaxon.

When captive amid a group of klaxon-wielding hearties, the individual is forced into an attempt at forgetting their presence during oases of calm, a plan that invariably leads to the spine rocketing towards the front teeth each time a klaxon is activated suddenly just behind the neck. At ten to three, with the PA system apparently on a loop and klaxons all round the stadium sounding just for the sheer love of it, I feel like jumping up and slaying anyone approaching me for the time. It doesn’t help that a man nearby is chanting, by ­himself: “Super, Super Sam. Super, Super Sam. Super, Super Sam. Super Sam Mc-Il-roy.” He emphatically stresses the incorrect syllable of his subject’s surname purely to satisfy the exigencies of metre. Added even to this, the stadium announcer habitually introduces his relentless cascading of information with the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys”, as if we were all at Butlins watching the Dads play the Redcoats. There are some hardcore fans among the followers of these two teams, for pity’s sake; they don’t want to be addressed as part of one big happy family. You used to come to a match specifically to get away from the family. There are many who mourn the passing of this era.

The second half heaves to and fro with purposeful endeavour and a couple of substitutions by Exeter give them the edge for a while. A few seats ahead of me sits a woman with the driest hair I’ve ever seen. Like someone with very dry hair after it has been blow-dried, then scorched under a grill, then subjected to a Van de Graaff generator on a arid day. The mind can wander occasionally because, despite the big crowd and plenty of noise, the atmosphere somehow lacks edge. This is partly down to the klaxons, which are a way of making noise without expressing an emotion – like whooping instead of cheering at rock concerts. Also, because only a fraction of the crowd are the year-round loyalists, the intangible nervous tension created by this group will have been lost in the general mood of a holiday outing. There are lots of children here, too, and while many are picked out by television producers weeping when their team are relegated, the majority of under-11s are not so emotionally focused. It is interesting, however, to hear the infant fan attempting to ape the cries of his elders but getting it slightly wrong. At a Morecambe throw, several mature males urge their side’s nearest players to “Move for him!”, while one conspicuous high-pitched voice volunteers the less traditional “Move around!”.

As the end of normal time approaches, caution becomes more important than hero-ism. When the ball is skied forward from the Morecambe back line with eight minutes to go it looks like a case of getting the thing down the other end to avoid any accidents. Carlton chases the ball anyway, improbably out-manoeuvres two Exeter defenders and thumps the ball into the top corner from the edge of the area. The celebrations that follow this are extremely rewarding. Carlton takes off his shirt and, blinded by euphoria, sprints to a completely deserted bit of seating between two full sections. Sammy McIlroy, in his best suit, runs on to the pitch, starts to do a damaged helicopter dance, loses his balance and plunges to the turf. He is scrambling up when defender Danny Adams, also euphoric, approaches, makes to pull the boss to his feet but instead hurls him spinning down again. Rather than two grown men approaching a pivotal point in their respective careers, McIlroy and Adams resemble a couple of five-year-olds with 30 seconds left on the bouncy castle.

Exeter fall apart. Matt Gill headbutts Morecambe’s Craig Stanley although the latter, preparing to lock horns with his opponent, appears to meet the butt halfway. The whole effect is of a “football fight” arranged with little rehearsal time by a West End choreographer, but it is enough to get Gill sent off. Then, with only seconds remaining, an Exeter central defender, maddened by whistling, wastes valuable seconds by ­inexplicably catching the ball instead of heading clear, as he has hitherto done all his working life.

Afterwards the Exeter fans are desolate. Having been unbeaten against Morecambe in eight previous meetings, they’ve lost the one that really mattered. Morecambe are in the Football League for the first time and Exeter will be playing local derbies with Torquay in the Conference next season. One fan wandering back to find his coach wears a shirt with the slogan “There’s Only One Team in Devon”. This imparts pathos to onlookers, but it is also the least lofty claim ever printed on a T-shirt. Another Devonian, very unhappy, attempts to fight a police van – not the police themselves, just the van. His girlfriend restrains him while the van drives off, a big jovial police hand waving at him from the dim interior. Come the fist on wheels that is Monday morning, this man and all Exeter will awake to the terrible realisation that there truly is only one team in Devon. And it’s Plymouth.

From WSC 245 July 2007

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