50 years as a professional team
SUMMER SIGNINGS MEAN MUCH TO DIV. 4 TENURE A 'NEW ERA' TAKES LONGER
Today (30th April 1958) ends Exeter City's fiftieth season as a professional soccer club and a limited liability company. And it ends, or rather, has ended on Shrewsbury's Gay Meadow with the successors of those professionals of 1908 fighting to avoid having to apply to the Football League for re-election, a fight which failed by the narrowest of margins, a single goal scored by Tucker of Shrewsbury near the end of the match. But even if today's fight had been successful Exeter City have, after thirty-eight years' effort, got out of the Third Division. For they have dropped so dismally into the new Fourth Division at the conclusion of the most disastrous of all those fifty seasons. The "new era" of the chairman, Mr. A. S. Line and his board has begun with a season of pitch blackness, relieved by just a thimble - full of scattered bright colour.
The colour? The enthusiasm of early season. The six points gathered in over Christmas, February's fine form which brought victories against Colchester and Plymouth Argyle. But that's all. The first burst of enthusiasm of young players pitch-forked too soon into the senior eleven went when the expected results did not come. The enthusiasm went, the hopes of a good season went, the hopes of a run in the F. A. Cup went with a shocking defeat at Bath (the second time this little club has ousted Exeter City from that competition), and then on January 10th manager Bill Thompson went. The managerial changes which have taken place at Exeter City since the war are in themselves an indictment of the way in which the club has been run in recent years. First George Roughton, followed by Kirkman, Ward (very briefly), Dodgin, and then Thompson.
Manager number six, appointed on January 12th, was Frank Broome, the famous English international forward and a player with Aston Villa, Derby, and Notts County, in the new role of manager-coach. He came to take over a dispirited team with no fight and no cohesion and almost no hope, and a club with very little money available.
REPAID VERY LITTLE
Most of the club's finances had gone in a great spending spree, which bought Gordon Dale from Portsmouth and Johnny Nicholls from Cardiff. But these players repaid very little of the transfer money which had brought them to Exeter. The money was in fact as good as wasted. For Nicholls failed to strike his famed goalscoring form for a long while, and then went down with a cartilage operation. Dale, the outstanding City player as far as sheer footballing ability goes, is NOT a Third Division winger. As a ball artist he is superb, but many players with far less ability would have done the struggling City team a whole lot more good.
LITTLE TO WORK ON
Frank Broome, therefore, had very little to work on. He secured the transfer of Ken Oliver for £1,250, and the tall Derby County centre half has strengthened the defence. But the miracle could not be worked. The strength and team spirit to take the City into the new Third Division was not there, and when the bad luck took over the route led nowhere but to the bottom place in the League Table. Today was the City's last chance, which they failed to take, to stay away from the bottom. And the City's last Third Division game for well, that depends upon what summer signings can be made with the available money, which is precious little.
SO MANY FLAWS
There are not many positions which do not need strengthening, either. Inside forwards will, it is believed, be Mr. Broome's first aim. He also needs full backs, wing halves, and wingers. Unless he gets them Exeter City face two of the three alternatives of the Fourth Division, a quick death or a lingering but no less a final end. The third alternative is rapid success and a rise again to the Third Division. There are at the moment so many flaws, and it is impossible not to believe that Exeter City cannot exist for more than two or three seasons as a poor to mediocre Fourth Division team. The extra expense will of course be there whether the Exeter City club is successful or not. But if the City are not rising, the gates which were bolstered this season by the two big signings will gradually sink to nothing.
THE NEW ERA
However, Mr. Line said something at the start of the season which is still applicable: "A new era does not begin and end in one season." And Mr. Line is optimistically determined that Exeter City will rise high above the gloom. The fact that the City are planning for the future is made obvious by the organisation of a scouting staff and by entry of the reserve team into the South Western League. May that future be bright. The end-of-season nominations go to Les MacDonald as the most improved Exeter player of the season. In the practice matches he appeared to be one of the club's best signings. But for weeks and weeks he performed as if he was the worst player on the books. Much of his poor form must go down to the fact that he spent eleven months out of the game with a back injury. Now he is playing brilliantly, a strong and intelligent left back, whose use of the ball gets better each week. They also go to Dilwyn Hill as the most promising young player on the City's books. At 20 years of age he came out of the Army, to commence his first season as a. professional. He scored goals galore for the Reserves, did well in a few first-team games, and then went down at Christmas with a back injury. They also go to Ian Atkinson as the unluckiest player of the season. This burly forward came from Carlisle in exchange for Lackenby, as a probable first-team regular. But this previously free-scoring player has been dogged by injuries ever since last August. Ankle and knee injuries followed almost as soon as he stepped onto the pitch again. Altogether he has played on only 14 occasions, yet has scored five goals. To end on a hopeful note. Last season Swindon Town had to apply for re-election. This year they were fighting for the championship. And what Swindon can do Exeter City can do.
FIFTY YEARS AT ST JAMES'S PARK
- From Alex Wilson's unpublished work!
As most people date the commencement of the Exeter City Football Club from 1908, the year it first adopted professionalism, it is to be generally appreciated that in this year of 1958 the City club is celebrating fifty years of football. But at the risk of sounding contradictory it should also be stated that football had been played on St. James's Park by Exeter teams long before 1908. The name "Exeter City" came into existence in 1904 as an amateur organisation, and St. James's Park, or St. James's Field, as it was generally known, had been used since about 1893. This is how the formation and development of the City Club came about. Around the turn of the century Exeter was a stronghold of the handling game (which it still is), but one of the clubs striving to interest the locals in "soccer" was Exeter United, who played their home matches in Magdalen Road on the old St. Luke's College ground. About the same time some of the schools were beginning to turn to soccer as a recreation, and one of the most enthusiastic collection of footballers was to be found at St. Sidwell's. So keen were these boys that shortly after leaving school several of them got together and formed a team which they called the Wesleyan United club. This later became St. Sidwell's United, and they played many of their early games on a sloping field, now built over, in the Monks Road.
THE SOUTHERN LEAGUE
The team first entered the Exeter and District Football League and subsequently the East Devon League, and when they became so proficient that they defeated Exeter United in a match by 3 goals to 1 the clubs amalgamated, moved permanently to St. James's Park, and became Exeter City. Two years later they joined up with the Plymouth & District League and in another two years after that was made the great decision on the part of the committee to turn the little amateur organisation into a limited liability company with an issued share capital and a board of directors, and to engage a staff of professional players. Although these grandiose schemes encountered a certain amount of derision and criticism from the local rugby teams and their followers membership of the Southern League was applied for, and on the 29th of May 1908, almost fifty years ago to the day when the votes were cast, the little Devon club came out top of the poll with 33 against Leyton (32), New Brompton (31), Southend United (26), Coventry City (25) all accepted, and Croydon (10) not accepted. At the same time Tottenham Hotspur had resigned their membership and secured a place for themselves in the Second Division of the Football League, whilst Queen's Park Rangers, who had also resigned, were allowed back in but only on the condition that their fixtures were played in mid-week. Well, that was half a century ago, but it is a pity that they can not be truthfully described as "Fifty Golden Years."
THE HARD AND BUMPY ROAD
Far from it, for the most part the road has been hard and bumpy, and there have been times when the way ahead looked so difficult that some thought it would be better to give up the struggle. Fortunately, however, there have always been diehards in the club, the sort of enthusiasts who are the backbone of the game in England, and who have worked so hard to keep the Football League flag flying in so many cities and towns the size of Exeter. This old city was on the map for centuries before the local soccer club was ever heard of, but some people are apt to forget that there is no other local organisation which has done more to keep the name of Exeter before the British public. Nearly nine hundred first-team games have been played on St James's Park in these past fifty years.
- Up to the end of the present season the record of home games in the old Southern League from 1908 to 1920 and the 3rd Division of the Football League from 1920 to date reads: played 824 won 420 lost 212 drew 192.
- Just under five hundred professional players have been engaged to get through that programme of matches.
- The first was Jack Banks, a former Plymouth Argyle half-back, who came to the Ever Faithful in 1908 as player-coach.
- Over that period eleven different managers have guided those players, while the club's administration has been handled by four different secretaries.
Only one man has been associated with the City club from its birth until the present day. He is now the club's president, 73-years-old Mr. Sidney Thomas, a former player, secretary, director, and chairman. Reams of interesting figures about Exeter City which have piled up during all these seasons since the club quit the Plymouth and District League in 1908 could be quoted, but it is names and not figures which mean the most, names of players which conjure up happy memories for older supporters and which weave an aura of wonderment and mystery for the younger ones. Two of the finest players this country has ever produced were boys from Devon who started their football careers with the Grecians, Dick Pym, the fisherman-goalkeeper, and Clifford Bastin, the boy wonder. Pym kept goal for England after he was transferred to Bolton in the summer of 1921, and during ten seasons of First Division football he also won three F. A. Cup-winner's medals, and did not let a single shot pass him in his three Wembley finals. Dick never suffered from nerves before or during a big match, in fact the bigger the occasion the more he enjoyed it and the better he played. Everton thought they had Bastin's transfer in their pocket, but the famous manager of the Arsenal, Mr Herbert Chapman, made a hurried dash from London to Exeter in May 1929 and completed the deal with an offer of £2,500 for the 17-year-old marvel. Bastin went on to win every possible honour the game could offer before he reached his 21st birthday, and during the 18 years he served the "Gunners" of Highbury he played for England 21 times, won five League Championship medals and two F.A.Cup winners medals. His chief assets, apart from an ice-cold temperament, were his dynamic shooting and intricate dribbling. In the 1932-33 season he broke a long - held Football League record by scoring a total of 33 goals in 42 matches, playing in each one in the outside-left position.
NOT THE ONLY ONES
These are not the only first-class players the City club has given to the football world. Bolton Wanderers also took centre-forward Harold Blackmore in 1927 and put him in their first eleven almost right away. Blackmore was one of the most powerful and accurate shots in the game and he led the Wanderers to victory in the 1929 cup final. Longer ago the sale of Bill Wright and Snowy Mitton fetched hefty transfer fees from Huddersfield Town and Sunderland respectively, but neither of these men were Devonians. Jack Fort, Stanley Charlton, and Harold Houghton, all secured from Lancashire clubs, only made their names after coming to Exeter, and each of them later won international and representative honours. Wilf Lowton of Heavitree joined Wolverhampton Wanderers in exchange for a four figure fee in 1929, to eventually become captain of that famous old midlands team and to lead them to promotion to the First Division. More recently Exeter City transferred Maurice Setters of Honiton to West Bromwich Albion, who have expressed every satisfaction at their purchase. His progress in his new environment has been such that he is considered to be well in the running for English International recog nition in the forthcoming season.
Oddly enough only Houghton of these grand players appeared in the City teams which are popularly referred to as the club's best of all time. Those of seasons 1930-31 and 1932-33. In 1931 the City fought their way through a series of never to be forgotten F. A. Cup ties, defeating First and Second Division opponents, culminating in their inclusion in the original draw for the semi-finals. This was after they had held the mighty Sunderland team to a draw on their own ground. The First Divisionites however won the replay by 4 goals to 2 in pouring rain on a drenched and muddy pitch at Exeter before a record admission to St James's Park of sixteen persons short of 21,000. That Sunderland won was largely due to the star quality of just one of their players, Jimmy Connor, the outside-left. Around Exeter and East Devon the names of the "giant killers" who wore the red and white stripes in that campaign will be remembered as long as football is played or talked about. The team was Davies, the goalkeeper; Dick Baugh and Charlie Miller, the backs; 'Nobby' Clarke, Leslie Dennington (then Jack Angus), and Stan Barber, the half backs, Billy Armfield, outside right, George Purcell, inside right, Percy Varco, centre forward, Houghton, mentioned above, inside left and the star of the team, and Arthur Doncaster, outside left.
THE TALK OF THE FOOTBALL WORLD
After captaining the side from the early days of the season Leslie Dennington, who had played in the first three cup rounds, met with a serious knee injury in a League match at Torquay, and the centre half position was from that point entrusted to the young and inexperienced Jack Angus with the captaincy reverting to the former skipper, Charlie Miller. Those twelve players with the addition of the amateur Jimmy Gumm, who played in the second round tie at Coventry, were the local heroes who in that glorious season made the Grecians the talk of the entire football world. None of the younger supporters of Exeter City would have the least difficulty in finding locals who would be only too pleased to describe in full and vivid detail the team which cost the City a mere £600 in transfer fees and which today would be worth at least 100 times that figure. And in these days of high wages and higher still transfer fees it is also a remarkable pointer to figures of past times to know that all these men with the exception of Dennington (whose career had been ended by that knee injury) were retained for the following season at reduced wages! The majority of these players were still with the club, and in the side which went very close to winning promotion to the Second Division two years later, but there were also new favourites in Arthur Childs, Jimmy Gray, Paddy Wrightson, Jack Scott, and Fred Whitlow. But, as always happens in football, that great team gradually began to break up, and it is sad to relate that so far none of the glories of those two or three years have ever been re-captured.