Two padlocks dangle from the latch of the door to Exeter City’s inner sanctum.
They are innocuous amid corridors plastered with vintage photographs and the charming museum packed with memorabilia of all kinds from a golden boot won by club legend Tony Kellow to the pink boots worn by England international Ollie Watkins but they are heavy with significance.
They were the locks used by fans to keep rogue owners John Russell and Mike Lewis out of St James Park. They represent an uprising, lasting symbols of the storming of the palace, and everything that has happened since.
Julian Tagg gives them an affectionate rattle and recalls the day he locked the doors and retreated to the office used by Russell and Lewis, who ran up debts of £4.8million and left Exeter in an existential crisis, sat down and wondered: ‘Now what do we do?’
What they did do was take ownership of the club once it had been through the administration process and set about writing one of football’s great success stories of the 21st century.
Exeter City were on the brink of going bust just 20 years ago but now sit in League One
This weekend saw the celebration of 20 years of Trust ownership for the home side
They faced Leyton Orient, third in the League One table after a 2-1 loss on the weekend
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It involves five Wembley outings, three promotions and an FA Cup tie with Manchester United, a fabulous little stadium featuring the biggest free-standing terrace in the country, a swanky new £3m training ground and a thriving academy, and a priceless connection with their community.
Twenty years on from the day they took control, Tagg is president of the club and on Saturday, for the visit of Leyton Orient, a dozen of the original Supporters’ Trust board were back inside that same office, now a match-day lounge, as guests to mark the anniversary.
Exeter started the day on top of League One, higher than they had been in their 122-year existence, but they don’t like to call it a miracle because it has been done with nothing more than hard work and commitment by people who loved their club.
‘We were a laughing stock,’ admits Elaine Davis. ‘We had Michael Jackson here walking round the pitch with an umbrella. Uri Geller as well, it was embarrassing. We were relegated out of the Football League but that was almost secondary.’
Julian Tagg is the Club President and Director of Football and External Affairs of Exeter City
Elaine Davis, Volunteer and Former Director of Exeter City was present against Leyton Orient
Di Lee cleaned at the training ground, washed kit and made soup for players and staff
Davis is an ex-college librarian turned fundraiser for the club. It started when she joined an army of volunteers who spent a summer cleaning and renovating the ground, fuelled by pasties donated by a local bakery. ‘We sat in the stands with our pasties and there was a frisson,’ says Davis. ‘This was our club and only a few weeks before we had thought it wouldn’t be here.’
Her most recent success has been to raise £63,000 to equip the new training centre with exercise machines, kitchen equipment and analysis screens. ‘I use that road quite a lot, and when I see the building, I well up,’ she says.
There are many like her. Di Lee cleaned at the training ground, washed kit and made soup for players and staff. Her late husband John, a builder, did the odd jobs around the stadium.
This volunteer army is still the bedrock of the club. Chairman Nick Hawker estimates it is worth a quarter of a million a year. ‘I asked someone from another club how many volunteers they used and he looked at me like I was nuts,’ says Hawker. ‘He said, “We don’t have volunteers” but what they give you is humbling.
The club looked to raise £100,000 in a week 20 years ago as they looked to save their club
The League One side are back and fighting for promotion in League One during the early stages
Members of the Original Trust Board come together to celebrate 20 years of Trust Ownership
‘You create emotional ties, pride that goes beyond how you feel at 5pm on Saturday. It’s about how you feel at 11am on Saturday morning because you’re giving up your day to show off our club. I’m most proud of that ethos.’
A windfall of £1m from a replayed FA Cup tie against Manchester United in 2005 was vital, and Exeter were rewarded for a decision to keep the academy open when it was prime for early cost-cutting. ‘It would have taken two minutes to close down and 10 years to build back,’ says Tagg, a PE and sports psychology teacher.
Money from the sale of Matt Grimes to Swansea for £1.75m in 2015 helped install a 3G pitch at the training ground. Ethan Ampadu joined Chelsea in a deal worth up to £2.5m and Watkins joined Brentford for £1.8m. The sell-on fee when Watkins moved on to Aston Villa for £28m has effectively built Exeter’s new training centre.
Bigger clubs have started to swoop for their scholars, but Exeter continue to bring a steady stream of graduates into the first team. Sixteen-year-old Jake Richards made his League One debut on Saturday and 18-year-old Sonny Cox started up front.
‘We develop people,’ says Hawker. ‘We have to be patient with the managers because they will lose games as they bring players through.’
Exeter have come to appreciate the value of slow and steady growth and they have learned to absorb disappointment, which came in handy when Ruel Sotiriou won the game for Orient in stoppage time and knocked the home side off the top.
They want success on the pitch but they know from bitter experience there is more to it. They have the padlocks to prove it.