In the most important game of the season, we produced our best performance. An explosive start, the threat of nearly losing a two-goal lead, followed by two coups des graces on the counter-attack made it a night that will live long in the memory for any Sky Blues supporter.
However, the task now is very much about making sure we produce one more big performance to win promotion. This club shouldn’t be at League Two level and failing to secure promotion this season would have to go down as a failure. This isn’t about soaking up the atmosphere at Wembley, this is about finishing a job off that we had almost let slip from us on a number of occasions this season.
The sense from many, myself included, heading into the play-offs was that the semi-finals would be harder for us than a one-off final, but now we’re here, the margins between success and failure are far narrower than a two-legged semi-final. Those two legs against Notts County must have been physically and emotionally draining for the players, but we have to find a way to replicate the intensity we produced in the second-leg in order to make it another Wembley trip to remember.
It seems unlikely that Mark Robins will change things up in any way for this game. While Exeter City are a different prospect to Notts County, it’s hard to argue that the starting XI we used in the second leg wasn’t the strongest and most in-form of the available options.
Maxime Biamou and Marc McNulty not only scored excellent goals, but their understanding and link play is on a different level to any other strike partnership we could possibly put together. The duo seem to be most effective when we’re not necessarily the dominant side, where their work-rate and determination to chase balls played into channels gives us a foothold in the game.
With the midfield looking to be functioning very well at the moment, the back four is probably where we look weakest. Jordan Willis and Dominic Hyam were excellent against Notts County, but they will both have to be on their games both on the floor and in the air against Exeter’s Jayden Stockley, while our opponents possess midfield runners who’ll require our full-backs and midfielders to switched-on too.
Last Time We Met
Our most recent meeting against Exeter City was an underwhelming showing played in rainy conditions in Exeter and decided by calamitous error from Lee Burge, who cleared the ball directly into the path of Exeter’s Ryan Harley. Despite mustering close to 20 shots in riposte, the performance of Exeter’s Christy Pym in goal provides an ominous indication of how difficult it will be to score against our opponents should we fall behind in this game.
It was a different story at the Ricoh Arena, where yet another bright performance from Jodi Jones decided the contest in our favour. On that occasion, it was Exeter who disappointed, resorting slightly too often to long balls into their strike pairing of Reuben Reid (who has since departed the club) and Jayden Stockley.
How Are They Doing?
There is a feeling around Exeter City that this game marks the end of an era for the club. The future of long-serving manager Paul Tisdale remains up in the air, with his contract set to expire in November and rumours linking him to the vacant MK Dons job, while Director of Football Steve Perryman – who oversaw the rebuilding of the club from their days in the National League – set to retire.
What impact those big changes to the club will have on the team in this game looks to be an important factor here. If Paul Tisdale really is planning on leaving, that may well reduce the intensity of his preparations for this game. However, Exeter were able to raise their game for the semi-finals against Lincoln and having lost in this final last season, they will surely be determined to avoid the painful experience of losing a final again.
Jayden Stockley is clearly the team’s biggest threat for Exeter City at this moment in time. Tall, strong, but physically mobile and an excellent finisher, Stockley is pretty much the complete striker at League Two level. The decision to sell Reuben Reid in January has increased the reliance on Stockley, but he has more than stepped up to the plate.
While there is a feeling that Exeter can be shut-out in an attacking sense should Stockley be properly marshalled, the performances of Ryan Harley and Hiram Boateng in the second-leg victory over Lincoln City could well give Mark Robins something to think about. Both are very much non-archetypal League Two midfielders, technically-gifted, with a tendency to float in and out of games and not really fixed to orthodox positions, both have the ability to produce moments of magic out of nowhere to decide games in their team’s favour.
Paul Tisdale can also mix-up Exeter’s attacking threat further by introducing more orthodox wingers in Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes to run directly at our defence. That variety of attacking play will make Exeter slightly unpredictable in their approach to this game, but their modus operandi with the ball is very much about getting the best out of Jayden Stockley.
While they conceded more goals than any of the other sides in the play-offs, Exeter’s defence will be confident of containing our attacking threat. In Jordan Moore-Taylor, they possess one of the best individual centre-backs at this level, and someone gives them fluency in playing out from the back. In goal, they boast Christy Pym, who has probably been the best goalkeeper in the division this season and is another promising young talent developed by their academy.
This is a game between two very evenly-matched sides – although Exeter, having finished five points ahead of us, may disagree – and it looks likely to be a game decided by fine margins. There is more pressure on us to win this game than there is for Exeter, making this possibly our first Wembley trip where there is the expectation – from our fans at least – that we will win this game. Exeter are in a weird situation as a club at the moment in time, but they’ve shown already in the play-offs that they can produce performances nonetheless.
In all honesty, it’s difficult to separate my rational thoughts about how these two sides match up from my hopes, fears, and gut instinct about this game. I think this is a game we have a very good chance of winning, which is about as far as I can go towards making a prediction.