Saints were to blame for our demise!

Daily Echo: Alan Ball Alan Ball

SOME Saints fans partly blame Guy Askham for his role in their club’s demise.

I could say the same about his part in Exeter’s slide out of the Football League in 2003 – for a decision he made nine years earlier.

Of course the former Dell chief wasn’t to blame for my club's relegation from what is now League One in 1994 and our descent into the non league almost a decade later.

But his decision to bring Alan Ball back to Saints in January 1994 following the sacking of Ian Branfoot was a catalyst for Exeter’s woes that were to follow.

We were relegated a few months later and never really recovered after that for a long, long time.

Back in the summer it was believed Paul Tisdale was very much in contention to replace Mark Wotte before Markus Liebherr’s directors appointed Alan Pardew instead.

Had Tisdale switched from one League One club to another he would have been the second Exeter boss poached by Saints in the last 15 years. For Bally had been in charge at St James Park for two and a half years prior to being offering a job he couldn’t turn down.

He oversaw some of my greatest memories of watching Exeter.

His reign was fairly short – though in Saints’ terms two and a half years is a near lifetime – but it was certainly not without incident.

He replaced Terry Cooper in the summer of 1991 – ironically, it was the former Saints’ coach and European scout who succeeded him at Exeter – and raided his book of Saints' contacts to help him out.

In came Steve Williams as his assistant manager, Williams having enjoyed playing alongside the England World Cup winner in the late 70s and early 80s at The Dell.

And in came Steve Moran, who had enjoyed the luxury of breaking into a Saints team containing the likes of Ball, Channon, Dave Watson and later Kevin Keegan in the early 1980s.

Moran was amazingly without a club after being released by Leicester and it is unlikely he would have dropped down into the third division to join Exeter had Bally not been our manager.

Ditto Williams, whose class was evident in his time with us – though he did have the hugely annoying habit of being booked regularly for dissent.

He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Whether he was frustrated about the standard of refereeing or the standard of his team-mates not being what he was used to, only he could answer – but it was certainly not a great example for an assistant manager to set.

His relationship with Bally turned sour in their second season together and Williams left in 1993.

As for Moran, he scored over 20 goals in his two full seasons for Exeter – 1991/92 and 1992/93 – and in both those seasons we only avoided the drop on the final day.

The first time, in May 1992, we needed to avoid defeat at a Darlington side with nothing to play for in order to be guaranteed to stay up.

We were hammered 5-2 but avoided relegation due to results elsewhere going in our favour.

As we chaired Alan Ball off the pitch – and how many managers can say they’ve been lifted shoulder high after a 5-2 thrashing? – news came through that our arch rivals Plymouth had been relegated thanks to a David Speedie hat-trick for Blackburn.

We sang Alan Ball’s praises that night ... a far cry from nine months earlier.

In Ball’s first league game we were thrashed 6-3 at West Brom on the opening day and in his third match we were battered 6-1 at Shrewsbury.

Given that we also lost his second game in charge, it was as bad a start as you could wish for, but slowly Bally won the fans over.

In the summer of 1992 Ball brought in another ex-Saint, full back Andy Cook.

The fixture list sent Exeter to Blackpool on the opening day of 1992/93, a great trip for the fans even though Williams was booked again for dissent and we lost 2-0.

The giant rollercoaster down the road at the Pleasure Beach was being constructed back then, but who needed that when we City fans were experiencing a similar white knuckle ride under Ball.

For example, three days after Blackpool we played a league cup tie at higher division Birmingham - managed by Terry Cooper – and thrashed them 4-1!

In the penultimate game of the season we needed three points at home to Port Vale to guarantee staying up. We conceded an injury time penalty to draw 1-1, after which Bally went ballistic on the sidelines and some Exeter fans invaded the pitch and pushed the referee over.

Again, results elsewhere went our way on the final day and we stayed up.

Bally’s first two seasons of overseeing huge inconsistency was but a prelude for an extraordinary first half of 1993/94.

In the space of a few weeks we lost 6-0 at Bradford, beat Fulham 6-4 at home, lost 6-4 at home to Reading and beat Wrexham 5-0 at home – the last three results were in successive St James Park games!

If all this wasn’t enough, then one day we woke up to read the local newspaper heading – Freddie Starr wants to buy Exeter City FC!

This was more remarkable than the eating hamsters one, and it had the caveat of being true.

Freddie Starr really did want to take ownership of Exeter City.

I can’t remember why, but it had something to do with Ball and the fact that he had played for Starr’s club, Everton.

Along with a group of friends and some supporters club represenatives, I was invited one evening to a hotel on the outskirts of Exeter to hear what plans Starr had for City.

None of us were overly enthused, we would have preferred a lifelong Grecian with money, but given that we ended up with Uri Geller as our co-chairman a few years later perhaps we should have given Freddie our backing.

Anyway, a mini media circus descended on the Park a few days later as Starr stood on the terraces to watch the great Ronnie Jepson – trust me, he was great for a few months – net four times in the rout of Wrexham.

Despite that, Starr lost interest shortly after.

On joining the Daily Echo in October 2002 I soon took over the ‘ghosting’ of Ball’s weekly Pink column.

It was a pleasure talking football with the man.

In 20 years of journalism I have spoken to very few who spoke as much sense as Bally did. He was opinionated, passionate, controversial, outspoken, but rarely wrong.

He was very much a man of the people – once he bought myself and some friends a round of drinks in the Exeter sponsors’ bar after a home defeat to Swansea. It was the day football fans everywhere paid a minute’s silence to Bally’s World Cup winning skipper Bobby Moore.

Bally spoke with great fondness for Moore, with great passion for the game, and with great excitement about some of the youngsters in Exeter’s youth team.

Not many managers would pay for a round of drinks for some of their club’s fans after a home loss, let alone spend time talking football to them, but that was part of Bally’s great appeal.

He knew many of his views were outdated and out of place in the Premiership, but he didn’t care.

He often used to say he was glad he was on the outside of the beatiful game looking in rather than the other way round, for he abhorred the power today’s top players can hold over their clubs, and he disliked the way many chairman treated a succession of managers.

That was sad, for someone like Alan Ball should have been involved in professional football.

Bally said a manager needs three years before he can be really judged a success or a failure, but we don’t have to look too far for examples of clubs that have paid little notice to his words.

His death in April 2007 was obviously a huge shock.

He was loved by Everton, loved by Arsenal, loved by Blackpool, loved by Southampton, loved by Pompey, loved by England.

He was also loved by Exeter City.

That may not mean much to most people in football.

But it does to me ....

First published in The Pink, Sept 5 2009

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