Coventry City 3 Exeter City 1
League 2 play-off final
Monday 28 June 2018
Exeter City in the play-off final is becoming an annual tradition for Kieran and I. Neither of us are dyed-in-the-wool Grecians, but nonetheless there are loyalties – of birth, family and history – that make these occasions special. Last year’s trip ended in disappointment, as the rank outsiders of Blackpool performed a smash and grab on a far better but also far more nervous City side. This year? City had breezed their semi against Lincoln, but were still underdogs against a Coventry team with the weight of 40,000 fans, a proud tradition and Keith Houchen’s diving header behind them.
The old Wembley was the product of several very laudable aims. Firstly, the idea that parks could be built – near major cities but away from their dirty, overcrowded streets – in which working people could relax in fresh air and space. And secondly, that things those people enjoyed watching – like dog racing, football and concerts – could be laid on in the same open surroundings.
First came Wembley Park. The creation of Metropolitan Railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin, it was developed in the 1890s as a pleasure and events centre for urban Londoners, containing a large fairground and other attractions on the site of an earlier stately garden built by Sir Humphrey Repton. Then, in 1923, the British Empire Exhibition was held on the site, leading to the construction of various wonderful attractions. At their centre was a “great national sports ground”, the British Empire Stadium.
By the time it had been there 50 or so years this largely concrete structure was, in truth, a bit shabby. The towers were nice, or in modern parlance “iconic”: so too was the approach down Olympic, or Wembley, Way, which retained the openness of vista designed by the Exhibition’s architects. But in effect it was a dog track with a football pitch in the middle, and – unless you could afford one of the upper level seats at the side, which no-one could – that distant pitch was very hard to see from the caged, elliptical terraces behind the goals or the shallow bench seats along each touchline.
Football fans back in the day, visiting Wembley for the first time, tended to be struck by three things – the niceness of the towers, the crapness of the rest, and the fact that the whole place stank of piss. A game at Wembley has always been an excuse for a day on the ale, and somehow or other those 1920s toilets never seemed to cope particularly well, even assuming you could make it off the terraces in the first place. The notorious Scotland game in 1977 must have been particularly unsanitary, and we can only guess at the state of the bogs following the White Horse final.
With Coventry taking a small army to the game, mostly following the same route as us, parking spaces around Jubilee Line stations were always going to be hard to find (this suspicion was proved correct when we drove through Stanmore and found it looking like Spon End). So for once in a way I had got organised, and pre-booked an official space at the Winston Churchill Lycee. Here, just round the corner from Wembley Park, we had stewarded and gated parking and no traffic on the way in or out. By leaving London via Colindale, and getting our tea there as well, we ensured the only Coventry fans we saw on the way home were safely in their cars and well out of gloating range.
Every time I visit the new Wembley I reflect that it will be lovely when it’s finished. The stadium is nice enough, big and clean and organised and totally fit for purpose: it’s just that the surrounding area is a permanent building site. I also regret the loss of the view down Olympic Way, as the bland modern buildings encroach on each side so that now you view the arch (or rather the middle of it) down a tunnel of high-rises. This was not the kind of landscape Edward Watkin had in mind.
Flesh and wine
As usual, the police had allocated the pubs and Exeter finished up with the boozers near Wembley Park tube, allowing us to be trolled by assorted Coventry knobheads on our way there. Down on Empire Way, the barkers at the Wembley Tavern were grabbing passing Grecians and practically throwing them inside, but we crossed the road to the excellent Parish where the Irish bouncers had abandoned the allocated pub concept in favour of their own enlightened door policy. Resemble a “lad” and you were on your way: if you looked like an arlarse who enjoyed a drink, you were ushered in no matter which team you supported.
Thus it was that we emerged into the sun after an hour or so in the ambient company of some like-minded Coventry supporters, wandered round the corner onto Wembley Way and merged seamlessly into a couple of thousand Exeter fans snaking noisily towards the stadium under police escort. This was the march from the Torch. We had gone past the Torch earlier, and it was rocking. The fans there had decided to walk to the game en masse. We’d made a mental note to avoid this choreographed modern fandom like the plague. Yet here we were, shuffling along and hurling Who Are Yas at the Sky Blues masses. Ooh arr, we are Exeter.
This year we had the sunny end of Wembley, and even for a dedicated sun-worshipper the heat was intense. Both teams beavered away in the first half to no great effect. Exeter, toothless around the penalty area, had soaked up Coventry’s high-pressure game and largely silenced the sky blue phalanx at the other end. Then Coventry scored two goals in five minutes.
The first, from Jordan Willis, was a beauty – a sublime curled shot from the edge of the box, the sort that (as they say) no goalkeeper in the world would stop. The second, whacked in by Jordan Shipley (are all their players called Jordan?) from similar range, was equally spectacular, although helped by poor defending and a nasty deflection. Jack Grimmer’s still better strike just after the hour was the final nail in the coffin. We were heading away potless once more.
The quality of Coventry’s goals, combined with Exeter hitting the post twice in the last ten minutes, was proof positive of a second successive not our year. And while Kyle Edwards’ late stunner deserved a better billing than that of mere consolation, no-one remembers the losers.
Teams and goals
Coventry: Burge, Willis, Grimmer, Hyam, Stokes, Bayliss, Kelly, Doyle, Shipley (Reid 73), McNulty (Ponticelli 82), Biamou (Clarke-Harris 51). Unused subs: McDonald, O’Brien, Thompson.
Exeter: Pym, Sweeney, Storey, Moore-Taylor, Woodman (James 63), Taylor, Boateng (Edwards 73), Tillson, Moxey (Jay 63), Harley, Stockley. Unused subs: Archibald-Henville, Simpson, Jones, Wilson.
Goals: Coventry: Willis 49, Shipley 54, Grimmer 68. Exeter: Edwards 89.