“We are going to attack this game of football.”
Managers say a lot of things. Sometimes they are trying to communicate a message to the fans, sometimes to their dressing room, and sometimes they even try and convey a message to the opposition dressing room. But when Matt Taylor talked about his desire for his side to take Northampton head-on in the play-off final, you’ve got to believe he meant it. Exeter had just overturned a 1-0 deficit against Colchester in the semi-final and confidence around the club was high, Grecians fans really believed that this was their time to win at Wembley and reach the promised land of the third tier of English football.
Of course, though, not every story can have a fairytale ending.
Not only did Exeter lose on the biggest stage of them all, but they were dominated from start to finish. Northampton looked stronger, faster, and sharper against the Greicans and the scoreline reflected that. The cruel irony is that City’s highlight of the season, a 4-0 hammering of local rivals Plymouth was a mirror image of the 4-0 drubbing they received at the hands of Keith Curle’s side. Curle of course was heavily linked with Exeter following Paul Tisdale’s departure from Devon after City’s second play-off final defeat in two years. He set his Northampton side up perfectly to achieve the first promotion of his own managerial career.
More than the result of the final though, Matt Taylor was disappointed by the performance of his side. In stark contrast to the performance which fought back against a technically gifted Colchester team, Taylor’s selection of his ‘physically strongest’ and most experienced players failed to pay off when it really mattered and the players who he would have trusted to rely on, let him down. It would be easy to scapegoat individual members of the team that evening but the reality was that not one player stood out and provided the sort of leadership that Taylor would expect.
In the days that followed, 9 senior players left the club at the end of their contract. Of course, the current financial situation played a big role in the decision to release these players, but you can’t help but think that this decision was reinforced by Taylor’s desire to see changes in the options at his disposal.
As the weeks passed following the defeat at Wembley, clubs around League Two started to flex their financial muscles. The likes of Mansfield, Bolton, and Salford all making impressive signings for fourth division clubs. Most notably, the likes of Jordan Moore-Taylor, an Exeter academy graduate, and former City loanee Kane Wilson, both joined Dale Vince backed Forest Green despite having both been heavily linked with the Grecians. The departure of the released players has left big gaps to be filled in Matt Taylor’s side with just two natural defenders on the club’s books.
News that the football league was to resume on 12th September was welcome for teams across the football pyramid. Most sides in Leagues One and Two had not made a single signing before the start of the new season was confirmed, with Macclesfield and Stevenage not even knowing in which League they would be playing. Speculation grew about a right-sided defender coming through the doors at St James Park until the news eventually broke that Matt Taylor had added right-back Jake Caprice and centre-back Rory McArdle to his ranks.
These two defensive acquisitions represent the direction that Taylor wants to take his side this coming season. It was obvious to anyone watching him talk after the play-off final defeat that he was disappointed at the way his side had been dominated and bullied by a smarter and stronger Northampton side. The signing of Rory McArdle is the perfect example of this. An experienced ‘no-nonsense’ defender who Matt Taylor will know well from his time at Bradford and a player very much in the style of Taylor himself. McArdle is the sort of player that Matt Taylor will have felt he could have used against Northampton at Wembley, and one who could go toe-to-toe with the physical threat that Curle’s side posed.
You can’t help but think however that McArdle’s introduction to Exeter’s side comes at the expense of more technically gifted central defenders. Through the departure of Dean Moxey and Aaron Martin respectively, the Grecians are losing two players who would trump both Tom Parkes and Rory McArdle in ball progression. However, the clues are there that Taylor plans to counter this with the athleticism of Jake Caprice at right-back.
Caprice is well known for his ability to bomb down the right-hand side of the pitch and support attacking moves from out wide, best seen with his assist in the play-off final in 2019 for the goal to take Tranmere to League One. Dubbed the ‘stepover king’, Caprice is clearly comfortable in possession of the ball and will look to overlap the runs of Randell Williams to offer another dimension to Matt Taylor’s attacking options.
League Two sides grew wise to the threat of Williams over the course of last season and fans of Northampton were treated to an exceptional display in how to shut the winger out of a game at Wembley. Williams’ best performances in a City shirt have come when he receives support on the right flank. This is something which was on full show in the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Colchester. The inclusion of Alex Fisher running the channels often left U’s left-back Cohen Bramall with a two-on-one to defend, and two of the goals on the evening ultimately came from attacks down the right-hand side of the pitch.
Matt Taylor himself has told fans to expect this coming season to be one of transition for his Exeter side. With more minutes expected for younger players and a changing of the guard in defence, Taylor will likely face the biggest test of his managerial career so far. Lots of the players that were released this summer were his own acquisitions, he has molded this Exeter side in his image and will now be judged on the merits of his own recruitment and tactical nous. In a time of great upheaval both in and outside the world of football, Matt Taylor will be hoping that he can bring stability to Exeter and ensure his side are competing at the right end of the table once again.