For just the third time in 16 years, Exeter City have a new manager at the helm.
The Grecians intend for this period of financial and footballing stability, spanning three decades under Paul Tisdale and Matt Taylor, to continue under Gary Caldwell.
The 40-year-old has been highly complimentary of the foundations laid by his predecessor, who led City to three successive promotion challenges on a modest budget.
Taylor finally achieved that goal last season, taking them up at the fourth attempt, whilst furthering the club’s ethos of youth development.
The loyalty that Exeter paid Taylor – something they offer most managers, having not sacked one since Neil McNab in 2003 – was reciprocated, as an iconic figure in the club’s history left for Rotherham United on amicable terms.
Now, the Devoners embrace a new era under Gary Caldwell.
The Scot hadn’t been among the initial favourites for the job, with David Artell, Neal Ardley and Dean Holden higher up the list for much of the interim period.
However, club president Julian Tagg is confident the board have identified the right person after an extensive search.
Caldwell led Wigan to the League One title in 2015-16, but his managerial career hasn’t quite gone to plan since then, though more recently he has had lower-profile roles at Newcastle, Manchester City and Hibernian.
“From his initial media appearances, it seems that he shares the same straight-talking approach to communication that his predecessor was renowned for,” says Tom Picillo from The Greciancast.
“His fly-on-the-wall first team talk and training session seems to have gone well, but time will tell how the players respond.”
If Caldwell will know anything, it’s the value of a strong centre-back and Exeter now have one back from injury in Cheick Diabate.
It may be no coincidence that the Grecians lost two in two, conceding eight goals, in the 20-year-old’s absence, before securing victory against Fleetwood when he came back into Kevin Nicholson’s starting XI.
“Cheick’s return was a real blessing for us. Despite Pierce Sweeney’s unavailability, he looked assured and was key to our defensive stability in a crucial game.”
With Diabate back in the fray, along with midfielder Timothee Dieng, City now have some much-needed physicality in key areas, as Tom discusses.
“Tim’s aerial ability in both boxes will be crucial to our festive period.
“With Sam Stubbs also returning to fitness I expect that his physicality combined with Diabate’s aerial dominance, and Pierce Sweeney’s intelligence will create a protective unit capable of fixing our defensive issues.”
When Nicholson’s hand was forced by absentees, Sweeney stood in as the middle centre-back, but with the best will in the world, he does not have the height or aerial prowess of his positional rival.
Many would perceive the Grecians stalwart to be far more effective as a right centre-back, where his limited heading ability is less of a problem, and his ball-playing qualities can be maximized.
Whenever Sweeney’s corresponding wing-back is unable to attack the byline, they have the option of going back to the 28-year-old, who can then swing in a cross from deep, sometimes for a Dieng back-post header.
This could be Sweeney’s remit when he returns, with Josh Key hoping to reclaim his spot at right wing-back, which Tom agrees is the 22-year-old’s best role.
“I’m very keen to see Key return to his favoured position. Although I think Josh has done well when covering on the right of a back-three; he’s much better flanking the central midfielders.”
This could put Jake Caprice in a tight spot, because Tom doesn’t see the former Tranmere man shifting across to displace the current left wing-back.
“Jack Sparkes is indispensable to our 3-4-1-2 system. Dropping him from the starting team would, in my opinion, be unfair and reckless.
“When Sweeney returns it is essential that he plays alongside two of Alex Hartridge, Cheick Diabate, and Sam Stubbs. It is also critical to the familiarity of the system that Sparkes and Key are retained.”
Also crucial to Caldwell’s side are forwards Jevani Brown and Sam Nombe, whom Tom believes “are having even better seasons this year than last.”
“I’m confident Brown’s form will continue for the rest of the campaign – hopefully for us rather than Rotherham!
“Nombe, who suffered from injuries last season, is also performing superbly and I’ve been really impressed by his partnership with Jay Stansfield, who has proved another excellent attacking option.”
The key for City, therefore, is getting the ball into the final third, where Nombe and/or Stansfield can stretch the game by running in behind, and Brown and/or Matt Jay can find pockets of space in which to interchange, combine and create.
Progressing the ball into those big-hitters, though, can require bravery on it from deep.
“Caldwell mentioned in his first team-talk that we looked apprehensive in the first half against Fleetwood and it was perhaps the same at The Valley.
“Playing against tougher opposition is always going to make playing attractive football more difficult, especially when matching up against combative midfielders such as Josh Vela and George Dobson.
“One thing we’ve been guilty of this season is sending a defensive player forward, leaving a void at the back. This was evidenced by Bristol Rover’s winning goal at the start of the month.
“Bravery is important, as seen by Josh Key’s assist for Sam Nombe on Saturday, but sometimes a more pragmatic and assured attacking phase can provide goalscoring opportunities too.”
Key to such assurance is Archie Collins, now into his sixth season with the Devon club.
One slightly picky outside perception of Collins might be that he is a sublime passer of a ball, yet lacks the goalscoring potential desired in a number eight, as well as the agility to turn an opponent under pressure desired in a number six.
On that basis, is the likelihood that Collins becomes a City stalwart as opposed to someone who attracts Championship interest? Tom disagrees.
“He does the basics superbly. The elite player I can best compare him to would be Xavi. Of course, I’m not saying that Archie Collins is as good as Xavi, that would be nonsensical.
“Collins controls the tempo to an exceptional standard. Very rarely does he give the ball away when playing short passes or switching the play.
“He can identify opposition weaknesses and encourage attacking play into those areas: technically he’s brilliant.
“Whether he’s played alongside Dieng, Rekeem Harper, or Harry Kite, he has excellent knowledge of his role and knows how to get the best out of his teammates.
“Although he lacks the goalscoring ability of others in his position like Kite, his orchestration of the team makes him invaluable – he would be to any Championship team looking for a reliable, trustworthy central midfielder.”
Exeter will need Collins’ reliability in Monday’s trip to the Cornish border to lock horns with fierce rivals Plymouth Argyle, which follows the Tuesday night clash at Derby.
“The Devon Derby is a highlight on everyone’s calendar. The passion is unrivalled.
“I’m lucky enough to have a ticket for the away end and I can’t remember the last time I’ve looked forward to a game this much. The last time we played them, Argyle were obliterated 4-0 thanks to heroic displays from Nicky Law and Randell Williams.
“This fixture means so much to the people of Exeter and Plymouth. I expect a game of real quality between two sides who play excellent, attractive football.
“It pains me to say that Argyle have been fantastic this season. Saying that, form goes out the window and I’m confident we’ll get a good result, especially if we can pick up something at Derby in Caldwell’s opening game.”
The good news for the former Celtic defender is that his side have already assembled a healthy points tally of 21 from 15 games before Tuesday’s game, sitting nine points above the drop zone in eighth, yet aren’t expected to challenge for Play-Offs.
Tom is confident the Grecians will tick off the points they need to secure another season in the third-tier under Caldwell’s guidance.
“It’s still early days, but we could barely have had a better start. Summer business went under the radar but those who arrived have proven really smart signings.
“Jamal Blackman is more than good enough for this league whilst Stansfield has shown the makings of a future superstar.
“Most City fans would have been happy with survival, but now we’ve had a taste of what moving up the table feels like, some will be hoping for a little extra.
“Being a supporter over the past few seasons has been a real joy and the future is looking even brighter.”
Leave a comment
Follow GabSutton on Twitter