Conference playoffs preview: Exeter City v Torquay United

It might not quite be Manchester United versus Chelsea in the Champions League final, but there’s just as much at stake for the four teams competing for the second spot in the Football League, and for at least three of them it’s a chance to reverse the pain of relegation to the non-league pyramid.

Come next Tuesday night we’ll know who’ll be walking out at Wembley on May 18th but before then there’s four tense games, starting tonight (Thursday) at St. James Park where Exeter City take on Torquay United.

So, let Soccerlens plant its non-league studs against your shin pads and guide you through the Westcountry derby, before returning tomorrow for a bit of afters with a preview of Burton vs Cambridge.

The teams in a nutshell

Exeter: The Grecians have rarely troubled the upper echelons of the footballing elite, although did beat Newcastle United 4-0 in the FA Cup in the 1980s. Won the old Fourth Division in the 1990s, were managed for a bit by Alan Ball, and had Uri Gellar as a co-chairman in their final season in the football league. Non-league has seen an upturn in fortunes and City have always challenged for a play-off spot since relegation in 2003. Reached last year’s playoff final but lost 2-1 to Morecambe.

Torquay: Have won even less than their local rivals in the modern era, although did take two local league titles and the Southern League title before the 1930s and the old division four playoff final in 1991. Preserved their league status in 1987 thanks to a police dog biting the opposition centre-forward. Sold Lee Sharpe to Manchester United in 1988. Neil Warnock had a brief stint as manager in the 1990s, and lasted much longer than Leroy Rosenior’s second spell – the Gulls coach was dismissed after ten minutes after new owners took after the club just after he was appointed. Relegated last season after four managers and one eccentric chairman.

This season

Exeter: Had a decent start but then slowed down after spending most of the early autumn doing their best to draw games. Stayed in touch with the playoffs although only really climbed into the top five in the last three months, where they continually swopped places with Burton and Stevenage before securing their place with a game left to play.

Torquay: Got off to a flyer and topped the table in October. Never out of the top four but 2008 has seen then stutter rather than sprint to the finish line, leaving Aldershot to top the table comfortably. Final day defeat to Crawley dropped them to third but they’ll be off to Wembley regardless of the playoff result – they take on Ebbsfleet United in the FA Trophy final next week.

The gaffer

Exeter: Paul Tisdale is a softly-spoken, articulate cerebral manager, who likes to play attractive passing football, which is a rarity in the Conference. Led the Grecians to Wembley in his first season in charge after leading the semi-pro students of Team Bath to four successive promotions. Keeps his cards close to his chest but regularly wins the tactical battle in big games. Was named second best dressed manager in football after Jose Mourinho by the Daily Mail last year thanks to his penchant for cravats. Best mates with fashion designer Ted Baker.

Torquay: Paul Buckle was renowned as a tough-tackling passionate midfielder and is now unsurprisingly a tough-talking passionate manager. Has played for both teams, with four separate spells at Exeter. Was assistant to both Alex Inglethorpe and then Paul Tisdale at St. James Park before making the short drive down the A38, with three members of the Exeter team in tow. Like Roy Keane, he’s not a person you’d want to get on the wrong side of and places a strong emphasis on discipline and loyalty. Has an excellent knowledge of the lower leagues.

The tactics

Exeter: Tisdale isn’t fond of a set formation and has probably played every formation bar 7-3-1 at some point this season. Likes to get the team to pass and retain possession before working a cleverly-crafted opening. Failing that, get a free-kick or corner and get one of the centre-halves to head home. Exeter play better when they keep the ball on the floor, which is useful and, bar Richard Logan, none of their attacking players are particularly tall.

Torquay: Buckle favours the tried and tested 4-4-2 direct style with plenty of work from the front two and a couple of nippy wingers. Simple and effective, if not overly attractive but they’re the best in the league at it. Attempts to throw in more passing in the latter half of the season have met with mixed results.

Strengths and weaknesses

Exeter: Score plenty of goals from free-kicks and corners, so foul them at your peril. Capable of unlocking opposition defences with one deft touch and there’s plenty of creativity in the team. Can be a little too cautious at times and often get dragged into a game of hoofball if the opposition play the long-ball game.

Torquay: Can score from all over the pitch and have plenty of quality in the final third. Not afraid to mix it up in the middle of the park either. However, they also suffer from a leaky defence and six or more goal thrillers haven’t been uncommon this season.

How they’ve fared against each other this season

Boxing Day saw a seven-goal thriller at St. James Park with the now-departed Jamie Mackie terrorising the Torquay backline, while City centre-half Danny Seaborne was sent off after a bit of theatrics from Torquay striker Tim Sills. Exeter ran out four-three winners but the Gulls got revenge at Plainmoor with a tense 1-0 win on New Year’s Day.

One to watch

Exeter: Matt Gill is, on his day, one of the best midfielders in the Conference and can out-Gerrard Stevie G with his range of crossfield balls and was the architect of City’s victory over Oxford at this stage last year. Wasn’t at his best in the first part of the season and resigned the captaincy to concentrate on his game. It seems to have worked and he’s been back to his best in the last few weeks.

Torquay: Millwall loanee Chris Zebroski has pace to burn and has scored 18 from out wide, as well as creating plenty of opportunities for any of Torquay’s numerous strikers. Will always pose a threat to your common-or-garden Conference defender, the majority of whom make Sami Hyppia look pacy, although is somewhat prone to losing his temper.

Celebrity supporters

Exeter: Bottom, Young Ones, and Teenage Kicks funnyman Adrian Edmondson has a season ticket, while Noel Edmonds has popped up on the Big Bank a couple of times. Coldplay’s Chris Martin was brought up near Exeter and has mentioned the Grecians in passing – rumours the nature of his music were confirmed by watching Exeter in the late 1990s are unconfirmed.

Torquay: Comedian Peter Cook was the Gulls best-known supporter when it was alive. Latterly Saturday morning totty Helen Chamberlain has been singlehandedly leading the cheer for Torquay from Sky Sports’ Soccer AM sofa.

If you find yourself with a few hours to kill…

Exeter boasts an impressive Cathedral and Roman Walls if you’re a fan of British history and buildings. The multi-million pound Princesshay Shopping Centre opened last autumn and features stores such as Apple, Britiain’s biggest Fat Face and, er, Nandos Chicken Hut.

Torquay is probably one of the best places to be on a bank holiday weekend with miles of stunning coastline and beaches, while the town centre comes completely with obligatory cheesefest nightclubs. If you fancy something more sedate you could walk the Agatha Christie mile complete with plaques at some of the crime writer’s favourite places.

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