Manager Matt Taylor has urged his Exeter City side to leave the hallowed Wembley turf tomorrow evening with no regrets as they clash with Northampton Town in the League Two play-off final, writes Tom Howe.
The Grecians secured their winner-takes-all shot at promotion with a stunning 3-2 aggregate win over Colchester United on Monday. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg in Essex, Taylor’s troops delivered when it really mattered and they prevailed 3-1 on the night – Ryan Bowman’s extra-time strike proved to be the difference between two evenly matched teams.
It will be the third time in four seasons that City have made the trip to Wembley to try and claim their place back in League One for the first time since suffering relegation in 2012. However, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the match will be played with no spectators.
Taylor, speaking at a virtual press conference attended by The Independent on Friday, said he was ‘disappointed’ that the game will be played at an empty Wembley, but refused to dwell on this unprecedented circumstance.
He said: “I was speaking to my club captain Jake Taylor as it’s fantastic to lead your team out at Wembley and a tremendous honour.
“For family to not be there and not sample that atmosphere is really disappointing but we feel for everyone. It’s a shame, but it’s also a shame for the players.
“There is nothing we can do about it I am afraid. We are disappointed for our fans not being able to watch us in the play-off games and Wembley. I know it sounds a bit cheesy but they have been with us throughout and I’m sure they were going as mad as everyone else was at the end of our play-off match (against Colchester) when the final whistle went.
“Maybe they enjoyed it on a different level by watching with their families and in the comfort of their own homes. To see the ebbs and flows of the play-off games and then the players not being able to celebrate with the fans has only made our focus stronger and even stronger for what’s to come.”
What’s on the horizon could be a first Wembley play-off win since 2008 for City after falling at the final hurdle in 2017 and 2018. Asked if he felt history could weigh heavy on the minds of his players, Taylor wouldn’t be drawn on a definitive answer.
“Only time will tell as it’s a fresh group with new players,” he remarked. “Some have experienced Wembley, others haven’t and then there is the young players who are just excited about playing another game of football.
“The main thing we said to the players on Monday, in the second leg, was that we didn’t want our season to end there and then.
“We now know that our season will end this coming Monday evening and we want it to be a positive final.
“We want it to be a positive end to a relatively successful campaign. We were in the automatic promotion spots for most of the season and we were really unlucky to fall out at the end when the season was suspended and then cancelled.
“We feel it is an opportunity we deserved and we feel we have worked hard enough for and we certainly don’t want any regrets at the end of it. We want the players in the right mental state to play a game of football and we’re under no illusions as to what a big game this is. The break has perhaps enhanced the opportunity that is in front of us.”
After such a gruelling second leg against Colchester, with little preparation time due to the enforced Covid-19 stoppage, Taylor revealed that unsurprisingly, members of his squad were feeling the effects of playing 120 minutes in searing heat.
Keeping his cards close to his chest again, Taylor did talk about concerns over evergreen midfield workhorse Nicky Law, while offering encouraging news about fellow experienced campaigner Lee Martin after he missed the second leg through injury.
“We have a couple of concerns as there were a few sore bodies and tight muscle areas after Monday night,” Taylor added.
“Nicky Law being the main one with a groin issue, but the lads who played 90, then 120 minutes against Colchester, that is such a huge slog and we hope that isn’t our biggest moments physically and emotionally.
“They have to save their best physical performance for this final and touch wood they are all okay. Lee Martin has had a couple of extra days training because he wasn’t available for the first leg.
“As a manager, you want as many people available as you possibly can and then it’s down to me and my staff to pick a sensible team.”