Exeter City have won promotion to League One against all odds with Matt Taylor in charge

As footballers everywhere jet off to Spain, Dubai or Las Vegas for their summer holidays, Exeter City’s coaching staff will be relaxing and reflecting in the slightly less extravagant surroundings of Butlins in Minehead.

Manager Matt Taylor and his team will have plenty to celebrate on the Somerset coast, having just secured a promotion against all odds into League One.

The Grecians are supporter-owned and sustainably run, in contrast to many of their EFL counterparts who have wealthy benefactors only too willing to pump in millions chasing a dream.

Exeter City’s players get the party started after they secured promotion up into League One

Manager Matt Taylor has worked wondered to deliver promotion on a shoestring budget

Manager Matt Taylor has worked wondered to deliver promotion on a shoestring budget

The Grecians finished behind champions Forest Green Rovers by virtue of goal difference

The Grecians finished behind champions Forest Green Rovers by virtue of goal difference 

A playing budget that has to be regularly topped up by the sale of talented academy graduates is pretty modest by League Two standards, let alone when set alongside grand clubs like Sheffield Wednesday, Derby, Portsmouth, Ipswich and Bolton they’ll be facing next season.

But Taylor’s team have just finished runners-up to Forest Green Rovers – and only on goal difference – and see little reason to fear the division above.

‘It’s almost an impossible job. People don’t believe me when I say it but it is almost the impossible job,’ Taylor, 40, tells Sportsmail.

‘We are up against teams, managers, budgets, clubs with huge financial backing and that comes from chairmen or a benefactor.

‘We have to generate all our own money to keep surviving let alone to thrive at the level we’re at and have success.

‘It is incredible to do it as a Trust-owned club, more so in modern times because other clubs are getting bigger, their budgets are getting bigger and they have bigger squads to ours.

The Devon club have been fan-owned since 2003 and don't have a wealthy benefactor

The Devon club have been fan-owned since 2003 and don’t have a wealthy benefactor

Elated fans mob forward Jevani Brown after promotion was secured against Barrow last month

Elated fans mob forward Jevani Brown after promotion was secured against Barrow last month

Exeter’s near misses 

2016-17 Lost League Two Play-off final 2-1 to Blackpool

2017-18 Lost League Two Play-off final 3-1 to Coventry

2018-19 Finished ninth in League Two, a point off Play-off places

2019-20 Lost League Two Play-off final 4-0 to Northampton

2020-21 Finished ninth in League Two, three points off Play-off places

2021-22 Finished second and promoted 

‘We used our skillset to bring a group of players together and we have good young players who have played between 80 and 150 games as opposed to between 10 and 20.

‘We have this group exactly where we want them. My job now is to keep them together and improve it.’

The Devon club had debts of £3.5million and faced a winding-up petition when the Supporters’ Trust took over in 2003. They’d also just been relegated from the Football League and it took them five years to get back again.

In 2008-09, with Taylor playing at centre-half, they surged straight through League Two into League One.

‘It was a simple job as a player for myself when we got promoted. Your exertions as a player are physical and you don’t have to overthink your game too much,’ he says.

‘But as a manager, you get judged no matter what. Every weekend, on a daily basis, everyone has an opinion about football and everyone believes their opinion is the right opinion.

‘So you have to stay strong to your own beliefs and build another group of players capable of getting promoted out of this league. So it is more rewarding as a manager.’

Exeter managed three seasons there before tumbling back to the fourth tier and the decade since has been littered with the most agonising near-misses.

They lost play-off finals in 2017 to Blackpool, 2018 to Coventry and 2020 to Northampton. In 2019 and 2021 they missed out on the play-offs by a hair’s breadth.

Taylor is sprayed with champagne by his players after promotion to League One was secured

Taylor is sprayed with champagne by his players after promotion to League One was secured

A tight budget meant there wasn't funds for a celebratory holiday but the staff are heading to Butlins in Minehead to reflect on the season

A tight budget meant there wasn’t funds for a celebratory holiday but the staff are heading to Butlins in Minehead to reflect on the season

This time they took the easier route. An outstanding run saw them lose just three times in the second half of the league season.

With promotion already assured, the third of those, a 1-0 home loss to Port Vale last weekend, saw them finish second instead of first.

Part of Exeter’s model to ensure they never suffer financial difficulties again was to develop a top class academy and player sales have raised close to £10m for the club in recent years.

The most high-profile example is the England striker Ollie Watkins, who has earned the club £4.5m because of add-ons in his sale from Brentford to Aston Villa in 2020. That’s not to mention the £1.8m Exeter received when they sold him to the Bees in 2017.

With Watkins linked with a £50m summer move to West Ham, another windfall, at a very handy time, could be coming the way of St James Park.

England striker Ollie Watkins (right) came through at Exeter and has earned the club millions

England striker Ollie Watkins (right) came through at Exeter and has earned the club millions

Defender Ethan Ampadu (left), currently on loan at Venezia from Chelsea, emerged at Exeter

Defender Ethan Ampadu (left), currently on loan at Venezia from Chelsea, emerged at Exeter

Ethan Ampadu, Matt Grimes and Joel Randall are other examples of £1m-plus fees that have come into the club from homegrown talent.

Yet not all of that goes into Taylor’s transfer kitty. The bills have to be paid first – with a new £2m training centre on the way – and so the make-up of Exeter’s squad still comprises a good number of academy graduates and astute loan signings.

‘We have to be creative and we have to be inventive,’ Taylor says.

‘We have to see things that other managers don’t see in terms of players fitting in with ourselves and our constant belief that we can get the best out of our players and we give them a platform to perform.

‘As much as our fans understand what we are as a football club, they have to understand the market we work in.

‘The Trust give me everything they possibly can, no matter what. Naturally, the income we generate from five or six full houses, increased capacity and attendances, and the windfall from promotion has increased the money in the bank account.

The St James Park club will rub shoulders with some famous football names in League One

The St James Park club will rub shoulders with some famous football names in League One

‘Everyone knows that is going to be offset with the extra cost of the training ground but there is no reason why the playing budget won’t be increased.

‘We have to be as realistic in League One as we were in League Two, so it is an understanding that whatever we spend, we have to get full value out of it.’

While Taylor preaches the need to gain ‘stability’ in League One, judging how Exeter fare against higher level opposition, he sees no point setting ceilings on their ambition.

‘Ceilings are only things to stop you moving up and they need to be destroyed out the way,’ he says.

Taylor has now won promotion into League One as both an Exeter player and their manager

Taylor has now won promotion into League One as both an Exeter player and their manager

‘We understand what we are. We understand what we were in League Two, what we are going to be in League One.

‘As manager, I have always spoken quite boldly of what I want to achieve at Exeter City. There is no point putting targets on it, we have just got to be the best version of ourselves.

‘There’s so much to look forward to so I certainly don’t want to be talking about ceilings on how far we can take this team.

‘We are still young, still developing and there’s no reason why we can’t dream big.’

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