“It’s taken us a long time,” says Exeter City president Julian Tagg as he surveys the squad of players celebrating promotion to the third tier of English football.
The Grecians’ promotion to League One, after five seasons of near-misses and play-off finals agony, shows a side does not always need a wealthy backer to succeed in the EFL.
The fan-owned club is now aiming to pip long-time leaders Forest Green Rovers to the League Two title with two games left.
Next season they will pit their wits against Derby County, who are still in administration after the excesses of their owner’s overspending.
Meanwhile Oldham and Scunthorpe – who Exeter faced this season – are dropping out of the EFL entirely with fans less than enamoured with the way their clubs have been run by their respective owners.
“From the manager, through to the staff and the people in the boardroom, but particularly the players and the fans, they know what this is about, they know what the club is about,” Tagg tells BBC Sport.
“They know we haven’t got money to throw at everything, but it’s firm, it’s solid and you can see that every day we take little steps and this is where it ends up. You deserve to end up where you should end up and this is where we are.”
From administration to talent factory
Exeter’s current status is born out of almost going out of business in 2003, with Tagg and other fans leading a takeover.
Since then the club has focused on developing their young players with the aim of getting them into the first team and selling them on – with great success.
England striker Ollie Watkins has netted the club around £4.5m in add-ons from his sale to Aston Villa from Brentford, with the club likely to get another £150,000 if Steven Gerrard’s side avoid relegation. That is in addition to the £1.8m they received when they sold him to the Bees in 2017.
Add that to £1m-plus fees for the likes of Matt Grimes, Ethan Ampadu and Joel Randall, as well as six-figure fees for players such as Jordan Storey, David Wheeler and Tom Nicholls over the years and the club has probably banked close to £10m from players they have developed and sold on.
“When you’re always there or thereabouts you think ‘if only we can keep that going’, but of course we do often have to sell our best players to keep the club in existence,” explains Andrew Barge, BBC Radio Devon’s Exeter City expert.
“It’s always a worry that you’re not going to be able to replace those players that go on to bigger and better things.
“But Matt Taylor’s recruitment in the summer shows it’s not just the players he brings through. He’s got an eye for a player as well that he can bring into the club and improve and mould them into a great team that’s had superb cohesiveness this season.
“It’s very rare you see a team as consistent as Exeter City have been.”
‘You have to be opportunistic’
Matt Taylor, Exeter’s manager, is a prime example of the club’s policy.
A former player who helped Exeter win promotion to League One in 2009, Taylor stepped up from his role as boss of the Under 23s when long-serving manager Paul Tisdale left in the summer of 2018.
He has continued to blood young players, but also found the knack of picking players discarded by other clubs and given them a new lease of life.
This season Tim Dieng has scored 14 goals from midfield, having joined on a free transfer following back-to-back relegations with Southend.
Jevani Brown has added some finesse in attack after a tough time at Colchester while Sam Stubbs has impressed in defence, having finally recovered from a knee injury that delayed his debut by 10 months.
“We’ve got a fantastic head of recruitment in Marcus Flitcroft; we work long and hard in terms of bringing players into this football club,” Taylor tells BBC Sport.
“But also, we only get that type of player if there’s something either wrong physically or mentally with their game, or they’ve been through the mill.
“You’ve got to pick them, you’ve got to find them, they have to be available, but you have to be opportunistic in bringing these players to this football club.
“You’ve also got to make them believe what we’re about and then they’ve got to buy into it.
“That investment in new players, alongside the foundation of the core group of academy products which you see on the pitch, that’s been our first team this season.”
The homegrown hero
Nobody epitomises Exeter City as a club better than captain Matt Jay.
The 27-year-old came through the youth ranks and made his debut in 2013 aged 17, but it took him four years to truly establish himself.
Many other clubs would have lost patience on a technically gifted but relatively small attacker. But Exeter knew they had someone who could make it – and so it has proven.
Jay has scored 44 goals in the past three seasons and his most recent strike – the winner against Barrow on Tuesday – saw City return to League One for the first time in a decade.
“Throughout the season there’s been 11 or 12 academy graduates in or around the first-team squad at any given time, so it’s great because it proves you can do it this way,” Jay tells BBC Sport.
“You look at Bradford and they’re 16th in League Two and they’ve chucked fortunes at it time and time again, the same at Salford.
“We do it differently here and it works. It’s just an honour to be a part of it of because you’re going to see the next crop coming through.
“I think we’re going to keep producing good young players, and now we’re in League One it’s only going to benefit everyone at the club.”
While Exeter fans contemplate trips to the likes of Derby, Ipswich, Portsmouth and possibly Sunderland or fierce rivals Plymouth next term, they do so knowing the club’s future will not be put at risk.
And if the relative success of similar-sized clubs such as Accrington Stanley, Cheltenham Town and Morecambe is anything to go by, Exeter may surprise a few people in League One as well.