Saving Exeter City: Twenty years on from Michael Jackson, fans to the rescue, and dream Man Utd cup tie

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is blaring through the speakers at Exeter City’s training ground. The squad and coaching staff are in the gym for a dance competition. It’s old players vs young players vs ‘middle players’ vs coaches, and the under-10s squad are doing the judging.

Spirits are high at Exeter at the moment. They have just drawn Luton Town in the third round of the Carabao Cup, the furthest they’ve been in the competition since 1989 and, with four wins in six, they are top of League One.

This is despite limited resources and a business model constrained by efficiency and self-sustainment — the club is run by fans who, via the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust, took the club over 20 years ago.

The fans got their club back, but not before a lot of drama (Pete Norton via Getty Images)

Michael Jackson was part of the story back then, too, having been made an honorary director of the club along with illusionist David Blaine — they were invited to the club by psychic Uri Geller who, in 2002, was co-chairman.

“All we needed was Coco the Clown for the full set,” a Plymouth supporter, Exeter’s Devon rivals, famously said on local radio at the time.

But Geller’s powers and Blaine’s acts of illusion couldn’t mask that Exeter were spiralling out of control on and off the pitch, with chairman John Russell and vice-chairman Mike Lewis running the club into the ground.

Russell and Lewis later pleaded guilty to fraud relating to financial irregularities at the club and it was the club’s supporters who dragged Exeter away from the abyss.

“It was like a zoo,” club president Julian Tagg says, reflecting on the early 2000s at Exeter. His association with the club spans 55 years, having started as a ball boy aged 11, played for the reserves, coached the academy and held roles at various levels on the club board.

In 2002, Exeter were reeling from the collapse of ITV digital, like most clubs in the Football League, and, after they finished 16th in Division Three at the end of the 2001-02 season, Russell and Lewis arrived.

Before Exeter, Russell had been owner and chairman at Scarborough from March 1994 to 2000. He resigned when the club were relegated to the Conference — now the National League, England’s fifth tier — and left them insolvent, owing creditors £1.25million. Seven years later, Scarborough went bust.

Before that, in 1999, he received a 15-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, after pleading guilty to two counts of obtaining services by deception in a £180,000 hire-purchase fraud.

Lewis, meanwhile, after roles at Tottenham and Reading, was managing director at Swansea City in 2001. He bought the club for £1 and sold the shares for the same price shortly after. The club ended up insolvent with debts of £1.7m.

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Exeter players thank fans for their support back in January 2003 (Clive Rose via Getty Images)

The pair had been shopping for a distressed asset. They tried to gain control at Lincoln City but were rejected by the club’s supporters’ trust, so arrived in Exeter and did a deal with local jeweller Ivor Doble, the majority owner and chairman. Debt was already high and Doble had loaned the club £483,000. Aged 77, he was desperate for investment.

There was no fit and proper persons test back then, but Russell was believed to have substantial funds to invest in the club. His first act was to bring in Uri Geller as co-chairman in May. The following month, Geller invited his famous friend Jackson to the club’s St James Park home for an event to raise money for Exeter, who were already in a beleaguered state.

“When I asked him I did not believe he would react positively, but he did,” Geller tells The Athletic from his residence in Tel Aviv, Israel. “It was unbelievable. I just remember the commotion when he got on the train from Paddington.”

Jackson travelled to Exeter on the same train used by Queen Elizabeth II only weeks before and fans paid £100 to be on the same train as him. He made a speech at the stadium, flanked by Blaine and Geller, but it did nothing to change Exeter’s fortunes. Half the money went to the club, the other to charities chosen by Jackson.

“It actually happened,” was the headline on the local paper the following day, capturing the surrealism of the event.

Not everyone was impressed. “I hated it,” says Elaine Davis, a previous director, trustee and volunteer at the club. “The ground wasn’t being maintained, it was horrible. Everything was falling down.”

It was the precursor to a chaotic and disastrous year. Various bills went unpaid. Creditors went unpaid. Mowlem, a construction company that built two stands at St James Park, were owed around £700,000. Even the company that created the programmes for the Jackson event went unpaid.

Russell and Lewis, who said they wouldn’t take salaries when they arrived at Exeter, admitted the club was paying their “accommodation and general expenses”. They stopped Natwest bank employees from counting the gate money at matches and stopped Securicor from taking the money away securely. Instead, they took the cash away in their cars or left it in the club’s safe over the weekend to bank it later.

In April 2003, a report from the FA’s financial advisory unit said the club was failing to meet its debts and should seek advice from an insolvency practitioner. It strongly recommended that a security firm be used to bank gate money and criticised the lack of regular board meetings. Six directors quit, citing the “deeply disturbing” report.

The action on the pitch was dire, too. Grand plans to bring Paul Gascoigne in as manager failed. Instead, the 2002-03 season saw them run through four managers and 20 defeats. Former Manchester United and England winger Lee Sharpe, who arrived in the summer of 2002, could not stop the rot. On the final day of the season, the club were relegated from the Football League for the first time in their history.

Russell and Lewis’ days in Devon were numbered. Amid the chaos, the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust was working behind the scenes, investigating the club’s books and preparing themselves to take over the club. They had formed in 2000 and, frustrated at the lack of respect shown by the club’s board, voted in February 2003 to change their main objective from ‘supporting’ to ‘owning’ Exeter.

“The night before Russell and Lewis were arrested, we had been with Guardian Security upstairs and changed the locks on the corridor where their offices were,” Tagg says. “We didn’t know they’d be arrested the next day, otherwise we wouldn’t have spent money on that! But the lock is still there to this day.”

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Exeter City president Julian Tagg in front of the door that is still locked at St James Park (Scott Palfrey/Exeter City)

The following morning, May 14, 2003, Russell and Lewis were arrested at St James Park. It was reported at the time that Geller was one of the parties who reported Russell and Lewis’ activities to the police, although he refused to comment on the matter when asked by The Athletic.

Russell and Lewis pleaded guilty in 2007 to the charge that they were “knowingly party to the carrying on of the business of Exeter with intent to defraud its creditors”. Russell also pleaded guilty to obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception. He was jailed for 21 months. Lewis was sentenced to 200 hours of community work.

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John Russell leaves Bristol Crown Court in a prison van in 2007 (Anthony Devlin/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We knew it was going spectacularly wrong on lots of different levels,” says Tagg. But even he was taken back by the damage, the debt going from £2m to £4.5m in one year.

Following Russell and Lewis’ arrest, Doble asked the trust to run the club. Tagg, along with trust pioneers David Treharne, Terry Pavey and Ian Huxham, plus various volunteers including Davis, attempted to fix the mess.

On September 5, 2003, during their lunch break, Treharne and another trust member, Martin Ellicott, went to Doble Jewellers — the business owned by Doble, who was still the majority owner of the club — in Exeter and handed over a cheque for £30,000 to take control of the club.

A pasty is a Devonian delicacy; a wholesome meal in which baked shortcrust pastry is deep-filled with meat and vegetables and then hand-crumpled at the edges. In the early days of the trust’s ownership, volunteers who worked on the stadium were often invited into the boardroom to enjoy these treats and reminisce about previous times.

“I get quite emotional thinking about it,” Davis says, “to think this is my club and I’ve helped to save it.”

The first game of the trust’s ownership was a pre-season friendly in front of just over 3,000 against Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, recently promoted to the Premier League. They, too, were undergoing a transformation, with a wave of new signings, including Teddy Sheringham, as they prepared for their first season in the top flight.

Such moments were a rare ray of sunshine during dark times at Exeter, though. The fans were in control but the club was immediately placed in a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA); the consequences of Russell and Lewis’ crimes were being laid bare.

The club owed £450,000 in tax and VAT; £66,066 was owed to the local university; and £13,414.59 was outstanding to Devon & Cornwall Police for match duties. Local businesses. National businesses. Water companies. Phone companies. Creditors were everywhere.

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A mural at St James Park in 2021 (Harry Trump via Getty Images)

“It was a real fight,” Tagg says. “The reality was, most people that put money into the club had been shafted. Anybody that put money in hadn’t got what they wanted from it. We were pretty much a pariah in the city. It was like a circus. The community and the fans were totally disaffected.

“All week we were working to raise money. People were riding and swimming and walking to fundraise. There was one instance where we’d managed to raise £40,000 and that paid the wages the following Monday. We had to work, no white knight was coming to save us.

“When we were under the CVA, the first in line to be repaid was a toilet hire company — £500. Next was a big development company, who we owed to the tune of £150,000, and the guy who used to manage them spoke to his owner. Luckily his owner didn’t want to put Exeter out of business, which is what he could have done, so we were able to hold that off which gave us more time to work out what we were going to do with the rest.”

Things on the pitch were on a bit more of an even keel. The club finished sixth in the Conference, just missing out on the play-offs. Tottenham legend Steve Perryman joined as a director of football, too.

The following season started promisingly and the team embarked on an FA Cup run. Wins over Braintree, Grimsby Town and Doncaster Rovers put them in the hat for the third round, potentially up against Premier League sides.

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Exeter fans enjoying the cup run in 2005 (Exeter Express & Echo via Getty Images)

What happened next changed the course of the club’s history.

In December 2004, despite performances on the pitch, the financial outlook was still bleak. “We couldn’t get any credit, we couldn’t borrow any money,” Davis says. “We were on a knife edge… until we drew Manchester United.”

The biggest team in the land were going to host a non-League side that had almost gone out of business 18 months before. Coaches and double-decker buses took the Exeter fans to Old Trafford where they saw their side battle to a goalless draw against the cup holders, one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history.

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Exeter players celebrate with their fans at Old Trafford in 2005 (Matthew Ashton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Alan Smith, United’s midfielder, went on the Exeter coach after the game to congratulate them. Exeter’s manager was 33-year-old Alex Inglethorpe, now an academy director at Liverpool, who, in his long coat and scarf, was labelled as “mini-Mourinho” in the press. Sir Alex Ferguson would face him at Exeter for the replay. It didn’t feel real.

“I called Les Kershaw (former chief scout at Manchester United) on the day of the replay. He told me, ‘Oh, big Billys on’t bus’,” Tagg says, meaning United were bringing their big guns. Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs all started. The game was shown live on the BBC.

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney bringing stardust to Exeter in 2005 (Exeter Express & Echo via Getty Images)

Exeter held their own. Right-back Scott Hiley famously nutmegged Ronaldo inside his own half early in the game. “It seems like I ruined his career, didn’t I?” Hiley joked years later. “I completely ruined him — if that hadn’t happened, he might have gone on to be an exceptional player…”

Ronaldo scored moments after, as did Rooney late on, as United escaped further embarrassment with a 2-0 win. “When we did the stadium tours, we’d say, ‘Cristiano Ronaldo sat there’, and kids would take pictures in that seat,” Davis says.

The two ties made Exeter almost £1m, which wiped out their debts overnight. Tagg says they “went from owing money, to having no money”, but that was good enough. In the age of boom, bust and financial mismanagement at clubs across the country, Exeter now serve as an example of how a football club can be run sustainably.

They don’t sack managers, either. Inglethorpe joined Spurs in 2006 and was replaced by Paul Tisdale, who managed Exeter for 12 years. When he resigned, Matt Taylor took over and gained promotion to League One in 2022. He was poached by Rotherham shortly after. Now Gary Caldwell has the reins.

“The marvellous thing about Gary,” chairman Nick Hawker says, “is that he’s put together a really good side with what I think is a challenging budget in this league. What has as much importance to us is that he really gets the model and he really gets the ethos under which we want to run our business and get the players involved in community projects, being good citizens, wanting to represent the city of Exeter as well as being Exeter City.”

Gary Caldwell

Exeter’s manager Gary Caldwell has steered them up the table (Michael Regan via Getty Images)

Tough times have reared their head from time to time — the club controversially took out a £100,000 loan from the Professional Footballers’ Association in June 2014 due to cashflow issues which put them under a transfer embargo — but the trust, by and large, have run the club debt-free.

Central to that is the club’s successful academy, where notable graduates include Matt Grimes (whose sale to Swansea paid off that loan and paid for the 4G pitch at the training ground), Dean Moxey, George Friend, Ethan Ampadu, Jay Stansfield and Ollie Watkins. In total, Exeter have received in excess of £19m in transfer and compensation fees for academy-developed players over the past 20 years. Ampadu’s move from Chelsea to Leeds this summer made them more than £1m alone.

This, other fundraising initiatives, and another money-spinning FA Cup tie, this time against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2016 (they drew 2-2 at home and were defeated at Anfield in a third-round replay 10 days later) have helped to keep the club running sustainably and start work on other projects. They built a new stand and underwent a £3m training ground renovation — paid for in cash — which was completed last year.

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Klopp manages his Liverpool side against Exeter in 2016 (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“If you’d been here exactly this time last year, you’d have been in a poxy temporary building that was put up in 1974,” Tagg says to The Athletic. “I used to look at it and say: ‘Don’t bring anyone in here’.

“We planted a tree on the training ground in 1997 and we see it now and the branches are really strong. It’s a symbol of the academy in many respects, as the young players branch out, either into the first team or are sold to clubs higher up.

“Sell-on fees are now always part of the strategy. When you go to a tribunal, perhaps you don’t always get the numbers you want — we were disappointed with the Ethan (Ampadu) deal for example — but one thing they give you is a good sell-on, based on various factors.”

Ethan Ampadu

Exeter alumnus Ampadu is at Leeds United this season (George Wood via Getty Images)

Exeter also have a track record for recruiting players, developing them and selling them for profit. Sam Nombe is the latest example of this — he joined from MK Dons in 2021, scored 23 goals in 76 league games and was sold to Rotherham for £1m this summer. Tim Dieng, Jayden Stockley, Ryan Bowman and David Wheeler are other examples of this.

Each season, the supporters trust pays the wages of one player in the squad through the 1931 Fund, named after the year of the club’s famous FA Cup run in which they reached the quarter-finals. The fund started in 2009 and the recipient wears the No 31 shirt. Previous wearers of Exeter’s No 31 include James Norwood, the former Ipswich and Barnsley forward, ex-Jamaica international Joel Grant and current defender Pierce Sweeney. This season, the recipient is left-back Vincent Harper. The 1931 Fund has also funded a player from the women’s team since 2021.

The club will be celebrating the trust’s anniversary on Saturday against Leyton Orient. They’ve been given special dispensation by the EFL to wear a commemorative kit to mark the occasion; their usual red and white stripes will be replaced by a black strip.

The challenge for Exeter now is balancing growth on the pitch and commercial goals with the sustainable ethos.

“The managers always want more money and you have to be strong enough to say no,” says Hawker. “But also you have to have a manager who accepts that you’ve said no and understands the reasons why you’ve said no and then just gets on with the job.

“I think once you get that buy-in, once people are thinking, ‘OK, this is a good message’, they start to give their all and they understand that the prize is a lot more than just three points. We know, though, that the best way we can deliver benefits to the community is to win football matches.”

“This club has cost me a fortune,” Tagg jokes. “I had a property portfolio that was doing OK and if I continued that I’d have been a millionaire. But this is our club, we couldn’t let it run into the ground in the way that it was.”

(Top image: Getty Images; Design: Ray Orr)

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