A look at Paul Tisdale, the enigmatic man who has held the helm at Exeter City for a decade.
A loose pass from the back is intercepted by the opposition’s forward who snatches at his shot, hitting the far post. This happens a second time, fifteen minutes later. The match finishes 1-1, with visitors Newport County salvaging a draw through a goal in the last ten minutes. Walking out of St James Park, home to Exeter City Football Club, I both admire and deplore what I’ve witnessed. It was clear that Paul Tisdale’s side aim to play neat and fluid football, but it was also painfully evident that the reason such style is seldom seen in League Two is because it does not garner results. Yes, one can implement attractive football in League Two, but it needs to be clinical and ruthless.
Tisdale, the second longest serving manager in the Football League, knows this – it’s why the incumbent has lasted so long in a culture of merciless sackings. Behind his sharp suits, vast array of head-gear and smart shoes is a man who is deeply reflective, almost philosophical.
“I find it difficult to think if I’m shouting from the touchline.”
The internal cogs of his mind, mechanically turning whilst the turbulence of a match is but metres away from him, have allowed him to transform Exeter City from a club languishing in the Conference to a mainstay of the Football League. In his ten years at the club, he’s guided the Grecians to two trips to Wembley, successive promotions, 8th in League One, and most recently a 2-2 home draw against Liverpool, resulting in a replay at Anfield. One should not be tricked by the apparent lack of success: it’s a hard job keeping a club with limited resources in the Football League. Owned by the Supporters’ Trust, Exeter have always faced an uphill battle in staying competitive in a footballing world becoming increasingly diluted by the rich – make no mistake, it taints the lower leagues, too.
It is perhaps this underdog spirit that feeds the prevailing ethos at the club, to do it ‘the right way’. Whilst those in the boardroom help the club to engage with the wider community, Tisdale is keen on manifesting this justified essence on the pitch. In laying out a system that relies upon quick passing, rarely resorting to lamentable ‘hoof-ball’, and allowing academy products opportunities with the first team, he abides by the notion that Exeter are proponents of how football should be conducted, and played.
Whilst Tisdale demands tidy football from his players, he also expects himself to obey certain principles; believing that “common sense, structure and rationale” underline “good performance management in any business”, he is simultaneously a student of player-management and tactical control. This discipline in approaching situations, which rejects the impingement of emotion, is a large factor in why he is Exeter City’s most successful manager, to date.
However, Tisdale is clearly not an unemotional man. Following the loss of player Adam Stansfield to bowel cancer at the tender age of 31, he, with the blessing of the board, decided to continue to pay his salary to Stansfield’s family in full, with two years left on his contract. This is beyond the statutory requirement for such a case and is another example of how this club with a conscience conducts itself in an exemplary manner.
Behind the stoic attitude at Exeter, there is a realisation that they are a financially disadvantaged, and Tisdale knows this more than anyone. It’s why he built a team around academy product Matt Grimes in 2013/14; noticing Grimes’ superior technical ability, Tisdale organised the team to revolve around him, giving him the platform to showcase his obvious talent. Done to attract potential buyers, it is a prime example of Tisdale’s understanding on the financial position the club are in: needing to sell a prized asset to stay competitive. Swansea City came in, and a speculated £1.75 million with them.
The financial limitations placed on Tisdale throughout his time at the club were arguably most apparent when he signed himself on as a player in both the 2007/08 and 2010/11 seasons, fearing that injuries may deplete his squad. He only ever made one appearance for the club, coming on the last day of the season in 2011, a mere 10 years since his previous game, but this anecdote provides an insight into Tisdale’s eccentric nature and commitment to the club. And his loyalty can’t be questioned – he has rejected approaches from Swansea City and Southampton in the past.
Contrasting with the fiscal frugality employed by the club, Tisdale’s choice of opulent touchline outfits have been well documented. In fact, he’s a close friend with Ted Baker’s chief executive, Ray Kelvin, CBE. It will then come as no surprise that he is also a clothing ambassador for the prestigious brand. It would be a foolish task to attempt to describe Tisdale’s style, such is the variety of his choices. Ranging from three piece tweed suits, to bright red chequered blazers, Tisdale concedes that it makes him “an oddity”. Yet, he embraces his difference, claiming that it “actually gives [him] an edge” – perhaps following the proverb dress for success.
Indeed, the ex-Bath University coach, believes that when he is “stood there, looking down the touchline twenty yards away, and the other manager has got his tracksuit tucked into his socks” he’s already “one-nil up”. By being “fresh and bold” Tisdale hopes his swagger and confidence infects his players on the pitch.
Exeter City go in to the new season looking to shake off the mediocrity of the past two seasons, where they’ve managed mid-table finishes, in England’s fourth tier. After a decade of Tisdale, many are predicting that if he doesn’t bring success, in the form of play-offs or promotions, this year could be his last.
Tisdale will not be phased, however. Contemplative, determined and cool, he will assess last season’s relative failings and ensure his team are stronger and hungrier. He will don a new suit, maybe even a new hat, and resume usual business, following his own commandments: common sense, structure and rationale.