The Blues' agonising defeat to the Grecians in May is still fresh in the memory, but much has already changed since then, writes Jon Colman


No change here, which is something in itself in League Two, but it cannot be denied that both Keith Curle and Paul Tisdale are living in interesting times.

In Curle's case, the challenge is to further lift United from a modest start. Saturday offers them the chance to rise back into the top half after several weeks in the wrong part of the division.

United have struggled to emulate the form that established them at the right end of the fourth tier for most of 2016/17 but successive away wins at Crewe and Crawley have hinted at better potential.

Curle has recently ticked off his third year in charge, making him League Two's fifth longest-serving boss and the 10th most durable in the EFL.

This season has brought renewed criticism to his door but the last two Saturdays appear to have tempered some of that.

Tisdale, meanwhile, appears as secure as ever at St James' Park, and there seems little prospect of English football's second longest reign (after Arsene Wenger) ending any time soon.

The trials of last autumn, when Exeter were bottom and Tisdale was being heavily questioned by supporters, are long forgotten.

Since then, the Grecians have reached the play-off final, losing to Blackpool, and are now kept off the top of League Two only by goal difference.

After 11 years in charge, the dapper Tisdale has found another promising formula despite losing some key players, and this season also achieved a first: a manager of the month trophy (for August), something he had never landed despite his long tenure.

Another nomination for the September prize has also come his way, although Notts County's Kevin Nolan may be a more likely winner this time.

Still - 2017/18 has so far been more enjoyable for the Exeter boss after the two clubs finished the previous season level on points.

A United win in two days' time would be a little step towards bringing them closer again.


Little else stands still at United's level, and it is notable to observe the changes even with that play-off double header recent in the memory.

United's team in both legs was: Gillespie, Miller, Grainger, Raynes, Liddle, Bailey, Joyce, Devitt, Lambe, Adams, Proctor.

Four of that number are no longer at the club (Gillespie, Raynes, Bailey, Proctor), while four of their subs at St James' Park (Gillesphey, Ibehre, Crocombe and Waring) have also since departed.

It has not been a particularly happy time for their two goalscorers on that dramatic night either. Jason Kennedy only briefly re-emerged in the team after injury, a persistent lower back issue seeing him back on the sidelines with Curle feeling he is not yet able to play at full-throttle.

For John O'Sullivan, meanwhile, even greater patience has been required. The 90th-minute header that gave United a few minutes of hope in Devon was pretty much his last meaningful touch in a first-team shirt.

A pre-season groin injury has required a long lay-off, although the Irish winger - who also scored in the first semi-final leg - is on the comeback trail.

United's additions in the summer and since are attempting to produce a more consistent run of results. Exeter have so far managed better returns despite losing three of the stars from last season's revival.

Ollie Watkins, whose two second-leg goals gave them a strong platform, was snapped up by Brentford for about £1.8m. He was followed into the Championship by the prolific David Wheeler for around £500,000.

Joel Grant, who scored the play-off tie's opening goal at Brunton Park, also left, making the short switch to Plymouth in League One.

Others gone include Bobby Olejnik (Mansfield) and injury-time executioner Jack Stacey (Luton).

But they have been able to use some of those sale proceeds to strengthen, notably with frontman Jayden Stockley. Hiram Boateng, Luke Croll, Ryan Brunt and Dean Moxey have also changed the feel of Tisdale's squad though some of last season's reliables remain: Woodman, Brown, Sweeney, Pym, Tillson, Taylor, Reid.

So, additionally, does a familiar figure to United fans: defender Troy Archibald-Henville.


Exeter's start to this season is the polar opposite to their troubled opening to 2016/17.

The Grecians have earned eight wins and 25 points from their first 11 games, a total matched only by Notts County, although an unbeaten league start of eight games has been checked recently.

It came to an end at Coventry, who claimed a 2-0 win against Exeter, and four days later Tisdale's men suffered a 3-0 hiding at home by Nolan's Magpies.

Normal service appeared to be resumed last weekend with a 4-1 trouncing of Morecambe and on Saturday it will become clear whether Tisdale's side have got over their two-game mini-blip.

On the road they have won three, drawn one and lost one, scoring 10 and conceding eight.

Certainly their form overall puts them in much better heart than they were this time last year, when they had lost eight of their first 11.

United's start - four wins, two draws and five defeats - leaves them 11th, and their tally of 14 points is five fewer than this point last year.

They have won just one fewer league game than at the start of 2016/17, but that featured in an unbeaten run that lasted until November, as Curle's side increasingly replaced draws with victories.

The last couple of weeks have shown signs at least of improving fortunes on the road. After a couple of stinkers at Accrington and Coventry, they have enjoyed back-to-back away victories without conceding, at Crewe and Crawley.

The 5-0 win at the former was a remarkable return to winning ways while the 1-0 victory in Sussex was closed out despite losing two men to red cards.

It is at home where United really need to raise their game. So far, they've had only one victory out of five in the league - 3-0 against Cheltenham in August - while their two cup games at Brunton Park have not yielded a win.

Admittedly one of these was against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup, but then came Tuesday's loss to Leicester's Under-21s in the Checkatrade Trophy.

A better afternoon at Brunton Park is therefore needed for various reasons. Handing Exeter a day to forget would certainly lift home spirits.


In the immediate term much will depend on how Curle and United manage a suspension headache.

Particularly in defence, they must get by without Tom Parkes, who serves a four-game ban before he can pull a blue shirt back on again at Chesterfield on October 28.

Gary Liddle and Tom Miller are the obvious contenders to partner the impressive new addition Clint Hill, with Mark Ellis' loan to Leyton Orient appearing untimely in light of Parkes' red card at Crawley.

Hill, 39 in two weeks' time, already appears crucial to United's security, while there have been a number of positive performances from loan right-back James Brown.

Going forward, an effective attacking formula must be found on home soil after those good away-days, which have seen 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3 systems pay off.

Hallam Hope has scored four in eight; he and Shaun Miller remain likely starters, particularly with Richie Bennett banned for three games and Sam Cosgrove yet to make his first-team mark.

While Kelvin Etuhu appears to be growing into United's midfield, a method that brings the best out of Nicky Adams, Reggie Lambe, Jamie Devitt and co would also be beneficial this weekend.

Carlisle's last three home outings in the league have produced just two goals. Against Exeter they scored two in two minutes to keep May's first leg alive.

A return to those more dangerous days at the Warwick Road End would give this season another push in the right direction.