To say that Paul Tisdale has had an eclectic career in football would be an understatement. To begin with, he has only just retired as a player at the age of 44 – possibly. To name yourself as a substitute at the age of 43 might suggest a touch of megalomania to the uninitiated, but nothing about Tisdale’s career has been run of the mill.
Not many people will be able to claim that they saw him play. As an England youth international starting his professional career at First Division Southampton, things looked set fair for a good future in the game. The record books show that he managed just 62 appearances in English football, scoring 3 goals, in a playing career that lasted from 1991 to 2000. He did not make his Football League debut for Southampton until the age of 22, and drifted off for a series of intermittent spells at Northampton, Huddersfield, Bristol City, Exeter, Dundee United, Finn Pa (a now-defunct Finnish team from Helsinki), Greek club Panionios, and finally to Yeovil Town where he retired through injury in the summer of 2000.
Hands up if you remember a team from Bath University rising through the non-league pyramid and appearing in the FA Cup at the start of the 2000s? They were called Team Bath – a name given to a number of sports teams from the university – and their head coach from 2000 was our man Tisdale. Having just entered the Western League Division One, the championship was secured at the first attempt, and the Western League Premier title two seasons later brought promotion to the Southern League Division One West. In 2002-03 the club became the first university side to reach the first round proper of the FA Cup since Oxford University were beaten finalists in 1880, although they lost at home to Mansfield in front of a record gate of 5,469.
That game proved to be a one-off. Home gates continued to be very poor, with their first season in the Southern League attracting an average attendance of just 103. Their position of 6th at the end of that first season saw them promoted to the Southern Premier due to reorganisation of the non-league game, which was their third promotion in four seasons. The Southern Premier proved much tougher, and Tisdale left for Conference club Exeter after two more seasons.
For the record, Team Bath won promotion to Conference South in 2008 after winning the play-offs. They lasted just one more season, folding in 2009 after the Football Conference decided all its member clubs must be limited companies to qualify for further promotion or to play in the FA Cup.
Former Football League club Exeter had just missed the play-offs by a whisker in their first two seasons in the Conference, but had finished the 2005-06 season in 7th place, 11 points short of a play-off spot. Fully owned by its supporters, Exeter were anxious to reclaim their place in the League and saw Tisdale as the man to deliver it. He almost managed it at the first attempt, losing 2-1 to Morecambe in the play-off final in May 2007. A shortage of players led Tisdale to re-register as a player at the start of the 2007-08 season, although he did not actually appear. Despite the continuing financial challenges, Exeter returned to the League via the play-offs, beating Cambridge 1-0 at Wembley. The victory meant Tisdale was only the fourth Exeter manager to win promotion in the club’s 107-year history. He then went one better by becoming the first Exeter manager ever to win back-to-back promotions as the side went straight through League Two, finishing second with a 1-0 win at promotion-rivals Rotherham on the final day.
League One was a tough place to be in 2009-10 with Leeds, Norwich and Tisdale’s former employers Southampton all trying to escape the embarrassment of being in the lower divisions. Exeter survived on the final day with a 2-1 win over Huddersfield, and a much better season was to follow. In 2010-11 Exeter went on to equal their highest ever league placing by finishing 8th in the third tier, just 2 points off a play-off spot.
That season was also significant due to Tisdale announcing his second retirement from playing after making one last appearance at Sheffield Wednesday on the final day. Unfortunately, the promise of the 2010-11 season was not realised as financial problems led to relegation back to League Two, where they have been ever since. Tisdale re-registered as a player for the third time at the start of the 2014-15 season, naming himself as a substitute for a match against Oxford in August 2016 due to a shortage of players. It is now unlikely he will re-register, although it would hardly be a surprise. His career to date has been as unpredictable as his dress sense.
Tisdale is the second longest-serving manager in English football behind avid Lincoln City fan Arsène Wenger, and will have completed 11 years at St James Park on 26 June. Not only is he the longest-serving manager in Exeter’s history (by far), he is the only manager to oversee back-to-back promotions. But amidst the successes, there have been failures. How many clubs would have remained loyal to their manager following relegation in 2012? How many managers then would have survived four successive League Two finishes of 10th, 16th, 10th and 14th? How many would not have been sacked in November 2016 with Exeter bottom of League Two? Would many chairmen have accepted no home wins until 17 December? Perhaps Exeter know that he is doing the best job possible with the limited funds available to him, and that is a confidence borne out by their dramatic run to the play-off final last month. It would take a brave person to predict what the 2017-18 season will bring for Paul Tisdale and Exeter City, but his record of five promotions and two play-off final defeats combined with his average of 1.535 points per game suggests another play-off place may be the minimum.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and play-offs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure.
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— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) June 23, 2017