To say that Paul Tisdale has had an eclectic career in football would be an understatement. To begin with, he only officially retired as a player at the age of 44. 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 sixth 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 in 2006 after two more seasons.
For the record, Team Bath won promotion to Conference South in 2008 after winning the playoffs. 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 playoffs by a whisker in their first two seasons in the Conference, but had finished the 2005-06 season in seventh place, eleven points short of a playoff 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 playoffs, 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 two points off a playoff 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.
What happened next was even more unpredictable. There cannot be many managers who have produced two play-off finals during his notice period. Working under a two-year rolling contract, the Supporters’ Trust instructed the board of directors to serve notice on their manager in November 2016. Exeter had started the season poorly and were in the bottom two after sixteen games. Interestingly, they were just six points off the playoffs, but Exeter went ahead with the effective dismissal of the manager. A 3-2 defeat at Carlisle in the very next game sent Exeter to the foot of the Football League, but an astonishing revival began with a 1-0 win at Leyton Orient three days later. A run of ten wins and two draws from twelve games carried Exeter from bottom to fourth, just four points behind automatic promotion. A 3-1 win at title-chasing Doncaster on 29 April confirmed their place in the playoffs, and a 6-5 aggregate win over Carlisle took them to Wembley. The promotion challenge came to an end with a 2-1 defeat to Blackpool in the strangest of atmospheres – Blackpool fans had boycotted the game in huge numbers in protest against their club owners.
Exeter got off to a great start in 2017-18, with seven wins and a draw from their opening eight games giving them a three-point lead at the top of League Two. Form was very consistent thereafter, and another play-off place was secured with ease. The record books show a 3-1 aggregate win over Lincoln and a second successive Wembley defeat, this time to Coventry. But the most significant event was the departure of Tisdale at the end of May despite Exeter having offered to retain him as manager. MK Dons, relegated to League Two just two seasons after playing in the Championship, see Tisdale as the man to take them back there. Time will tell whether he can repeat his success at another club, but his record stands up to scrutiny very well. It will also be interesting to see how Exeter fare without their twelve-year talisman. Perhaps his departure will prove a case of be careful what you wish for.
For a few weeks in May 2018, Paul Tisdale was the longest-serving manager in English football after Arsène Wenger’s departure from Arsenal, and would have completed twelve 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. He took the club from non-league football to their highest ever league placing in five seasons, ending with two Wembley play-off finals. Along the way, he generated substantial profits in the transfer market from the club’s academy despite having to operate under some serious budgetary constraints. Furthermore, two sides of the ground are being redeveloped and are set to reopen in October. It is hard to believe he was sacked after that lot, but modern day football is a hard place.
No one knows how a season will go, especially with the added uncertainty of a new manager. However, Paul Tisdale’s career record of five promotions and three play-off final defeats combined with his average of 1.547 points per game suggests that another promotion challenge is about to unfold at Stadium MK.
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 playoffs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) July 23, 2018