An injury-free City side can mount promotion challenge
IT was Exeter City right-back Aaron Dawson who told Echo Sport at the start of pre-season that City 'could surprise a few people and do well next season' and, while promotion was not mentioned, you felt that there was a belief in the squad that they could challenge at the top end of the table.
Dawson's comments came at the end of a difficult close season that had seen five first team players leave due to financial constraints and the club still struggling to find the cash to tie up a deal for Matt Oakley.
As a result, not many supporters were predicting that City could surprise people and finish higher than last season's mid-table spot.
But, having signed Sam Parkin and David Wheeler, tied up a new deal for Oakley and seen a number of youngsters perform well in pre-season and the opening four games of the campaign, the question has to be asked – are City now better equipped to challenge for promotion than they were last season?
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If you are going to argue no, then you have to look at the players that left during the summer and if that has weakened the City side.
Steve Tully, Kevin Amankwaah, Rhys Evans, Guillem Bauza and Mark Molesley were the first five players to go in May. But out of those, only Tully and Amankwaah started more than 10 games for the club last campaign and that was in the same position.
On Saturday, Dawson looked a more than capable replacement for that right-back spot as he did in the pre-season fixtures against Swansea, Yeovil and Queen's Park Rangers.
Added to that, having been together for more than 12 months now, the rest of the defence looks a lot sturdier than they did at the beginning of last season, when both Artur Krysiak and Craig Woodman were dropped from the team in October.
You could argue that Jamie Cureton's 21 goals from last season will be sorely missed, but having watched John O'Flynn and Parkin already get off the mark, those fears also appear to be easing.
There are probably still question marks as to whether either player will net 20 goals or more but, if you are keeping things tighter at the back, by consequence you are not going to need to score three or four goals to beat the likes of Oxford City or Wycombe Wanderers.
It might also be said that you can't always rely on youth players to produce the kind of performances they did on Saturday against AFC Wimbledon.
Matt Grimes had an excellent game, spraying the ball about the pitch like an accomplished pro but, at the age of 18, even Paul Tisdale admitted he won't be able to do that every week.
But the good thing is that City, whilst playing the younger ones, aren't filling a team full of inexperienced players like they did in the 4-0 defeat to Chesterfield at the end of last season. Grimes and Dawson were joined in the first team on Saturday by nine other players who could guide and help them along.
I don't think the strength in depth has been seriously weakened either.
The bench on Saturday included regulars like Tommy Doherty, Alan Gow and Liam Sercombe, along with Jake Gosling, Jamie Reid and Jimmy Keohane who are all capable of pushing for a starting spot.
Wheeler has also added real competition for places in the midfield. Some might say he is a direct replacement for Molesley, but what he also done is filled a position that Sercombe was being asked to play for the first six months of last campaign.
That has allowed Sercombe back into the centre of midfield, which many fans will argue is a better spot for the Exeter-born player and one, up until his injury on Saturday, he was filling superbly.
There is no doubt that Exeter City will have to avoid the injury crisis that ultimately scuppered their chances of a return to League One last season but, if they do, I for one will not be surprised to see them up there challenging.