• Oliver Barefoot


The early morning trains or all-day coach trips. FA Cup finals or play-off celebrations. Wembley days are often frozen in time and forged into our memories as the pinnacle of football.

But forget the fleeting moments of euphoria as your team lifts the trophy just in front of you. Disregard the blinding shimmers of light peeking through the bars of the iconic Wembley arch, as you walk towards the 90,000-capacity stadium for the first time. Because according to Stevenage boss Paul Tisdale, footballs most treasured moments aren’t those hundreds of miles away, but instead just metres out of your door.

“Semi-finals are fantastic! They are the best days in the footballing calendar for sure, especially when you win. They’re much better events than the finals,” says Tisdale.

Better than finals? But how can that be true? A final is a chance to rewrite the history books and lift-up silverware in a rainstorm of confetti. There are more fans, more chants and more fire in the bellies of the thousands of supports. So how could a semi-final rival that?

Tisdale who is the former longest serving manager in English football, is insistent.

“I’ve won four out four semi-finals and they are the best days in football,” Tisdale says. “You've got two bites of the cherry. You've got half a game on home soil so you're familiar with your surroundings and you're competing at something you're used to. The final is completely different. It's a bit anodyne,” he added.

Former Exeter City manager, Tisdale guided The Grecians to four play-off finals in 12-year’s during his reign at the Devonshire club. Despite only winning one of them, the 1-0 triumph over Cambridge United in 2008 catapulted Exeter back into the football league after a five-year absence.

“When you go into a final at Wembley, it's a different sport. It's a different game, as the dynamics are so different,” Tisdale says, before admitting the real dealbreaker. “In a play-off semi-final the atmosphere is so much better! I mean Wembley is great, don't get me wrong, but the atmosphere the supporters create is nothing compared to a semi-final.”

For the past two years, Exeter City fans have been named the best supporters in the country by the Fan Engagement Index. In 2007, Exeter City and Morecambe broke the attendance record for a conference national final, with over 40,000 fans in attendance; 30,000 of which were Exeter City supporters. They beat the same record the following year against Cambridge, with over 42,000 fans attending.

It’s not just Tisdale that thinks semi-finals are the best either, some Exeter fans believe the same.

“Semi-finals are always a fun experience,” says 52-year-old lifelong Exeter fan Rupert Smith. “The importance of the game, mixed with the enthusiasm of the fans and players, during your home leg is irreplaceable. No matter how big a stadium is, nothing can beat celebrating a win at the place your club calls home.”

During the Devonshire clubs 121-year long history, the 2008 play-off final win against Cambridge United (and only Wembley win for the club to date) would be an outsiders pick of the clubs’ most historic match. But despite the win reclaiming the clubs place in the football league, it also brought with it stress and unbelievable amounts of tension.

“Going into that game I was s******* myself, as were all the players,” says Tisdale. “We’d lost the year before in the final being confident and so we were all s******* ourselves. It was just a stony silence in the coach all the way to that final. There was just no excitement at all, or any real enthusiasm about that game. We just needed to get the job done and get it out of the way.”

A monumental day for the club overshadowed by anxiety created from the year before. And not just for the manager and players, some fans were anxious as well.

“You could sense the nerves in everyone. The players, the fans, the manager. It was a strange day,” says Smith. “In a semi-final you can have fun, but at a final the pressure somewhat kills the enjoyment. It’s more about the result than the game itself because you’ve travelled all that way and you’ve only got one attempt to win.”

Despite the nervous, Exeter did manage to win the game thanks to a 21-minute strike from midfielder Rob Edwards. However, Tisdale’s men made it hard for themselves with Cambridge having two late attempts at goal cleared of the goal line.

The best drama came one match prior however, with Exeter fighting back from a 2-1 first leg defeat, in the 2008 semi-final clash against rivals Torquay United.

“That match is in my top five, maybe even top three games of the 1,100 matches I’ve managed, because the backstory to it was more significant than just a play-off semi-final,” says Tisdale. “The backstory is that they were not just our local rivals, but there manager was Paul Buckle, who had been my assistant the year before and had moved to Torquay and attempted to try to sign a number of our players. So there had been a year of competitive edge leading into the game. And then on top of that we'd obviously lost the first leg.”

Going into the second leg away from home to a local rival, Exeter fans were in full voice, despite knowing they had to overturn the first leg disappointment.

“Today our most competitive rival is Plymouth, as we’ve faced them a lot more in recent years, but in 2008 Torquay were our number one enemy,” says Smith. “The importance of that game blended with fact it was a manager verse his old number two made it a must win for both sides. Nobody wanted to lose.”

Halftime came and the score remained the same. However, that all changed just over 10 minutes into the second half, as Torquay looked set for a dream clash at Wembley thanks to a 59th-minute opening goal. A goal that even Tisdale was worried about.

“That was the first time that I doubted it,” says the former Exeter boss. “No matter how well you play, you've now got a score two goals in 30 minutes and there had been very few chances to that point. So I think it was the first moment I thought, oh crikey, here we go, this is trouble now.”

But that all soon changed. 11 minutes after conceding, Exeter midfielder Ryan Harley pulled one back for the visiting side to equal the second leg score; before a clumsy effort by the Torquay keeper on Exeter striker Richard Logan saw a penalty kick awarded to the travelling team.

The taker of the clubs most famous penalty however shocked the fans and even had Tisdale on the edge of his seat.

“99 times out of 100, my players stick to the plan,” says Tisdale. “We would normally have a rota or a list, of who takes the penalties. Usually, it would have been Richard Logan, or Ryan Harley. But this game Ben Watson just picked it up and took it and thankfully he scored.”

Watson only scored two goals that whole season, but his penalty put that game into the history books of the club.

“Looking back at it, that’s got to be one of the games of the club's history really, in terms of where we were and how it ended. And then on top of that, with it being a rivalry, it's even more fulfilling,” says Watson.

Watson's goal was the catalyst that turned the draw around.

“I think even now around the city and at my day-to-day job people still remember that moment as one of the sort of turning points for the club,” he says. “I'm proud that I took it and that we managed to give the fans what they deserved. And of course, it's nice to still hear about it now, as it’s a fond memory I look back on.”

However, every game must have a loser, and according to Tisdale semi-final defeats can be just as heart-breaking as finals.

“With semi’s, the season either finishes today, or we have one more game at Wembley,” says Tisdale. “It's a long season, like snakes and ladders. Being in a semi it’s literally like landing on 99 and you’re back down to zero again. The playoffs are very exciting, but they're dreadfully fragile.”

But that doesn’t stop the country’s top rated fan base from singing their hearts out and supporting their team.

“A semi-final at St James’s Park is the best game of the season and we’ve had quite a few in recent years,” says Rupert. “The famous big bank stand is bouncing, and the atmosphere is electric! You just can’t compare that to a half empty Wembley stadium, no matter how famous the ground is.”

A statement Tisdale was quick to support.

“Absolutely it’s the fans that make it,” he says. “Semi-finals are just fantastic and the best days ever because of the fans. The games reflect the support and it’s just a rollercoaster. It’s human nature at its most volatile. Semi-finals are incredible.”