• Nathan Smith


After three clean sheets in a row, Matt Taylor is looking for Exeter to keep up their strong defensive form as they welcome league leaders Cheltenham Town to St James Park.

Exeter have impressed in their last two games, putting Leyton Orient and Scunthorpe United to the sword, winning 4-0 and 2-0 respectively.

Having lost the likes of Pierce Sweeney and Tom Parkes to injury and suspension, Matt Taylor has been delighted with his side’s solid backline but is aware of the tough test that awaits them.

“Especially on the back of the personnel missing in the last few weeks, to keep picking up points and to be so strong defensively has really provided us with a platform to win some games. But you are only as good as your next game, and that’s a tough fixture to look forward to on the weekend.”

This game could be seen as a slightly early promotion six pointer, with both sides looking to be in League One next year, but Taylor sees the game as just another opportunity, an outlook he drills into his players.

“It’s interesting because within every team talk, I say to the players ‘it’s just another opportunity’ so every game is an opportunity.”

“With 14 games left to play, if it was in the last four/five games of the season then you look at it differently but with 14 games left, that’s 14 more opportunities to get maximum points.”

The Grecians boss added, “We just know we are playing against a good team and we want to play well against a good team to give yourself a chance and if we come away with something this weekend then it’s another shot in the arm in terms of confidence that we can go up against the best teams in the league.”

The two sides met in December, where Cheltenham got the better of the Grecians in front of their home fans, winning 5-3 in what was an all-action encounter.

Cheltenham’s physical and direct approach caused Exeter’s defence a lot of problems, something Taylor learned a lot from.

“I felt they overran us that day, overpowered us. We scored three good goals, which was surreal when you get beaten 5-3, but we also couldn’t quite handle their direct approach, their physicality, their balls in and around our box and they got us deep and punished us in those moments.”

The former Cheltenham centre-back was full of praise for his old team, pointing out that any side that finishes above them will be in for a good season.

“You learn a lot from them, we’ve learnt a lot from them in the past couple of seasons, the manager has done a fantastic job there and they’ve got a serious group of players there, so anyone that finishes above Cheltenham this season will be there or thereabouts.”

There is more good news for Exeter fans, alongside Tom Parkes being back available after his suspension, both Randell Williams and Sam Stubbs are getting closer and closer to full fitness.

“Those two are outside, they are joining in with the rest of the group from Monday onwards, so it is just a case now of seeing when we can put them, probably on the bench too start with.”

“They’ve both been out for significant time, so they are probably going to be on the bench to start with and then impact the game from there. You don’t have to be 90 minutes fit; you’ve just got to be able to be fit for a certain period of time.”

Matt Jay has been one of Exeter’s stand out players this season, with 17 goals so far, but Matt Taylor believes that Jay’s work off the pitch is the reason for his success on it.

“I learned so much about this group of players during this lockdown, during the first part of lockdown where we gave them individual programmes and then you saw who came back fit and in a position where they’d actually done the programme at home.”

“MJ did that programme we gave him but did more, he came back a different animal, he came back being able to cover the ground in a lot less time, his stride pattern was different and he looked a slightly different athlete.”

Taylor added, “He’s based his game on everything he did in that first lockdown period and he deserves what he’s getting this season. It’s the hardest thing to do in life and as a footballer, to push yourself when no one else is pushing you, when there’s no coaches, no managers, there is no one there watching, you’re doing it for yourself and MJ did that during that lockdown period.”

A win for Exeter will see them potentially move into the play-off places and apply pressure to the automatic promotion places, but a win for Cheltenham will keep them at the top of the league.