With that game just days away, one of the most vital cogs in getting there tells us spirits are high inside the Wanderers camp.
When players got the green light to resume training, it happened as abruptly as football had halted all those months ago. With the country – and the world – still in the grip of a pandemic, there had never been a more unusual time for professional athletes to return to work, as David Wheeler explains.
“To be honest,” he admits, “I just found it all really weird. I’d been keeping quite close tabs on everything that was going on with the virus … and everything that was going on around the world. And I was just like, ‘Hundreds of people are still dying every day’. We were going back in to essentially have a kick-around.
“But once we got back in, it was great. It was such a nice feeling to be back amongst the lads and it was like no time had passed. Obviously we had all the restrictions where we had to wipe down everything we were using and be really careful and social distance, but it was just really nice to have that conversation again and be really excited about the games coming up and how they were going to go.”
With so much uncertainty, no one could truly forecast how things were going to pan out. After 125 days without competitive action, all previous form had long since gone out the window. It felt like a true case of anyone’s game.
“I think the general mood was we were quietly confident that it was going to go well,” says David. “You just never know with so little time to build up. You never know who’s going to pick up an injury or if people are going to catch the virus or whatever.
“We’d had such a long time time off – longer than you would ever have in an off-season – so it was a little bit of a shock to the system at first, but it didn’t take too long to get back into it. I felt great in the game on Friday, but then having the game on Monday so close after getting back at 4am [on Saturday], it was quite tough to then get the energy levels back up.
“How well we did was quite a testament to how we’d prepared ourselves mentally for the game on Friday. Because from start to finish, we were really on it.”
It was inevitable that the second leg would prove tougher going, but we dug in and, according to David, did what any team would have done: defended that advantage.
“I felt it was a real slog,” he says, “and I think most of the boys felt like that – but I think it was always going to be like that because if you’ve got a three-goal lead, the natural human reaction is to just to protect it. It would have been quite a difficult thing, I think, to go full throttle the same sort of way as we did on Friday.
“[Fleetwood] are a great team; they’re entitled to have come and produced the sort of football they were capable of, but I think in the first leg we just didn’t allow them to do that. And obviously we took our chances well.”
Those watching will probably have picked up on the comments of Rotherham manager Paul Warne – one of the studio pundits on Sky – at full-time. Strangely for a coach who knows full well what it’s like to succeed with direct football, he seemed unable to give Wycombe much praise for comprehensively winning the tie 6-3 on aggregate. We’re used to the snobbery aimed our way week in, week out, but does it filter through to the squad?
“I think there’s a little bit of embarrassment from certain clubs,” says David, “and certain fans that we’re beating them and finishing higher than them in the league.
“We’re playing into the assets that we have and we’re getting the best out of the players that we have and playing in a way that gets us results. If certain clubs set up to play so-called attractive football – passing football – so be it. But if you’re going to profess to being a top team and playing lovely football, why aren’t you beating us? You need to back it up. If you were good enough, you would beat us; that’s the main point, I think.
“I think there’s also an element of people just not understanding how we’re doing it. They don’t get it; they don’t understand how we can play in that manner and be so successful. But that’s fine. People said, ‘You’ll get relegated’ at the beginning and then it was like, ‘Oh, it won’t last’. But we just won the play-off semi-final. For the size of our club and the funds at our disposal, to be in the position we are is a bonus and we’re just relishing the opportunity. We’ve worked incredibly hard to get this opportunity.”
Tactical nous is one thing, but something else entirely has played as big, if not an even bigger, part in our unprecedented success: team spirit. It might sound like an obvious aspect to point to, but true team spirit – not the commentator’s cliché version – is hard to come by in this game.
“It’s quite rare,” states David. “In my whole time of playing, it’s happened two or three times, I’d say – where it’s really been this tight-knit and everyone’s looking out for each other on and off the pitch. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you respect each other and you like each other and you want each other to succeed, you might run that bit extra for the guy next to you and you might back him up rather than watch him make a mistake and let him deal with it – you try and help him out and fix it. So yeah, I think it is massive. I think it’s massive not only for success in the team [but] for the general wellbeing of everyone involved.”
Equally invaluable as we head into the end-of-season showpiece is the abundance of play-off experience – whether successful, unsuccessful or both – within the ranks. It may not have ended as he’ll hope Monday’s does, but David himself scored for Exeter in the 2017 League Two final.
“You do pick up things and remember things about the progress and take that into your next experience. So I think it definitely helps – especially the amount of players we have that have played in the play-offs. That’s not to say that it’s a decisive factor, but it definitely helps inform the way you approach the game and stuff.”
If we pull off the unthinkable on only our third trip to (a sadly empty) Wembley as a League outfit, you have to say it will almost certainly top the previous achievements of every single member of this special squad. What an opportunity. We know what a massive occasion it is and rest assured, so do David and the lads: “Just a tad!”