Monday’s League Two Play-Off Final will see Exeter City compete for a place in League One for the third time in four seasons, and for the players taking the field at Wembley, there will only be one thing on their mind; erase the horrible memories of previous Play-Off Final defeats.
One man who hopes to do just that is talented midfielder, Nicky Law. Law has been involved with the Play-Offs twice before, once with Rangers in Scotland and then with Bradford City when they lost out to Millwall back in 2017. With the Grecians also suffering two Play-Off Final defeats in recent years, both he and the players will be using that as motivation to do one better this time around.
Someone who brings both experience and creativity to this Exeter City side, Law has netted 17 goals in 80 appearances since signing for the club and with the ability to both score and create, he could be crucial to Matt Taylor’s plans.
Nicky, how excited are you to have this opportunity of promotion?
We’re delighted obviously. We navigated our way through the Semi-Finals and two very tough games against Colchester United, and now we have the chance to play at Wembley which is always a great occasion. Obviously this time it’ll be a little bit different but to play at Wembley at any point is always a great occasion and obviously even better if you can win the game.
It was quite a way to win the Semi-Finals too, in extra-time. Did you always have that belief in the squad that you could turn the first leg deficit around?
We did, I think we felt reasonably hard done by in the first-leg. I don’t think we deserved to win the game, but we didn’t deserve to lose either so we were unlucky in the first Semi-Final. When you play away in the first-leg, if you do lose the game you don’t want to lose by more than one goal so we were in with a chance. There was no doom and gloom after that game, we all felt that going into the home leg at St James Park where we’ve ben so strong all season that we could be confident of getting a result.
It was nice to score early on in the game, I think that settled a few nerves and then once we went 2-0 up we felt we could have made things a little easier for ourselves, but doing it the hard way seems to be what we do! But to go into extra-time and play for 120 minutes in the heat that day was an unbelievable effort from the whole squad. We were delighted after the game, and always quietly confident that we could get through the two legs.
And having those two games under your belt now after the break, how much will that help you in the Final?
It certainly won't hurt. It’s a strange situation that we’re in at the minute with schedule, fitness levels were always going to be low but it’s been the same for everyone, but those 120 minutes will definitely help us I think. Games at Wembley are always tough, I’ve been fortunate enough to play there before, unfortunately results haven't gone my way but even at the best of times it’s a big bitch, it’s tough to play there and you generally have nervous energy playing there so it’s an energy-sapping day at the best of times.
Obviously we’re in unprecedented times at the moment, and it’ll bye a different experience on Monday night. How much has that changed your preparation for this match?
You have to try and treat every game the same as much as you can. Obviously there is more pressure in Play-Off games, but I think preparation has to try and be the same as it is for every other game. Clearly, it’s not the same as every other game because there’s a lot riding on it, but you have to try and prepare as normal.
I think in these games, whoever can handle the pressure better on the day comes out the better side. We have a lot of experienced players in our camp who have experienced promotion, or playing in a Final like this which will definitely help, but for me whoever handles it better on the day will be in with a great chance of winning the game.
How much of a relief was it to have this chance of promotion after the curtailment of the season?
It was tough not to carry on the season because we would have been in with a chance of automatic promotion, but we were delighted that the Play-Offs could still go ahead and we still had the chance to fight for promotion. We were on a good run before the break but there were no guarantees that we were going to go on and achieve automatic promotion, we could have come back and had a terrible run and even slipped out of the Play-Offs completely - you just don’t know. So to have that chance now is great. We’re confident, we believe in our style of play and we know if we play to the best of our ability we’re in with a chance.
Northampton are a good side with experienced players and an experienced manager, but we’re going into it on the back of two very tough games, with a quick turnaround as well. And I think sometimes the quick turnaround can help, sometimes you don’t want a long time to think about the Final or have too much time to prepare. There’s a lot to look forward to, we’re excited and we’ve got momentum going into the game. Hopefully for myself and for the club it’s third time lucky.
Members of this Exeter team have experienced the heartache of losing a Play-Off Final. Can you see the hunger in players who have been through that to go one better this time?
Definitely. Losing a Play-Off Final spurs you on. You never forget the feeling of losing at Wembley, it’s the worst feeling in football. You fight all season long to be in with a chance of getting promoted and to lose in the Play-Offs in the worst way to lose, especially on such a big stage such as Wembley. I think for that reason there’s definitely a determination within the camp to never have that feeling again, which can only help us this time around.
Monday will see two good sides play each other, with neither wanting to lose. In the Play-Offs anything can happen and I’m sure that’ll be the case again on Monday but we’re all hoping our past experiences and extra bit of determination can get us over the line this time.
You’ve obviously played at a higher level yourself, can you see within the current squad at Exeter that players are capable of making the step up to League One?
We definitely like to think so. I touched on it earlier, and I think we have some good experienced players in the squad, but Exeter is also a club that likes to bring through talented youth players as well. You look at players like Randell Williams who’s been here since a young age, he’s come on so much during his time at Exeter, he’s really improved as a player and has been one of our best this season. We’ve got a lot of youngsters who are going to have great futures, and we’ve played a couple of League One sides this season in cup competitions and given a good account of ourselves so I think we’ve definitely shown that we can compete against higher opposition if we’re lucky enough to get that chance.
Just looking at Northampton Town, they came back from 2-0 down to surprise everyone in their Semi-Final. Did you know that they were capable of doing that?
I don’t think anyone felt that Northampton were truly out of the game, just because they were 2-0 down. It was always going to be difficult for them, but you could see they were capable of it. We’ve played them twice this season and they’ve both been really good games, we’ve won one and they’ve won one. But you could see in those two games what a good side they were and the talent that they have in the squad. They’re a big side, they’re physical and good from set pieces, I think they’re one of the most difficult sides to play against in our league and I’m sure Monday will be no different. On the other side, I think they’ll know to expect a tough game against us.
Cheltenham Town obviously have the best defensive record in the EFL and Northampton Town managed to score three goals against them to make it to Monday night's Final, has that changed your preparation at all, having seen how Northampton played in the second leg?
I think the way they played is what we would have expected from them to be honest. That’s just how they play. They get the ball forward, they attack, they throw players forward and they like to get bodies in the box. They pose a real threat and we need to be prepared for that. It’s also important that when we get the ball and are in possession we do things that have helped us achieve success this season and play how we know we can play.
We have two slightly different styles of play, there’s no wrong or right way, it’s just whose works better on the day but hopefully it’ll be ourselves that come out on top. But we’ll prepare as we do for every game and have the utmost respect for our opposition, but making sure we do our own things right as well.
Monday night’s Play-Off Final kicks off at 7.30pm and can be watched live on Sky Sports. The action can also be followed on Twitter via @SkyBetLeagueTwo.