With a work experience lad in goal, freshman manager on the touchline and seemingly half of Devon in Manchester population behind them, we’ve flown back to 2005 to witness the unlikely rebirth of pride at a non-league club at Old Trafford.

A map of English football often neglects the South West, as its spotlight tends to shine on more ‘traditional’ sporting regions. However, for a few brief weeks in January 2005, the nation’s attention was fixed on a struggling club nestled in Devon’s capital.

Exeter City, a plucky Conference side barely able to pay their bills, were about to walk out onto the grandest stage of them all – Old Trafford.

The Grecians had drawn Manchester United in the Third Round of the FA Cup but this isn’t a mere David and Goliath story; far from it. While the ink was drying on Wayne Rooney’s £27 million transfer to the Red Devils, Exeter had just emerged from a season many had thought they might not survive.

The Grecians were grappling with a crisis – though their supporters had rescued the club from financial peril a year before, this was just a bandage over significant cracks.

Previous chairmen John Russell and Mike Lewis had steered the club into a nosedive, presiding over a first non-league relegation while committing multiple acts of fraud, which they were later convicted of.

“We had nothing, it had either been sold or was waiting to be taken by bailiffs,” recounts City’s Chair at the time, David Treharne.

“The charlatan chairmen were only in charge for a season, but lost almost £700,000 and racked up larger debts.”

In the summer of 2003, Exeter desperately sought help, but no businessperson would be seen near City. Determined fans decided to take matters into their own hands, fundraising to purchase their club.

“We had formed a Supporters’ Trust a few years before, with the intention of having a bit more influence. But that swiftly pivoted to ownership,” David added.

“I was appointed Chair based on my experience and that I only lived round the corner!”

The first week in September that year uncovered £5 million of hidden debt, triggering financial restrictions that prohibited player signings.

Academy graduates and seasoned journeymen formed a makeshift squad, which ambled through one season. With no way to pay off creditors, things were getting tetchy. Exeter City needed a miracle.

“In all honesty, I was unaware of how severe the club’s financial situation was back then and what a good cup draw could do; I just concentrated on the football,” admits Alex Inglethorpe.

The well-spoken coach had been appointed manager three months before that day in Manchester, and he’d be the first to admit he wasn’t top of any fan’s shortlist.

“When I got the job, I thought there were far more suitable candidates out there,” Alex shared, “I had only managed Leatherhead who paid me £50 a week, and had no real coaching CV past that. Exeter took a punt on me, maybe because I was the cheaper option.

“I was only 33 at the time and perhaps it was youthful naivety, but I spent my time not focusing on the debt, instead the players and the pitch in front of me.”

That focus saw the mid-table Grecians navigate their way into the Second Round of the FA Cup to face League One Doncaster. Exeter-born Dean Moxey scored arguably the goal of the competition – winning the match with a rocket from 45 yards.

Inglethorpe watched the Third Round draw at Director of Football Steve Perryman’s house, with the media present. “He literally had an FA Cup winners’ medal on the mantle, which was quite surreal.”

Tony Cascarino, a former Irish international who has likely never stepped foot in Devon, is revered by Grecians for what happened next. At roughly 3.56pm, he pulled out ball 64 and the city gasped.

“When he said ‘Exeter City’, I just thought, surely that’s not us, but there it was, clear as day: we had drawn Manchester United.”

David Treharne’s mind immediately went to the finances. “That moment, that draw, relieved so much pressure off our backs. The ticket money alone would reduce our debt to nearly nothing.”

However, it wasn’t all about money.

“We didn’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of the nation; we could easily have become a joke.”

Steve Flack is a builder now, but in 2005 he had been City’s go-to man up front for the previous seven years.

“Sometimes you hear of players acting cautious before a big match, not wanting to injure themselves. But everyone stepped up after that draw, desperate to get into the side at Old Trafford – we just kept winning matches.”

That momentum not only fuelled a flicker of hope among some City supporters, but also inspired Inglethorpe’s strategy on how to contain the eight-time Premier League champions.

“We had to make the 90 minutes more familiar to ourselves rather than them, which meant turning it into an ugly Conference match. We knew we weren’t going to be able to stop them all over the pitch, so instead we strategically chose spaces to deny them time on the ball.

“Also, we needed some luck, and we got that as it wasn’t a typical United lineup. While not a ‘weak’ side, with players like Phil Neville, Pique and Ronaldo, it wasn’t what you’d expect.”

City required one more component which only the players, sporting a now-legendary black and gold kit, could bring. 

“Desire.” Flack succinctly put it.

“We had to try harder than them. They were going to be better players than us, so we had to be better at what we could control, and that meant we had to run, and run, and run.”

Statistically, Exeter covered more distance than any other team at that stadium in 2005, a stat which Flack knew without the numbers. “God did I feel it.”

Around 10% of Exeter’s population made their way north through a mixture of trains, coaches and cars, but City’s men got the star treatment.

“We flew up from Exeter to Manchester in this tiny plane which shook the entire journey,” Flack reminisces. “Bolton let us use their training ground and club hotel and the day before we toured Old Trafford, to get the photo taking over and done with. I felt like a Premier League player.”

On January 9th, the iconic stadium echoed with the voices of determined supporters, cladded in red and white. However, once the referee began the game, that excitement transitioned into nerves, as recalled by Laurence Overend, who had followed his team for 30 years but never witnessed a game like this. 

“I spent more time looking at the clock rather than the pitch. Before kickoff, nobody considered that we would get something from the game; all talk was about how good this was financially.”

While Exeter went close twice through Andy Taylor in the first half, the game settled into a pattern of United domination.

“We were backs to the wall all afternoon and then Sir Alex brought on Paul Scholes and Ronaldo and I thought ‘ah well, it was good while it lasted’,” Laurence remembered.

Both subs had chances, with 18-year-old goalkeeper Paul Jones saving a fierce effort from the Portuguese winger. A few months earlier, Jones was in Leyton Orient’s youth side, and his loan to Exeter was only sanctioned as it was categorised as ‘work experience’, as the club looked for creative ways to recruit.

Freekicks were celebrated like goals by an away end that cheered every touch that pushed the ball further from City’s goal.

Scholes went closest, minutes from fulltime, dragging a shot just wide before the referee blew the whistle. Suddenly the 93 league places separating the sides became irrelevant, as the corner of Devon tucked inside Old Trafford erupted. Exeter City had just drawn 0-0 with Manchester United.

“There was this odd combination of surrealism and disbelief. Nobody could quite believe what they just saw,” Laurence summarised the feeling in the stands. “This was a team I had watched lose at Farnborough and Halifax, and here they were, holding Manchester United in their own back yard!”

“There’s no doubt that without that match, we probably wouldn’t have paid our debts as quickly as we did,” acknowledges David. “That one game set us up for years to come, completely turning our trajectory.”

A fortnight later, St James Park (the Devonshire version) hosted the replay, broadcast live to the nation from Gary Lineker sat in a temporary wooden box, serving as a temporary TV studio. There was no upset this time, as a full-strength United won thanks to a goal in either half from Ronaldo and Rooney.

The result was irrelevant though. Those few weeks allowed Exeter to begin looking forwards, after too many dark days of trying to fight what had already happened. No longer did the Grecians have to tread water, and since they’ve become one of England’s most sustainable clubs, never again entering debt under the watchful eye of their own fans.

On that day in 2005, the people of Exeter walked out of Old Trafford with a feeling many thought they’d forgotten. An intangible sense that only their team could provide.