By Russell Kempson
Supporters are the lifeblood of The Football League. They travel the length and breadth of the country, come rain, hail or shine and whatever the state of their team, be it soaring or struggling.
Week-in, week-out and year-in, year-out; the journeys seem never-ending. It is only right that these fervent followers should be recognised. And they are.
Neil Le Milliere is the latest to be honoured, when he was presented with the npower Football League Fan of the Year at The Football League Awards dinner in London in March. For his devotion to Exeter City, spanning nearly 40 years and thousands of miles trekked by road and rail, it was a richly deserved reward for the London-based Grecian.
Yet the magnitude of the star-spangled occasion left him drained, almost unable to comprehend not only what he had achieved but also just experienced. When the night was winding down, he needed time and space on his own to take it all in.
"My wife, Julie, went to bed," Le Milliere said. "In the morning, she was going straight to work from the hotel.
"I was on a high but I was still so stunned that I didn't want to be with anyone. So I found a quiet lounge and just sat there thinking about things. I must have been there getting on for two hours. I was so emotional, I was totally choked. I don't think anyone who volunteers ever does it with the idea of getting recognition.
"My reward for doing what I do is the fact that other people have a great time and that the club gets support. To me, the award is for the club. Okay, maybe a bit for my personal input over the years as well. And certainly for Julie, for all she has had to put up with. It really was a great evening all round."
Neil, the individual League 2 winner, was shortlisted for the overall award with Nick Webster, the Championship representative from Derby County, and Pat Raybould, of League 1 and Coventry City. From the moment that Neil was nominated - by Lewis Jones, a fellow Exeter City Trust board member - his excitement simmered below the surface.
"When I heard that my name had gone forward to the voting panel, I was blown away. I just couldn't believe it. It's one of those things that you think always happens to someone else. At the dinner, Julie and I were just sitting there and waiting.
"It was the first award of the night and, when they announced my name, it was bizarre, quite surreal. I got called up on stage and was interviewed and, as usual, I still had my phone earpiece in. It was actually talking to me, telling me of the messages that were arriving on my mobile, as I was being asked the questions. It was just weird."
Bizarre, surreal, weird. A maybe apt description of some of the seasons that Exeter have experienced since Le Milliere, 59, hopped aboard. It was not, though, love at first sight.
"I was born in Exeter," Neil explained, "but, rather strangely, before I left the city in 1967, I'd never been to a game at St James Park. My father, Charles, was a season ticket holder but he later told me that he didn't think that my brother, Keith, and I were interested. Yet we've always both maintained that we'd have jumped at the chance.
"Strangely, again, we did go to Plymouth Argyle. They staged a Scottish League against English League international match in the days when they had those games. So my first visit to a football ground was Home Park. Perhaps as an Exeter fan, I shouldn't have revealed that.
"We eventually moved to Rochester, Kent, because of my dad's job - he was a rebate officer - but Keith and I still had friends from Exeter with whom we used to go to England schoolboy internationals at Wembley. We met them at some Exeter away games as well. We mostly played football on Saturday and Sundays but, as we started to play less and less, we'd go to more of their matches. I suppose I was in my early 20s.
"What really sealed it was the 1981 FA Cup run, when we got to the quarter-finals. We went to Millwall, Maidstone United, then Leicester City. We drew there and took them back home. We then drew at Newcastle United but beat them at home. We then went to Tottenham Hotspur in the last eight but lost 2-0. That really fired everything, it all kicked into gear. From then on, we went to every game we could."
Le Milliere's fascination with the red and white stripes grew deeper and, 20 years ago, a chance meeting led to his co-founding of the London Exiles, a group for Exeter supporters living and working in the capital.
"I bumped into a chap in the Sea Horse pub in the city," Neil said. "I'd gone there to watch an England away match on TV but I didn't know anyone.
"I was watching the teams walk out when this chap says to me, 'look, there's our manager'. I said, 'who are you talking about?' He said, 'Alan Ball'. I said, 'I'm an Exeter fan' - and it turned out that he was one of the founder members of the London Exiles, which had been going only about two weeks. Dominic [Sanders] was my introduction to the Exiles. He was the travel officer and said, 'If you want to go to matches, just call us'. It grew from there.
"Dominic worked as the Lord Mayor's silver butler. He looked after all the plates and silverware - the lot. And on our way to games on the train, he used to bring us the leftovers from the Mayor's banquets the night before. We'd have smoked salmon, champers, all sorts. It was incredible. When Dom stopped doing it, I took over as travel officer and have been doing it for about 15 years now."
The loose group of the Exiles number about 400; the tight group, those who travel the most, about 60-70. Yet at times, due to the recession and rising travel costs, the numbers on some matchdays can dwindle to single figures. "A lot of people just can't afford it any more," Neil, who lives in Tottenham, said.
It is also why he now takes the cheapest option of letting the train take the strain, from Waterloo to St James Park. "I leave home at about 8.15am to catch the 9.20am from Waterloo," Neil said. "If everything goes smoothly, I'll get back at 11pm. It's a long old day."
Le Milliere is used to long old days since he took early retirement from the Civil Service eight years ago. Apart from his obsession with all things fundraising for Exeter and his regular charity work, the former Treasury database manager sits on the board of Supporters Direct and is the secretary of the Association of Provincial Football Supporters' Clubs in London.
"When I saw my pension cheque, I thought, 'hang on, I don't think I need to work any more'. It's not great but I can survive and I can do what I want. The way I look at it is that I'm being paid to do all the stuff that I do, whether it be for Exeter or the general football community."
All 'the stuff' for Exeter includes membership of the Supporters' Trust, which took majority ownership of the club a decade ago amid the ashes of administration. "The fans had virtually no influence at the club," Neil recalled. "So we decided that the time was right to form the Trust. Almost as a safety net so that if anything did go wrong, we'd be there and could perhaps get involved and help out.
"The Trust took over and, the following year , we drew Manchester United in the FA Cup third round. Ball number 19 it was, if I remember correctly. We drew 0-0 at Old Trafford - that was absolutely amazing - and brought them back to St James Park. The money we made from the share of gate receipts and TV rights was a real godsend."
All a far cry from that dark day in May 2003, when Exeter played Southend United on the last day of the season and, despite winning 1-0, slipped out of The Football League and into the Conference. It put rather a dampener on the wedding celebrations of Neil and Julie, a legal PA, who were married on the pitch before kick-off.
"The wedding went brilliantly," Neil said. "But the game kicked off 15 minutes late because of the huge crowd, which meant that if Swansea City defeated Hull City, we knew that we'd be down. And, sure enough, that's what happened. With 15 minutes to go, we were gone. Steve Flack scored for us in injury time and I've never seen or heard a goal 'celebrated' less in my life.
"We still had to have the wedding reception, for about 200 people. It was almost like a wake. But a lot of people said that having a reception to go to probably saved them from committing suicide. And we did have a fabulous evening. Mind you, the bride and groom got stranded at the ground. We made sure everyone else got away and forgot that we didn't have any transport ourselves. We had to get a lift back to our hotel with one of the caterers."
Not only was Julie smitten by Neil but by Exeter City also. "I first took her to England versus Japan at Wembley. Then Exeter versus Leyton Orient. She'd never been to a game before and she loved it. Going to football was so different to what she'd imagined, she'd only watched it on TV before. She was fascinated by it, got involved and has been ever since."
Neil sips a pint in The Beer House on Paddington Station, his departure point for his trips to Devon for years until he switched to the Waterloo route. A real ale fan, he chooses the traditional London Pride ahead of the more exotic-sounding St Stefanus Blonde from Belgium and the American Goose Island IPA.
Earpiece firmly attached to his left ear, as usual, he chats freely about his many other footballing loves. When he's not watching Exeter, it's Haringey Borough, Cray Wanderers or Guernsey who get his attention. Le Milliere can trace his roots back four generations on Guernsey and to France in the 1800s. "I consider myself an honorary Channel Islander," he said.
An active sports fanatic, too. His team, Treasury Lions, have just won the Archbishops League Handicap Cup. "The next oldest player in the team is 33," he said. "But I did play in goal." Neil also plays table tennis for NatWest Exiles in the London Central League, pool with the London Exiles and cricket for the Treasury & Cabinet Office CC. "How do I cram it all in? I've no idea."
Watching the Grecians, though, is number one - always has been, always will be. Just a pity that their npower League 2 campaign fizzled out this season. "Away from home, we were fine. But our home form was appalling. It was a rut that the team got into and just couldn't get out of. At one stage, we were on the verge of promotion, but we took just one point from our last seven matches. It was so frustrating."
Still, there's more Le Milliere organising to be done. For the Exeter team taking part in the Internet Football Association tournament, to be held in Leeds next month for fans of rival clubs who usually play each other on matchday mornings throughout the season. And late planning for the Exeter fans' annual end of season holiday on Andros, a Greek island, and their renewal of acquaintances with members of the Greek Grecians Supporters' Association.
Le Milliere signs off his emails with the line, "With Exeter City FC in my Heart" - another example of his huge commitment to the St James Park cause. It was rightly recognised in The Football League Awards and, while it might have taken a bit of time to sink in, he now appreciates it fully.
"I needed that two hours on my own at the end of the dinner," he said. "Just to give me time to think, to take it all in. And also time to think, 'oh dear, that means I've got to keep doing all this.'"
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