There is the usual flotsam of this unusual life: pages of scouting reports, a whiteboard with fixtures scrawled on it, empty mugs and full bottles, a framed poster of Wembley, old copies of Rothmans Football Yearbook, mobile phones throbbing on the desk. On the shelves, two things request attention, a thicket of Roy of the Rovers annuals and the Oxford English Dictionary

This is the Cat and Fiddle, Exeter City’s training ground and, like its name, a sense of difference is not difficult to discern. The prefab buildings where the youth team train were rescued and reconditioned by supporters. In the kitchen, Jenny and Anita are volunteers, trust members and season-ticket holders, who say, “they don’t just teach players football here, they teach them manners.”

Existence in League Two can be haphazard, reliant on dedication and twisted by fortune, and it is rare to find a club – at any level – guided by principle as Exeter are. There has to be practicality because they are a cash-flow business, unable to spend what they do not earn, but it is shaped by a philosophy which upends most of what we know.

In the office he shares with Paul Tisdale, the manager, among the annuals, reports and phones, Steve Perryman explains that philosophy by way of anecdote. He is comfortable like that, a football man telling football stories and somehow familiar because of it, even if his words lead in an unexpected direction. He speaks like a football man, a man of Tottenham Hotspur – a record 854 appearances – but he is voicing a quiet subversion. It is how they do it here. 

His title at Exeter is Director of Football, but even that is not straightforward. “I’m supposed to be between Tis and the board, but his character, style and organisation means he’s direct into them. I’m a director with a small d and I’d prefer to be called the manager’s aide. Not a mentor, not an assistant, but an aide.” Tisdale calls Perryman an “ally – we see it the same way,” and their working environment is tight, close. 

At the end of his playing career – two FA Cups, two League Cups, two Uefa Cups, one England cap – Perryman set forth into management. He assisted Ossie Ardiles at Spurs and then traveled with him to Japan before striking out on his own, spending five years with Shimizu S-Pulse. He came home and sought work, helping out at Exeter – he was paid expenses and nothing more – before returning to Japan and Kashiwa Reysol.

By the time he took his present role, back in 2003, his outlook had changed for good. “I’d been to Japan and seen what respect is,” Perryman says. “Respect in the sense of ‘you’re the manager and we’ll follow you’, both from the players’ point of view and from those above, too. Everyone says you go abroad and get a new surge of energy and that’s right; everything was fresh.

“I’d been driving around the North Circular Road for 20 years, seeing the same cars, the same traffic, the same faces and same lights… You don’t know how much it wears you down. Then you’re in a new country and the traffic is probably 100 times worse, but there’s a Toyota you’ve never seen before, a different office block over there, two people bowing as low as you can get and it’s all new, it’s all great. 

“I came back with this huge energy, so why waste it, but I was never going to work again for a businessman who, because of his money, could tell me what to think about football. I could listen to Alan Sugar all day long about business, but he wasn’t going to tell me about football and he didn’t like being told that. I’d got out of that pit. Realistically, I wasn’t going to get a job. I did go for a couple of interviews, but I talked myself out of it. ‘Okay, so what’s the money?’ X. ‘Okay, well X doesn’t entitle you to expect me to lie for you’.

“I said at one interview ‘what sort of club are you?’ They asked me what I meant. ‘Well, for instance, do you want to produce your own players?’ 

“‘Oh yeah, we want some of that.’ 

“‘Do you want to be part of the community, grow your support?’ 

“‘Yeah, we want some of that, too.’ 

“‘Okay – and think about this one – do you want to win at all costs?’ 

“‘Well, we want to win.’

“‘We’ll take that as read – everybody wants to win. Are you win at all costs?’

“‘We want to win.’

“‘I know that. I want to win. But how are you going to win? If your centre-forward does an obvious dive in the 92nd minute and wins a penalty that’s totally undeserved, are you happy, sad, angry or do you not give a shit? 

“‘We want to win.’

“‘Well, in that case, I think you’re a win at all costs club. I’ve got no problem with that, but I’m not your man.’”

Tisdale, Perryman says, is not that man, either. “We want players listening to tactical messages, the technical messages and the disciplinary messages. But I’d find it very hard if I had to listen to a manager saying, ‘Go down in the box, run the ball to the corner flag.’ We think that teams who overuse the phrase ‘game management’ are not right. You see it here; teams are extra positive, go a goal ahead, retreat onto the back foot and we take the initiative – who is most likely to win?

“This is a whole bigger subject, but people spend more time teaching anti-football than they do football. Tis teaches football. He doesn’t want players running the ball to the corner flag, he doesn’t want kidding or diving. It’s not like a daily message – it’s an environment. Not everybody gets it.”

A couple of hours earlier; still morning, but the Centre Spot Bar at St James Park is already heaving and Tisdale is gripping a pool cue. Outside, there is a noticeboard, with details of meetings, dates, games, and above it in black letters reads a defining statement, ‘We Own Our Football Club.’ In reception, Clinton Morrison, the former Republic of Ireland striker, now 35, was chittering away and he said hello. “You’re here to see the manager? Intelligent man. Really clever.”

On a makeshift stage in the bar, Tisdale is not playing but pointing, using his cue as a prop. Observed by Perryman, who chips in with the odd comment, and Julian Tagg, the vice-chairman (as the sign suggests, the club is owned by a Supporters’ Trust), he introduces the journalist interloper at the back of the room and then works through a DVD presentation of Exeter’s last match, running through clips, keeping the message light. “Be ready to anticipate,” he says and then, later, “Be connected and you’ll win more than you lose.”

Communication is a big thing at Exeter – more of that later – and Tisdale asks his players to describe their style. A few arms go up. ‘Fluid,’ says one. ‘Tempo,’ says another. ‘Connected,’ chimes a third. So much of football is about these mental drills and repetitions, the basics and routines. “Compete, tidy, set, support, forward, forward running,” Tisdale says. “Do all that and we’ll be a hell of a team.” He deploys his own version of their style: “kinetic, to use a posh word.” 

Tisdale drives back to the Cat and Fiddle. He had left home at 6.20am, stopping at a service station for coffee and to complete his presentation, arriving at the training ground for 8.30. “A whirlwind since then,” he says; he has been trying to sign a player on loan, which is a luxury here. Last summer, they were placed under a transfer embargo after borrowing £100,000 from the Professional Footballers’ Association to cover running costs, obliging Tisdale, who is 42, to re-register as a player. 

That must have been a strange experience for a man whose relationship with the sport is not traditional. A midfielder, who rose through the ranks at Southampton, he acknowledges that he “never fulfilled any kind of potential,” and when he is asked one of those standard, time-buying, button-pushing questions, where you assume the answer will be one thing and it turns out to be another, his answer is so stark it takes the breath away. Did he enjoy being a footballer? “No.”

Football is arbitrary, he says: you work, you practise, you improve your frailties and hone your talents and then, at the end of it all, the bloke in the dug-out either fancies you or does not. He found that experience jarring. “The whole thing is random and erratic. If you’re a person who is considered and pragmatic and likes to quantify things – I’ve got that sort of mind – not only is it hard to fathom, but it’s also quite unsettling not being able to quantify that x leads to y leads to z.

“There’s no process you can look at. You’d think it would be get fitter, improve your left foot, do this and it just takes care of itself. It doesn’t. The whole industry is so subjective. And then, if you’re on the outside of it, it’s very easy to hit a spiral of lack of fitness, lack of confidence, lack of continuity, lack of that process so you can plot it, so you have players who slip through the net. It’s very erratic. 

“A lot of it made no sense to me. Moving on from Southampton, I realised I’d been coached to play a certain way and then arriving at another club it was like a completely different sport. It was that clear. There’s not only a technical and physical set of variables, but it’s also a culture and that’s the intangible bit. How do you cope with all that? I found that period of my life very unsettling. I’m not blaming anyone, that’s just what it was like.

“What you don’t realise on the outside is that every club has its own dynamic. Everything can be perfect for you – the club, the geography and the culture – and then the manager changes and he’s got a different opinion. You just can’t plot, unless you’re Ryan Giggs and you’re going to make it wherever you go. A lot of the time it’s pot luck, it’s a lottery and then that duty of care, that feeling of treating people correctly is last on the list because it’s all about winning on Saturday.”

In retrospect, it was the wrong career. “At the age of 15, 16, I was already in the clutches of Southampton,” he says. “No one asked if I wanted to do it, I was just in it. My father [who was in the Admiralty; Tisdale was born in Valletta, Malta], took me places and he’s assuming I want to be a footballer. I didn’t want to be a footballer but, crikey… he never asked me, he assumed and I just assumed it’s what I’d do and I’m playing for England Schools and why not?”

Tisdale was also an opening batsman (and is now a member of the MCC). “I would have done far better as a cricketer, I’ve got no doubt about that, now I look back,” he says. “I would have been far better at it and it’s purely cultural.” Why? “The environment, the people you’re with. No matter how many sports psychology books you read there’s an innate environment you’re in that either brings out the confidence in you or doesn’t. 

“For someone who has an inquiring or considered mind, a sport where there are more quantifiable things than not would suit me. Plus the type of people you mix with. I was a more confident individual in that dressing-room, I was able to quantify the sport and what I needed to do to improve, because you score runs, you get wickets. It’s a simpler way of quantifying your success. Football is so subjective; there are so many variables.

“I prefer management ten times more. I have my own destiny in my own hands – to a degree, not completely – and I’ve got control. I had no control as a player whatsoever. I was quiet, I was introverted, I wanted to find some answers within the coaching and feedback to find out what I was supposed to be doing and there was very little. Did I enjoy it? It’s a great lifestyle, but it’s a very stressful lifestyle if you have a considered mind. I see so many young footballers with the same issue.”

Yet Tisdale is now the subjective one, the arbitrary one. “You can’t please everyone,” he says. “You can only pick 11 players, but all I can do is the best for them, empathise with players and make the process simpler for them. These chaps want to be footballers, it’s their industry and hopefully I’m giving them the environment to get the best out of themselves. Communication is probably the biggest tool you’ve got; nine out of ten times it’s communication. Most footballers deal really well with good information, even if they’re not getting the answers they want.”

Tisdale is not a football man; not in the same way that Perryman is. He would never talk about the sport being a drug and management an addict’s balm. Perhaps he is not consumed by it in that emotive sense. “It’s my industry,” he says. “It’s what I know best. That’s quite a deep question. I don’t really know. I love what I do. I love the sport. The sport and the industry are very different and I’m creating my own way of being in the industry and enjoying it.

“I wasn’t so successful as a player that I got that huge rush from it. You get these huge spikes of adrenaline once or twice a week and who knows what that does to you. The truth is I won’t know until I’ve not had it. I really enjoy the Monday to Friday and then Saturday is the business. For me, it’s all about the Monday to Friday, the environment, the team, a constant focus on developing and building. You can’t take your eye off the ball for Saturday, but it’s not all about that.”

He stumbled back into the game, home in Bath, where his parents were from, the playing side of things winding down. After loan spells, a move to Bristol City, a loan at Exeter, a “brilliant” year in Greece with Panionios, struggling with a back injury, he would go to the university to use the gym. They were about to start a football programme and the director of sport walked past him one day – he was doing sit-ups – and asked him if fancied being coach.

“I liked the idea of the empty office, no players, no name for the team, no equipment, nothing,” he says. “Nothing apart from, ‘I want you to start a football programme here,’ like an American Uni thing, enter a league and see what you can do. I liked that; having had no control for the previous 10 years, I then had everything. I came up with the name ‘Team Bath’. It was mine, I’d created it.”

There were four promotions, an appearance in the first round proper of the FA Cup. 

He met Perryman through friends and was invited for an interview at Exeter in 2006. A man noted for his sartorial elegance, he arrived wearing shorts. “Only because I’d been on holiday,” he says. “I didn’t have time to go home. I didn’t really want to leave the university anyway. Now I’m thinking back, it does sound very odd, but at the time it felt perfectly natural. Why drive for an hour just to put on a pair of trousers only to drive for an hour back? Now I look at it, I think ‘what was I doing?’”

Whatever it was, it worked. Tisdale has been in place for nine years, building, analysing, creating, nurturing an environment, and is the second longest-serving league manager behind Arsène Wenger. In his first season, Exeter reached the Conference play-off final. In his second, they were promoted. They climbed to League One, secured their status and then finished eighth in 2011, equalling the highest placing in their history. 

There have been opportunities to leave, for Southampton and Swansea City, among others, but the timing or circumstances have not been right. “I’ve asked myself, ‘Why did I start doing this?’ And it wasn’t because of football, it was because I wanted a place where I could be myself and create an environment.

“It’s been said of me that I’m not ambitious enough, but it’s not about the bigger budget, the bigger league – bigger is not better. And when I’ve had those opportunities, they were at a time when I’d committed to the people here. I’d given my word. It works both ways. When I’ve had a chance to move and not gone, it’s as much about the fact I’ve not wanted to move. You look after each other. You’re on the same team. I would put it like this – I see it as working with Exeter, not for Exeter. Ambition – how do you define it?”

Tisdale has taken training, eaten lunch in the canteen (cooked and served by Jenny and Anita), which doubles up as a gym, and had treatment on a fractured metatarsal (his comeback was brief, aborted when he trod on a stone while running). There is a meeting with his staff, five men in a room and a run-through of their next opponents, studying their set-piece routines, film from their latest match. They mull over selection, push through a list of transfer targets. 

The sale of Matt Grimes to Swansea in January, for a reported fee of £1.75m, has given Exeter some leeway, but the margins remain narrow. “Financially, Exeter would be a mid-Conference team,” Tisdale says. “The top 10 teams in the Conference outbid us on players. It’s not an even race from day one, so it’s hard to judge how successful we are. 

“We’ve got no debt, we’re financially viable, players enjoy it here and we’re healthy. Is that a success? It’s part of what we do and what I think is important here. I’m a complex individual and this is a complex intellectual challenge down here, but ultimately, at 5.55pm on a Saturday, everyone judges you on whether you’re good or bad. You have to cope with all that.” 

Tisdale describes himself as a “managed pessimist”. He does not approach matches “as if everything is going to be all right. I have to go through all the problems and issues and work it all out, where the risks are, cover those, go through it all. I’m not a reckless optimist.” Preparation is key and yet if that sounds like a dry view of football, then it is entirely misplaced, because there is a purity to Tisdale’s vision. 

“It’s frightening what you see,” he says. “You hear managers saying, ‘Right, okay, manage the game’ – that’s come into the vocabulary. You’re a goal up – game management. It’s sort of code for squeezing the boundaries, taking it into cheating in some areas. It’s code, I think, used terminology. Managers say, ‘Kill the game for the last 10 minutes’. Well, that’s what you’re doing. You’re killing the game. People pay to watch 90 minutes, not 80. It’s not to say I’m a romantic. I want my team to be practical and disciplined and reduce errors in those situations. It’s how you do it and I want my team to do it in a proper way.”

Tisdale says ‘proper’ a lot and it is not a verbal tick. Where does it originate from? “My grandmother? My family? I don’t know,” he says. “I like things done correctly. I’m very English. Respectful, being considerate of others. It just makes sense to me, not cheating, not cutting corners. Proper. I went to boarding school, grammar school. I played cricket and it’s like nicking the ball down the leg side and then walking. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

(An aside: when they were still in League One, Exeter played Huddersfield Town. They had to win to avoid relegation and with eight minutes left, Tisdale’s team scored. With the clock ticking down, the ball drifted out of play next to the dug-out for a Huddersfield throw-in. In this situation, most – all – managers would find a way to waste time, knock the ball away, let it run, or hold it and not let go. Tisdale picked it up and gave it to the opposition full-back, who took a quick throw. What on earth was he thinking? “I was saying to my team that we’re good enough,” he says. “The ball should be in play. You’ve got to know what you are.”)

A strong non-conformist streak stretches to Tisdale’s apparel and he will often be found in tweed, cravat and flat cap, the definition of a country gent on a catwalk better known for its nylon and stuffed suits. It is a legacy of one of the most enduring relationships in his life, which began when he strolled into a Ted Baker shop in Covent Garden with Ken Monkou and Graeme Le Saux, his teammates at Southampton, and met Ray Kelvin, the clothing company’s founder. 

“Ray was a larger than life character and he must have seen something in me because we very quickly became best friends and now I’m an ambassador for Ted Baker. It’s a brand that suits me; slightly eccentric, English, proper, do things right. He’s taken an interest in me, he’s my advisor, my mentor. I’m very lucky. You’re at the mercy of the people you meet in life – good parents, bad parents, good school, bad school – and it’s a lottery. He’s a person I’ve been very fortunate to meet.”

His match-day attire is another Exeter quirk. “It’s business day,” he says. “It’s making a conscious decision to step up for business. It’s looking the part, looking your best because it’s about raising standards for the game, representing your team and feeling that you’re out there in front of them. I always stand, I never sit, because it’s the tone you set. 

“I walk to the technical area and I’ve got the best shoes, the best silk scarf, the best shirt, waistcoat and tweed jacket and I’m going to stand there for the whole game. It just represents something. I can’t do a lot on the touchline apart from make my substitutions, but I’m not afraid to stand there with a deerstalker on. I’m not afraid to stand there with a cravat on. I don’t wear a cravat at home, but there comes a point where you’ve got to stand up and say, ‘We’re having this’. It’s my way of convincing the players.”

At Team Bath, he encountered and was influenced by other sports, other coaches; Kelvin is a businessman. Tisdale sees all those skills as transferable. “I love the intellectual challenge of playing against an opposition,” he says. “I call it Top Trumps. If everyone has a team playing 4-4-2 then it’s just about having better players. So you look for strengths and weaknesses and it’s why my teams always play unconventional shapes and systems. I’m trying to find space, stop them and highlight my one or two key players. When you’re compromised by finances, you’ve got to get the best of the players you’ve got.”

Tisdale is the last to leave the Cat and Fiddle. He locks the front gate. This is part of it, the routine, the nitty gritty, the mundane, the reality of football at this level, but he, Perryman and Exeter also prove there is room for the unexpected, for difference. At his first fans’ forum at the club, he was told by a supporter that he had no passion, that he stood by the side of the pitch bereft of emotion. Where was his anger, his energy?

“But how could I think if I was screaming?” he says. “If I’m going to ask you to solve a really difficult conundrum, try doing it while shouting as loudly as you can. It’s not easy. Do I tick the boxes? I don’t know. I’m not bothered. It’s not just about being a football manager. The biggest thing I’ll get from my time at Exeter will be the people I work with, the relationships, the feeling of building a team and doing something the right way. 

“You can’t be right all the time. Someone will have a grievance with you at some point. It’s impossible not to upset someone in this position. Stereotypes, clichés, I don’t know. I’m certainly not the norm, but I’m not out there trying to be risqué or unconventional. I have to remember why I started this. There are plenty of frustrations at the club through its limitations, but it’s about knowing how you are. We know what we stand for. There’s no one way of winning.”