This time it was just about the winless run (eight and counting) and the league position. To say we badly needed a win was of course an understatement; everyone was crying out for one, especially as three points could take us up from 18th to 11th, suddenly just four points off a play-off spot (really just didn’t want to think where a defeat would leave us). And for the first time in a while, really since the Plymouth game, we got what we wanted. Three points, four goals, propelled into the top half of the table, and for good measure it was a decent game against a team which came to play football, one which provided an interesting contrast in formations and which it is fair to say was decided by our stronger bench and their tired legs, plus the rub of the green favouring us. That’s not to deny that we played better than of late, were more of a threat, just to acknowledge that like every game at this level it could have turned out differently.
Saturday’s game had after all really left us none the wiser as regards what formation and team selection was optimum. But we had the rare sight of an unchanged starting line-up, which meant 4-4-2 again. The only change was the previously flagged and (very) welcome return of Aneke on the bench, with Thomas squeezed out (presumably the thinking was that Clare could do a job anywhere along the back line). With also Blackett-Taylor and Payne available to come on, it did emphasise just how much we have missed the extra forward option (having let Washington, as well as Davison, leave), especially one who you might expect to be able to take advantage of tiring defenders.
We started brightly and dominated the first 25 minutes or so, finding space down the flanks as our 4-4-2 (versus their 3-5-2) meant we outnumbered them there – while they were as yet unable to exploit their extra man in midfield. And this time around we made it count.
For once Steve Brown was left gobsmacked by the opposition’s defending as on 20 minutes Dobson floated a ball forward to find Leaburn in acres of space. His first touch was spot on and instead of shooting with his left cut back inside then drilled it goalwards. It seemed to take two deflections on the way, off their defender then keeper, but barely diverted from a true path. And just a few minutes later we doubled the advantage. Rak-Sakyi got into a dangerous position only for his effort to be blocked. The danger seemed over but Fraser dispossessed their guy and curled it back in invitingly for Stockley. You wanted to see a firm downward header into the net. Instead let's be honest he muffed it and only glanced the ball – but into the midriff of their defender and into the net that way.
Suddenly football seemed an easy game again, or at least it did for about 10 minutes before Exeter pulled one back. They had been more in the game in that spell, but the goal still came out of the blue. Kirk hit the ball out of defence but it was nodded back towards our end. It dropped around two of theirs and before anyone could react one of them hit the rising ball beyond Wollacott, although he did get a hand to it and might have turned it aside. Not a worldie but a decent strike.
That gave them a fresh lift and for the remainder of the first half we were pegged back rather, without letting them get a clear sight of goal. At the break the game still needed to be won. Would both sides keep their different shapes? Would substitutions prove decisive? And who would get the crucial next goal? The short answers, in order, proved to be yes, yes and us – thanks to the woodwork.
Exeter made a change or two, and we brought on Clare and Morgan, for Sessegnon (who’d played well but can’t yet last a full game) and Leaburn (who had picked up an ankle injury and was limping). It was perhaps surprising that Aneke wasn’t a straight replacement, but Garner may have felt that with around half an hour to go it was too soon to throw him into the mix. That meant a small change in set-up for us as Morgan adopted an advanced position rather than operating as a second forward.
With around 25 minutes of normal time to go Exeter came within a whisker of getting the equaliser. A series of corners in one of their spells of ascendency (in terms of possession) ended with one leading to a ball dropping in our box. Their guy hit it on the half-volley with venom. Wollacott was helpless but the rising effort cannoned back off the underside of the bar and out.
That was to be the closest Exeter came to getting something from the game. And if that had gone an inch lower who knows how it would have ended. As it was, Blackett-Taylor and Payne came on with around 15 minutes to go, straight replacements for Kirk and Rak-Sakyi, and into the final 10 Chuks did appear, for Stockley. What can you say? CBT – who in marked contrast to the poor cameo on Saturday proved highly effective - laid on two goals, one apiece for the other two subs.
The game seemed to be put to bed shortly after Aneke was introduced as Blackett-Taylor made ground down the left again and this time squared it for Dobson. His effort was blocked but fell kindly for Aneke around the penalty spot. This time you’d like to say he buried it with aplomb, but in truth he rather mishit it only for the ball to strike their keeper’s leg, rebound onto the post, and then in. Football’s fickle finger of fate.
Into six minutes of stoppage time and we had another goal to cheer. Wollacott’s kick out was flicked by Aneke into CBT’s path, he delivered the cross, and Payne gave an object lesson to Kirk, Rak-Sakyi and others in the art of getting on the end of a good ball in. He made it his and headed firmly into the net. There was still time for Exeter to be given a soft penalty and reduce the arrears, with Aneke’s enthusiasm getting the better of him. He’d pulled back their guy outside the box but the ref played an advantage, Clare was duped having perhaps switched off, and Chuks then shoulder-barged their guy over. It was one of those where at 4-1 the ref gives it whereas in stoppage time at 1-1 he might have bottled it. Can’t say it was a terrible decision but a fine one which went against us.
Let’s just take win and enjoy it. And when the dust has settled perhaps not go overboard. Yes we played well, yes we deserved to win, yes there was encouragement to be taken from individual performances (it was hard to pick a man of the match). At the same time, on Saturday with goal-line technology and VAR we might have had a goal and up to three penalties. Last night we scored first with two deflections, second with an own goal, and third with one off both the keeper and the post, while at the other end Exeter were denied an equaliser by the bar. Their temporary manager said “it just comes down to fine margins and they went against us”; and it is hard to disagree, although again we deserved the points, being able to bring on fresh bodies which made a material difference as they tired and having put ourselves two up during the first phase of the game when on top.
We now have a break before Portsmouth come visiting, a chance to assess Leaburn’s knock and to take a deep breath. If we had not won last night we may well have found ourselves in the bottom four ahead of the next game. As it is, we can approach it with a good deal of the pressure off. It should be a good test, with a fuller stadium, while Portsmouth have stuttered of late (two draws and a defeat in the last three). Seems they are playing 4-4-2 as well (so much for all that ‘modern football’), so it could be a match-up; and we can’t overlook the fact that our two clear victories this season (Exeter and Plymouth) have been against teams which were pretty open at the back. Looking forward to it for sure.