City maintain their promotion momentum
There was a strong case of déjà vu at St James' Park on Saturday. With the score in their npower League Two clash with Bradford City goalless, Exeter City won a corner, in front of the Big Bank.
It was taken by Craig Woodman and, just as he did in the recent game with Northampton Town, Woodman wickedly swung the ball towards goal and just under the Bantams' crossbar.
Against the Cobblers, goalkeeper Lee Nicholls fumbled the ball over his own line. On Saturday, it was Bradford goalkeeper Matt Duke who did the same thing, as Woodman's delivery was too hot to handle and he flapped into the back of his own net.
Both goals – similar in style, but at opposite ends of the ground – have been credited as own goals against the respective goalkeepers. It is somewhat harsh on the unfortunate Woodman, who is the only person who really knows whether his deliveries were intended as efforts on goal.
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Either way, they ended up in the back of the net and provided the Grecians with the crucial breakthrough in key clashes against two of their promotion rivals. On Saturday, they never looked back as they went on to record a handsome 4-1 success against a team who had won the hearts of the nation for their League Cup exploits this season.
That achievement – Bradford reached the final of the Capital One Cup by beating Premier League sides Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa before losing to Swansea City in the Wembley final – led to Paul Tisdale publicly stating his admiration for the Bantams.
It is not often the City chief speaks so highly of opposition teams, preferring to concentrate on his own, so, when he does have something to say, you tend to listen. As far as he was concerned, Bradford are "the stand-out team in League Two" with their achievements unlikely to be beaten, or even matched, for quite some time. So how pleased must he have been to reflect on a victory of such margin come Saturday evening.
To be fair, the scoreline was flattering, with the game closer than the outcome suggests. But, not for the first time this season, the Grecians showed the instinct of an unnerving, ruthless hit man in dispatching their opposition.
Woodman's ninth-minute opener – surely the goal should be credited to him, given that his delivery was going in before Duke's flap – was added to on the stroke of half-time by debutant Lawson D'Ath, stooping to head in Jake Gosling's deflected cross.
The on-loan Reading midfielder was thrown straight into the starting XI by Tisdale to link up with lone striker John O'Flynn, whose inclusion was another big call by the City chief.
With his team having not scored in their last three games, how many other managers would decide to leave his 20-goal top goalscorer on the bench? But that is what Tisdale did, with O'Flynn playing the solo striker role instead of Jamie Cureton.
Tisdale is not afraid to make big selection calls, and, more often than not, they come up trumps. The decision to start with O'Flynn was a masterstroke and he was rewarded with a fine, selfless performance full of running and endeavour from the Irishman.
The former Barnet striker wore the scars of his efforts come full-time, after sustaining a cut which led to him playing a big chunk of the game with a bandage on his head. His reward was the fourth and final goal in City's win, a sliding finish from close range after great work by substitute Jimmy Keohane and Mark Molesley, who has been given the added responsibility of a central role, with Exeter beset by injuries to key midfielders.
A midfield of Liam Sercombe, Tommy Doherty, Matt Oakley and Alan Gow is as good as anything in League Two. To have them all absent at the same time should hit Exeter hard, but, in the absence of such quality, others have stepped up to the plate and are performing brilliantly.
Molesley's work ethic is similar to O'Flynn, while Scot Bennett has been a mainstay of Tisdale's teams this season. It was he who bagged Exeter's crucial third, just seconds after Kyel correct Reid's corner had followed the flight path of Woodman's in the first half and swung straight into the net to reduce the score to 2-1 with 11 minutes remaining.
At that time, Bradford were in the ascendancy, but Exeter's ruthlessness was best displayed by Bennett's long-range effort within five minutes of Reid's goal.
Reid, who entered the fray as a half-time substitute, had caused Exeter no end of problems with his tricky wing play and quality delivery. However, the Grecians defended superbly in the face of a stiff breeze sweeping in from the St James' Road End, led once again by the imperious Pat Baldwin.
It would be harsh to single out any one individual, though, as this was once again a victory achieved off the back of a terrific team effort.
The success was a significant blow to Bradford's hopes of finishing in the top seven and saw Exeter climb to fifth. They are eight points off top spot and have an eight-point cushion over Southend, in eighth, who are just outside the play-offs places.
Some of those around them – Gillingham, Northampton, Rotherham, Southend and Fleetwood – have a game in hand, but with seven games remaining, it is certainly "game on" for the Grecians.