Gritty Grecians put Southend to the sword
The law of averages suggested that Exeter City's home form was bound to change sooner rather than later.
Regular watchers of the Grecians will have noted that, despite a baffling contrast in away and home results, form has generally been pretty good and although they did not win either of their last two home matches against Oxford United and Barnet, there were enough signs to suggest a win was not far away.
Saturday's visit of Southend United proved to be the day things eventually changed for the Grecians as they moved up to third place in the npower League Two table with a hard-working, disciplined but ultimately well-deserved and rewarding 3-0 victory.
John O'Flynn's brace and another goal for Scot Bennett sealed the win for Paul Tisdale's side and gave the home faithful plenty to cheer. Not since a 2-0 win over AFC Wimbledon on November 6 had the Grecians won on home soil. In that time, Exeter have won five in a row on their travels, which has done plenty to keep them among the promotion runners at the mid-season point.
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Southend arrived in Devon one place behind the Grecians in sixth. The Essex side are enjoying a decent season of their own, having reached the southern final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy last Tuesday and they face an FA Cup replay at Brentford tomorrow, in which the victors face a mouth-watering home clash with Chelsea.
However, promotion remains the goal for any side and Southend are no exception. They were every bit as good and hard working as the Grecians in a cagey first half, which was more a battle of attrition than anything else.
Paul Sturrock's side thought they had gone in front when Barry Corr – on his first return to Exeter, for whom he was sent off three times during a 12-month stint – saw a header bounce down off the underside of the crossbar and hacked to safety by Bennett.
At first, it seemed Corr and his team-mates were claiming that the ball had crossed the line, but it was later revealed the impassioned pleas to referee Roger East were in fact for a handball claim. Nothing was given, but the incident served as a warning to the danger posed by Corr.
The target man would often peel away to the far post and use his height advantage to get above right-back Steve Tully. Tully more than stood up to the task, though, and gave further evidence that he is getting better with age.
Up until that point, the Grecians had a few sighters at goal, but goalkeeper Paul Smith had not been unduly troubled. Alan Gow was off target with a 25-yard free-kick, while O'Flynn finished poorly after breaking into the Southend penalty box.
However, there was no questioning his finishing when the Irishman broke the deadlock on 43 minutes. Bennett had been somewhat quiet before he won a header in midfield and played a one-two with the excellent Matt Oakley. Bennett then fed the ball to Gow, popping up in the hole between midfield and attack, and he in turn sprayed the ball wide to O'Flynn, lurking in the corner of the penalty box.
The former Barnet man steadied himself with one touch before drilling a fine low shot across goal, which crashed into the net off an upright. It was a clinical finish and just reward for a player working his socks off for the team, in peak fitness and at the top of his game right now.
The second half began in a similar vain to the first. In fact, it was more like a game of chess than a game of football, but, when Exeter grabbed the second goal, the game was as good as over.
Exeter had won a few corners during the game and would always throw the big men forward. Therefore, it was somewhat frustrating to see them opt for a short routine, which more often than not broke down, rather than stick the ball in the box, especially when you consider the quality of delivery they have in their ranks.
It happened against Barnet, yet, in that game, Danny Coles proved that, if you put the ball in the right area, he is more than willing to attack it. Against Southend, Matt Oakley did just that. He delivered to the back post, where Bennett had peeled away from his marker. The young Cornishman did everything right as he guided his header back across goal. However, despite O'Flynn trying in vain to get a touch, the ball evaded everyone and dropped just under the crossbar and into the net.
Bennett was also on target against Southend earlier this season and that is four for the season for him now.
Southend looked a tired and beaten side by this point, but the Grecians had not stopped there. In the final minute, Jimmy Keohane, who again showed what a talent he is, received the ball and turned away from Mark Phillips. He had a great chance to score himself, but showed great selflessness and maturity to roll the ball to O'Flynn, who gleefully hammered home his 11th goal of the campaign.
Tisdale even threw on Dan Gosling for his Exeter debut late on, following his return to the club after a loan spell at Dorchester Town.
With the win taking Exeter up to third place in League Two, it sees them head into tomorrow's Devon derby at Torquay United full of confidence. The Grecians are in the box seat now and it is only theirs to let slip now.