Exeter City 1
by RICK COWDERY
THE final word in the 95th Devon Expressway Derby went, not to the side that had done most of the talking in the build-up, but to arguably the quietest man in the Pilgrims’ dressing-room. Joe Lennox.
Liam Sercombe’s low, angled, shot from outside the right-hand side of the penalty area ten minutes before half-time saw the home side edge ahead in an initially edgy affair.
Argyle, though, maintained their belief and composure, cranked through the gears and were an almost irresistible force in the final third of the game.
They drew level when Lennox, starting only his third league game of the season because of injury to team-mate Paris Cowan-Hall, curled in a beautiful finish midway through the second half.
The Pilgrims finished the game without defender Maxime Blanchard, who was sent off seven minutes before the end of a game which became more ‘derby-like’ as it progressed, but were more than worth their point.
Argyle manager Carl Fletcher had made a single change to his starting line-up from the one that had begun the previous week’s commanding 2-0 home win over York City.
The fact that the switch was enforced, rather than from choice, tells you that defender Durrell Berry did not reclaim the right-back position following his single-game suspension, with Fletcher giving a vote of confidence to the back line that had claimed a too-rare clean sheet for the Pilgrims seven days previously.
In fact, even though not even Curtis Nelson regards right-back as a natural position, the back four of Nelson, Darren Purse, Blanchard and Onismor Bhasera is responsible for 75% of Argyle’s clean-sheets this season.
Fletcher was obliged to seek an alternative to dead-leg victim Paris Cowan-Hall on the left of a five-man midfield and so he turned to Lennox, the 21-year-old Bristolian whose short-term contract is up for imminent renewal.
Lennox and the side’s only Plymothian Luke Young offered wide support to lone target-man Rhys Griffiths, with Andres Gurrieri operating in an advanced central midfield support ahead of Mark Molesley and Conor Hourihane.
Exeter similarly made one change from the side that had won 3-2 at Rochdale the week before, with Scot Bennett returning from suspension to replace Jimmy Keohane in midfield.
Bennett lined up along the gifted Alan Gow, a Pilgrim three seasons ago who made 14 Championship appearances and scored a couple of goals.
Argyle had the better of the opening exchanges. After Gurrieri was crunched by Danny Coles – and lucky to escape with only an admonishment from referee Andy Woolmer – Young slung over a cross that Griffiths flicked wide.
Exeter responded with some Gow trickery that left Argyle’s defence treading water and saw Jamie Cureton played in, but Purse recovered well to snuff out the threat.
The thrust pepped up the home side and gave them some serious momentum. Sercombe forced Rene Gilmartin to turn a free-kick over his bar for a Cureton corner from which Bennett ought to have found the target.
It took the Pilgrims an agonisingly long time to clear their lines in the face of several waves of attack but they stood firm.
Argyle regained their composure by playing some neat keep-ball which was productive enough to fashion an opportunity for Molesley, whose snap shot flashed just the wrong side of Artur Krysiak’s post.
With a subdued, almost anxious, atmosphere and a measured tempo to the play, this was far from a blood and snotters derby of old.
It was a while before either side created another clear chance, when Gow drove the ball close enough to Gilmartin’s post to have Irishman scrambling across his goal.
The thoughtful stalemate was broken following a City counter when Argyle were caught high up the field, although Bhasera seemed to have got back to have prevented Sercombe’s break on the right from developing into anything serious.
However, the Exeter man swung a leg and beat Gilmartin, possibly with the aid of deflection, with a shot from 20 yards that went across the Argyle ’keeper.
The goal awoke the latent Exeter support, but did little more to enliven what stayed a nervy affair.
The only other chance for either side before the interval fell to Lennox, who forced Krysiak to get his basics right and make sure his body was behind the goalbound effort.
Argyle began the second half with a change to their personnel, though not their shape. Gurrieri, who had ben clattered a couple of times in the first half, gave way to Robbie Williams after an injury which had kept him out since the first week of October.
Williams had not got to the pace of the game before he gifted Exeter the opportunity to extend their lead. His header back to Gilmartin failed to take account Cureton’s lurking presence and out the City striker in one on one with the helplessly exposed Argyle’ keeper.
For someone who has scored nearly 250 goals in a massively long career, the attempt was woeful, a combination of poor choice and worse execution, and he ended up chipping the ball wide.
Williams’ eventful start to the game continued with a booking before Purse headed a corner from Young wide.
The Pilgrims quickly settled back into the game and enjoyed good periods of comfortable possession with really threatening to make a decisive breakthrough.
The old guard immediately breathed new life into Argyle and Exeter were hanging on under increasing Pilgrims pressure when Lennox pulled his rabbit out of the hat.
The ball was patiently worked from one side to another, and back again, but the attack appeared to have petered out before Young invited Lennox to do something – the blond winger dropped his shoulder and then dropped his bombshell, an exquisite shot curled around Krysiak.
The Green machine continued to motor forward and Exeter struggled to cope with this unexpected vigour.
Although the momentum was almost all away from Gilmartin’s goal, there were still fleeting moments of City pressure and Blanchard’s necessary block on Cureton was followed by another profligate miss by the Exeter marksman.
Blanchard was then dismissed, for a second yellow – a second foul, and Exeter sniffed a late chance to nick the match.
A sniff was as far as it got.
Exeter City (4-5-1):
1 Artur Krysiak; 4 Scot Bennett , 5 Pat Baldwin, 6 Danny Coles (capt), 3 Craig Woodman; 2 Steve Tully, 7 Liam Sercombe, 10 Alan Gow (16 Kevin Amankwaah 78), 8 Matt Oakley (22 Jimmy Keohane 74), 19 John O'Flynn; 12 Jamie Cureton. Substitutes (not used):
23 Aaron Dawson, 24 Rhys Evans (gk), 31 Elliott Chamberlain, 35 Jamie Reid, 37 Jordan Moore-Taylor.
20 Rene Gilmartin; 17 Curtis Nelson, 5 Darren Purse (capt), 4 Maxime Blanchard, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 8 Luke Young, 6 Conor Hourihane (9 Nick Chadwick 66), 27 Andres Gurrieri (3 Robbie Williams half-time), 30 Mark Molesley, 19 Joe Lennox; 10 Rhys Griffiths (11 Warren Feeney 66). Substitutes (not used):
1 Jake Cole (gk), 2 Durrell Berry, 16 Jamie Lowry, 29 Tyler Harvey.
Blanchard 18, Williams 49.
6,447 (1,226 away).