Harley pen 30, 39
by Rob McNichol
A DEVON Expressway Derby victory will always feel sweet - but for Exeter, getting a 2-1 win at Home Park with their cross-county rivals leading the division will taste delicious.
In equal measure, it was a bitter pill for Argyle to swallow. A depleted Pilgrims line-up never seemed to find their feet - but equally they never found the need to throw in a towel. An Argyle team without their spine were far from spineless, making City work hard for only their third away win of the season.
The Grecians deserved their win, it must be said, besting Argyle throughout the first half, and gaining a 2-0 lead by half-time, thanks to a Ryan Harley brace. The first came from the penalty spot after Kelvin Mellor fouled David Wheeler, his second a fine solo effort.
Argyle had the better of the second period, and when Oscar Threlkeld scored his first senior goal just after the hour mark, there looked to be a way back for the Pilgrims.
Despite chances, and a lot of huff and puff, there was not, and Exeter claimed the bragging rights from the first derby of the season in Sky Bet League 2.
As well as established injuries - to established players: Luke McCormick, Reuben Reid and Hiram Boateng - Argyle had to deal with knocks to Peter Hartley and Carl McHugh, as pre-match preparations failed to run as smoothly as manager Derek Adams would have hoped.
His response was to promote Josh Simpson to the midfield, and start the game with two loanees acquired during the week - goalkeeper Christian Walton and defender Luke Croll.
With the first whistle of the game came a squally shower, but the goosebumps on the arms were not because of the sudden cold climate. An eye-catching display of green and white, displaying the Devon flag and the word Argyle greeted the players' arrival to the pitch, and the noise generated by the home crowd. Home Park was a genuine sell-out in the home areas, as far as segregation allowed. It is a very long time since that has been said.
Exeter, though, were not overawed by the occasion, or by their hosts' lofty status, and bossed the earliest exchanges. A few tricky balls into the area were tentatively dealt with by Argyle's makeshift back five, but Exeter had laid down an early marker by getting to the ball first and pinning back their neighbours.
Argyle captain, on the ten minute mark, decided he would liven his lads up, and did so with a trademark march from defence. He cut out an Exeter pass forward, and drove forward with the ball. A bodyswerve saw him evade a defender and get through on Bobby Olejnik, but the City goalkeeper was equal to Nelson's left-footed shot.
Before the corner could be taken, Exeter lost left-back Jamie McAllister to injury, as he was replaced by Christian Ribeiro in the 11th minute.
Nelson's run seemed to have rejuvenated Argyle a little, and they played themselves back into the game. Jake Jervis' flick header from a Graham Carey cross was on target, but dealt with by Olejnik, before Nelson's head down to Mellor looked dangerous but for a superb saving tackle by Ryan Harley.
Tanner made Olejnik punch clear another shot on target with a chance created as much by City nervousness as Argyle verve. Gregg Wylde bullied Arron Davies into failing to deal with a long ball forward, and after a cross came in Troy Brown made a wholly unnecessary header which Tanner seized upon. It took Olejnik's sturdiness to keep the game level.
Exeter, though, changed all that from the penalty spot, moments later. Kelvin Mellor lost the ball to David Wheeler in the area, and in his haste to recover, felled the Exeter attacker. Graham Scott had no choice but to point to the spot, and Harley made no mistake, drilling the ball low to Walton's right.
Argyle looked to fight back. Exeter could not clear a right wing corner, and the Pilgrims patiently build back towards goal. Tanner evaded a couple of defenders to engineer some space, but his shot was plenty over.
Harley, though, had no such trouble at the other end. After Oscar Threlkeld had made a very good tackle, Harley picked up on the loose ball, and did a brief Neo from The Matrix impression, evading challenges from both sides. After keeping his cool through the flailing legs, he carefully picked his spot, as far into the bottom corner as was possible, and City had doubled their lead.
At the break, Matt Oakley replaced Danny Butterfield in the deepest section of the Exeter midfield, ostensibly to have fresher legs as the man deployed to shackle Graham Carey. They thought without Derek Adams making alternations, too. Ryan Brunt came on for Gregg Wylde, and Adams shifted Argyle's shape to match City's diamond. Carey found himself on the left of this, with Tanner in behind the new front two of Brunt and Jervis.
Little came from the first ten minutes of the half, save for Jamie Reid's speculative effort that did not go too far over the Argyle bar. Carey then tried to spark Argyle into life, getting through three challenges through will rather than skill, then delivering a lovely left wing cross. Mellor met it, but headed wide on the run.
Argyle got their lifeline, though, after another surge down the left. Sawyers cross was barely cleared, and Tanner's quick shot blocked. The ball spilled towards Threlkeld, who swung a right foot at the ball, under immense pressure. The ball bounced through a crowd, and went into the same corner that Harley had twice found. Game well and truly on.
City looked to increase the lead when a patient Ollie Watkins played Ribeiro in, but he pulled his shot wide. At the other end, Tanner found Brunt, whose left shot shot was bunted away by Olejnik. Brunt hooked back into the area, and Exeter did well to head away.
It seemed Argyle knew their best bet of an equalising goal lay with Carey, and the number 10 nearly added to his catalogue of wonder strikes with a thunderbolt of a hit on the left which only just missed the the top corner. Had block 5 not been there, the ball would probably have traveled halfway up Outland Road.
For all Argyle tried to get forward, Exeter did a good job of trying to keep the ball and frustrate the chasing Pilgrims. Occasionally a break away threatened to see City get their two-goal cushion back, but when in their best position, three-on-one, Reid through-ball was cut out by Nelson.
The last chance fell to Carey, but even his wand of a left foot could get a ball to dip enough from a direct free-kick. Instead, it hit the top of the net.
Despite this defeat, it must be remembered that Argyle also sit on top of something more important.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 31 Christian Walton; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 28 Luke Croll, 3 Gary Sawyer; 26 Oscar Threlkeld, 8 Josh Simpson; 27 Craig Tanner ( 15 Tyler Harvey 81), 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde (17 Ryan Brunt half-time); 14 Jake Jervis. Substitutes (not used): 7 Lee Cox, 16 Ben Purrington, 19 Aaron Bentley, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney.
Booked: Tanner 60, Croll 71.
Exeter City (4-1-2-1-2): 1 Bobby Olejnik; 11 Arron Davies, 39 Troy Brown, 15 Jordan Moore-Taylor (capt), 15 Jamie McAllister (6 Christian Ribeiro 11); 2 Danny Butterfield (8 Matt Oakley half-time); 7 Ryan Harley, 29 Ollie Watkins; 4 David Noble; 22 David Wheeler, 18 Jamie Reid. Substitutes (not used): 10 Lee Holmes, 13 Clinton Morrison, 20 Tom Nichols, 21 James Hamon (gk), 23 Tom McCready.
Referee: Graham Scott.
Attendance: 14,008 (968 away).