Exeter City 2
Watkins 80, 90
by Rick Cowdery
TWO goals in the last ten minutes from young Exeter forward Ollie Watkins turned the 103rd Devon Expressway Derby on its head and put a dent in Argyle’s promotion ambitions.
Jamille Matt’s third goal in as many matches in the 57th-minute seemed certain to give Argyle an 11th away win of the season, so dominant were they, but City’s dogged defending kept the home side in the game.
When Watkins equalised with a long-range shot that deceived Luke McCormick ten minutes from time, it appeared that the Pilgrims would have to settle for a point.
However, the 20-year-old produced another superb strike from distance in time added on to give the home side a victory that had looked unlikely for all but the final minute of the match.
Argyle manager Derek Adams is not averse to changing a winning side if it benefits his plans, but he also cherishes the value of continuity at the most crucial stage of the season. Hence, he selected a starting line-up unchanged from that which laid the foundations of Easter Monday’s 3-2 home victory over York City.
Jordon Forster – who was the only one in the rout of the Yorkists who had not started the previous away victory at Morecambe – continued at right-back in place of Oscar Threlkeld, whose damaged groin is seeing his impressive loan spell from Bolton Wanderers unfortunately ending with something of a whimper.
Remarkably, only four of the starters had also begun the reverse league fixture at Home Park in late November, although another four – Luke McCormick, Peter Hartley, Carl McHugh and Reuben Reid – were injured then.
With the Pilgrims’ bench also being identical, and room for only five of Argyle’s loan players in their match-day squad, there was no return to St James Park for Daniel Nardiello, who had a successful couple of years with Devon’s other league a few years ago.
Exeter, unbeaten in seven and following three consecutive home draws, made two changes from the side that had won 2-0 at Crawley five days previously. Veteran skipper Matt Oakley and fellow midfielder David Wheeler being recalled in place of Jake Taylor and Aaron Davies, who netted Exeter’s consolation when Reuben Reid claimed his hat-trick in Argyle’s 3-1 win this time last year.
It took both sides 10 minutes before either fashioned a shot on target – 10 minutes which had largely been be played in the Argyle half, although without consternation for the Pilgrims – with the stalemate broken when Reid’s burgeoning partnership with Matt saw the latter play in the former for a snap attempt that lacked the power to trouble Bobby Olejnik.
Oakley, who had been screening his defence, hobbled off after less than a quarter of an hour, to be replaced by Davies as Argyle turned up the gas. Pleasing as some of their ball-retention and passing was, they were prevented from working it to where they could see the whites of Olejnik’s eyes.
The pressure nearly told on the City defence after half an hour, when Reid headed a right-wing cross into the penalty area from Jake Jervis down and, although the ball fell behind Matt, the big striker turned swiftly and fired in a shot which was saved low down by Olejnik.
Then a Jervis corner from the opposite flank was half-cleared to Jordan Houghton, whose goal-bound shot was cleared with some desperation, before McHugh tried his luck from distance with a volley that dipped too close to the increasingly overworked Exeter goalkeeper.
When the teams went in for the mid-game break, the statistic that spoke most of the Pilgrims’ first-half dominance was the big fat zero against the home side’s ‘shots on target’ column. The one they needed to address was the similar oval after their name in the scoreline.
They began the second period purposefully enough, with Reid, especially, looking lively and twice threatening to break through Exeter’s none too convincing back line.
The pressure seemed bound to tell, and so it did, when McHugh sent Reid away on another of his bulldogging runs into the heart of City’s defence. Exeter saw off the danger, but only temporarily as Reid chased Christian Ribeiro’s hashed clearance and returned it into the centre of the penalty area, from where Matt thumped the ball home.
Exeter, harbouring hopes of a late run to the play-off places, had to come out and try to play and they duly did, but still McCormick was more of a spectator, than participant.
The Argyle defence, though, were playing a full part in protecting the lead they had worked so hard to achieve, with Hartley as composed in the heat of battle as he ever has been.
Argyle continued to look potent going forward. Substitute Kelvin Mellor drove them forward through the middle and found Graham Carey, whose sublime ball into Reid was helped towards goal only to be well saved by Olejnik.
The Austrian custodian rescued his defenders again when Matt hunted down Ribeiro and robbed him of the ball, stretching out a big hand to prevent the cross going into the box.
Then, out of the blue, Watkins, City’s most impressive player, chanced his arm from distance, pulling out a worldy shot that went through McCormick. Maybe his previous inaction had an effect.
He was back on blob minutes later, when Watkins cocked the trigger from similar range, requiring the Argyle ’keeper to go full length to keep the scores level.
Watkins had not finished, though.
Exeter City (4-1-4-1): 1 Bobby Olejnik; 5 Jamie McAllister (4 David Noble 73), 39 Troy Brown, 6 Christian Ribeiro, 3 Craig Woodman; 8 Matt Oakley (capt, 11 Aaron Davies 14); 22 David Wheeler (38 Jake Taylor 64), 29 Ollie Watkins, 7 Ryan Harley, 10 Lee Holmes; 33 Jayden Stockley. Substitutes (not used): 13 Clinton Morrison, 14 Alex Nicholls, 26 Jordan Tillson, 30 Christy Pym (gk).
Booked: Taylor 87.
Argyle(4-4-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 28 Jordon Forster (2 Kelvin Mellor 70), 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 14 Jake Jervis, 32 Jordan Houghton, 4 Carl McHugh, 10 Graham Carey (27 Craig Tanner 87); 19 Jamille Matt, 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 8 Josh Simpson, 11 Gregg Wylde, 16 Ben Purrington, 20 Hiram Boateng, 31 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Booked: Forster 44.
Referee: Keith Stroud.
Attendance: 7,177 (1,664 away).