THE good ship Pilgrim made rare progress into relatively uncharted waters as the Pilgrims won the 101st Devon Expressway Derby to advance into the area quarter-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Young guns Hiram Boateng and man-of-the-match Craig Tanner scored goals worthy of Argyle’s landmark 5,000th first-team match to maintain the Greens’ delightful start to life under Derek Adams.
Fittingly, on such an auspicious occasion, the scoreline matched exactly that of two sides’ first Home Park encounter 107 years previously.
Teenager Boateng headed home a cross from Tanner, who had been called up to replace the injured Graham Carey and who opened a second half that was delayed by 20 minutes because of a floodlight failure with a fantastic solo goal.
Argyle went into the latest derby engagement showing three changes from the side that had overcome Crawley Town 2-1 at Home Park three days earlier. Left-back Gary Sawyer and central midfielder Carl McHugh were yellow-carded against the Red Devils to bring their total cautions for the season to five, the point at which an automatic one-game suspension becomes effective.
Sawyer was absent for the first-time this season, as was playmaker Carey, Argyle’s talismanic central midfielder whose five goals and double that number of assists have been a key to the Pilgrims’ early-season success. Tanner slipped easily into Carey’s considerable Nikes, while Exeter-born Ben Purrington became the first change to the Pilgrims’ back-four in 14 games of the season.
Exeter manager Paul Tisdale tinkered with the City starting line-up as much as he is allowed within competition rules, benching two players from City’s weekend 1-1 draw at Sky Bet League 2’s bottom side Newport County and omitting three others: veterans Matt Oakley and David Noble, as well as Lee Holmes.
Defender Danny Butterfield replaced Oakley as captain, while Arron Davies, Tom McCready, Ryan Harley and Alex Nicholls were also given starts. Christian Ribeiro and Clinton Morrison dropped to the replacements’ bench.
City were straight into their stride, forcing a corner from which McCready found the head on centre-back Troy Brown for a clean, powerful downward header which Luke McCormick parried down low. The ball fell kindly for Joel Grant, who spurned the free shot on goal by lifting the ball over the crossbar.
Argyle quickly found their feet and were soon playing the blend of aesthetically pleasing and incisive football that has taken them to the top of the division. Gregg Wylde needs no second invitation to stretch his legs and he soon had McCready back-pedalling before sending over a left-wing cross that Reuben Reid met with a full-blooded header which unfortunately picked out City custodian Bobby Olejnik.
Olejnik was again in the right place at the right time to tip Jake Jervis’s 25-yarder over the crossbar before, in a game of attack and counter-attack that realised plenty of chances at either end, McCormick pulled out a similar stop to thwart Davies.
As the rain blew in from Milehouse so Argyle began to come in waves at their visitors, playing keep-ball for long periods while probing for a decisive opening. Exeter faced up manfully to both assaults, although they were nearly undone when Tanner slipped Reid in for a shot across Olejnik’s goal that drifted just wide of the Austrian’s right-hand post.
The building momentum was given its release just after the half-hour, when Simpson forced a right-wing corner. Tanner, whose set-piece delivery was spot on all evening, slung over the ball quick and hard to near post, where Boateng forced his way to the fore and headed home from a couple of yards. And celebrated in front of the visiting supporters.
The force was with Argyle, though not, unfortunately, the power. Just as the teams were lining up for the start of the second half, there was a large bang and the floodlights next to Block 1 sparked out. An abandonment looked like Exeter’s best chance of a result but, after a break of 20 minutes, the fault was corrected and Argyle produced some brilliance of their own.
Tanner went on a sparkling solo run from not far off his own penalty area, driving in on the previously twilight Devonport end, holding off several challenges before dropping his shoulder and finishing surgically with a well-placed and well-paced shot across Olejnik. Graham who?
Exeter had no option but to throw the kitchen sink at their nearest and not so dearest. Tisdale introduced all three substitutes, including pantomime villain Morrison, and Argyle soon found themselves having to show that they can defend as well as they can attack.
Although the Grecians proved slippery customers at times, the reliable McCormick was on hand to tidy up, as he did when Jordan Moore-Taylor got free on the right and sent in a hard low shot.
Alex Nicholls had a late overlapping opportunity to pull one back, beating McCormick with a curler from range, but the attempt sailed over the crossbar and, with it, any hopes of a comeback to spoil Home Park’s 5,000th party.
Devon remains Green.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 16 Ben Purrington; 8 Josh Simpson (7 Lee Cox 88), 20 Hiram Boateng; 14 Jake Jervis, 27 Craig Tanner (15 Tyler Harvey 90), 11 Gregg Wylde; 9 Reuben Reid (17 Ryan Brunt 86). Substitutes (not used): 26 Oscar Threlkeld, 30 Cory Harvey (gk).
Exeter City (4-3-3): 1 Bobby Olejnik; 23 Tom McCready (6 Christian Ribeiro 65), 39 Troy Brown, 26 Jordan Tillson (13 Clinton Morrison 54), 15 Jordan Moore-Taylor; 11 Arron Davies, 2 Danny Butterfield (capt), 7 Ryan Harley; 31 Joel Grant, 22 David Wheeler (20 Tom Nichols 54), 14 Alex Nicholls. Substitutes (not used): 5 Jamie McAllister, 30 Christy Pym (gk).
Booked: Brown 65, Moore-Taylor 78.
Referee: Brendan Malone.
Attendance: 9,441 (877 away).