Dominant first-half display proves enough as Exeter City hold on for win
In April of this year, Exeter City travelled to Rochdale for an npower League One encounter and lost 3-2. On the day, it was a great performance, for 80 minutes at least, but a crazy last ten minuted saw the Grecians slip to a 3-2 defeat.
Eight months on and with the demons of that particular day not entirely exorcised, the Grecians returned to Spotland for a League Two match. This time, they were brilliant for 45 minutes, storming into a 3-0 half-time lead.
Again, Rochdale came storming back at them, but they could only score twice as the Grecians held firm to start a hectic December in the best possible way.
It has been two weeks since Paul Tisdale's side last played a match and the break seems to have done them good. They started Saturday's game with great confidence, knocking the ball round at will and creating decent opportunities.
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Jamie Cureton had already skied one high after being sent clear by Matt Oakley's exquisite through ball and Alan Gow had dragged a shot wide of the far post when the Grecians opened the scoring in the 24th minute. It was the most unlikely of goalscorers as well.
Standing at 6ft 2in tall and as rugged as they come, Pat Baldwin is a typical, no-nonsence centre-half. Such a type are always a threat from set-plays, but, despite his physical advantage, goals are something of a rarity for Baldwin, who had managed only three in his entire career before Saturday's trip north.
However, he showed the kind of timing his striking team-mates would have been proud of to reach John O'Flynn's knock on and from barely six yards, the former Colchester and Southend man poked the ball past goalkeeper Josh Lillis for the opening goal of the game and his fourth in 298 career appearances.
It was Baldwin's first career goal since he netted for Southend against Swindon in January 2010, almost three years ago.
Just three minutes after Baldwin's opener, City made it 2-0 with a devastating goal on the counter attack.
Oakley, who ran the show in the first half, won possession inside his own penalty box and fed the ball wide to Liam Sercombe. The Exeter-born midfielder looked back to his old self on Saturday and burst down the right. Cureton, in an offside position, checked his run and came back onside before Sercombe released him with impeccable timing.
City's top scorer bore down the inside right channel and with O'Flynn unmarked and screaming for the ball, Cureton put it on a plate for him. O'Flynn slammed it into the roof of the net from six yards to leave the home side shell-shocked.
Until that double whammy, Dale had fared well. They played some neat, attractive football and had a clear potent threat in the shape of Bobby Grant. He had created their best chance of the half at 0-0 for George Donnelly, but the former Plymouth Argyle striker headed wastefully wide when unmarked and only eight yards from goal.
Part of the reason for Exeter's fine counter-attacking play was Artur Krysiak, who had the best game I have seen him have at the weekend. He dominated his box, came and caught crosses, showed admirable bravery when he had to – and great handling in slippery conditions – but most of all, his distribution was spot on. I lost count of the times he came and took a cross before releasing the ball quickly to set Exeter on their way.
However, when the third goal came, it was Craig Woodman, another improving player in Tisdale's squad, who was the architect. The left-back had already supplied the cross for Baldwin's goal when his wicked delivery caused all manner of problems to Lillis and his defenders.
The goalkeeper came to collect it, but was perhaps put off by the lurking Cureton. Neither got a touch and the ball cannoned off O'Flynn before rolling into the net.
Rochdale's home form is not dissimilar to Exeter's, so the agitated nature of the home fans was of no surprise as the players trudged off at half-time. To their credit though, Rochdale made changes and gave Exeter a real run for their money in the second half. Ray Putterill came off the bench and injected some life to their right flank and they also stopped Oakley from dominating the midfield. Dale also got tighter to the Exeter players when Krysiak had the ball, thus stopping the supply line for the counter attack. It was a job well done by manager John Coleman, whose players could not be accused of a lack of commitment after some crunching tackles. In all, the home side picked up five yellow cards to Exeter's none.
It was inevitable further goals would follow, either by a home side that had nothing to lose, or a City team so threatening on the counter-attack.
As it transpired, Terry Gornell grabbed the first on 65 minutes, his shot deflecting off the unfortunate Oakley to leave Krysiak wrong-footed, and then, in the first minute of stoppage time, Gornell got across his man to head into the top corner from Andrew Tutte's near-post cross.
Despite four minutes of stoppage time displayed the home side's hopes were dashed when Gornell petulantly kicked out at substitute Kevin Amankwaah. He did not make contact, but the intent was there. Off he went, and with him went Rochdale's hopes of salvaging a draw.