Exeter City are left to rue contested decisions
It is only a matter of time before video technology is introduced to football. But how Exeter City will wish it was in operation for their game against Fleetwood Town at St James' Park on Saturday.
After twice fighting back from losing positions, John O'Flynn was sent tumbling by Fleetwood goalkeeper Scott Davies. It looked nailed-on penalty and for a split second, it seemed it had been given as the referee appeared to point to the spot. But Exeter cheers were short-lived as the referee continued his run and in fact pointed for a Fleetwood goal-kick.
Whether such an incident would be referred to an official behind a monitor when video replays do eventually come into the game is open to conjecture. But the controversial nature of the incident was certainly the hot topic of debate come full-time.
It seemed a poor decision at the time and came only seconds after O'Flynn had levelled things up at 2-2 with another penalty, won by Jamie Cureton, who was pulled back by Youl Mawene inside the box. Davies was booked for unsporting conduct – he tried to put O'Flynn off with a few choice words in his ear – so had the second penalty been given, then Davies would surely have walked for two yellow cards. O'Flynn had no reason to go down as he had a shooting opportunity and it seemed referee Fred Graham bottled making a match-defining decision.
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On the whole though, Mr Graham's performance was below par and it is a shame that was the talking point from what was otherwise a terrific game of football. The Grecians were a yard off the pace in the first half and deservedly fell behind on 13 minutes when Fleetwood captain Steve McNulty headed in unopposed from a Dean Howell free-kick, but Cureton levelled with the goal of the game 11 minutes later.
Barry Nicholson walked through a chasm in the Exeter defence to put the Cod Army back in front shortly before half-time before a considerably improved Exeter got their rewards with O'Flynn's equaliser 12 minutes after the break.
City looked the more likely to go on and win the game, but they could not find their way past Davies for a third time. However, after the disappointment of such a wretched recent run of results, a four-point return from back-to-back home games is no bad return. And of it was offered now, Paul Tisdale would certainly take that with back-to-back away games at Bradford City and Gillingham looming next week.
Starting games with intent seems to be a problem for Exeter right now. Again, they took an age to get into Saturday's contest and fell behind. By the time McNulty met Howell's free-kick ten yards from goal to power past Artur Krysiak, the Grecians could already have been behind. Exeter could only clear a ball into their box as far as Nicholson, lurking on the edge of the penalty box, and he sent a volley narrowly wide of the far post.
Mawene also headed straight at Krysiak from a long throw as the Grecians found themselves penned back inside their own half. Perhaps the low, blinding sun that played into had something to do with it because when the clouds came and gave the City players temporary respite, Alan Gow and Cureton combined on the edge of the penalty box and Cureton lifted a sublime effort over the head of Davies and into the far corner. Credit should go to Steve Tully, though, whose harassing forced Fleetwood into conceding possession from which the Grecians scored.
Unfortunately for Exeter, the sun soon returned and with it came a Fleetwood goal. The experienced Barry Ferguson, who seemed to spend as much of the game trying to officiate it with Mr Graham than playing, picked out Nicholson with an all-too-simple through ball and Nicholson slotted it past Krysiak. Where the midfield runners and centre-halves were is anyones guess, but it was a horrible goal from Exeter's point of view.
Tisdale's half-time talk did the trick, though. Exeter were 'at it' after the break and refused to give Fleetwood time on the ball. In fact, the second period was spent almost entirely in the visitors' half.
Cureton got the wrong side of Mawene and was hauled back on the by-line. Mr Graham appeared to be doing nothing, but his linesman saw it. The flag was held across his chest and Graham pointed to the spot.
Davies did his best to put off O'Flynn, but the Irishman held his nerve to hammer the ball high into the middle of the goal as the goalkeeper dived the wrong way.
The second penalty incident appeared more clear cut than the first, but what it did do was really lift the crowd. The flow was really with Exeter by then with Gow seeing a free-kick handled by the Fleetwood wall and the second going high, while Cureton flashed a volley across the face of goal and wide. Liam Sercombe saw an effort blocked after a lovely Exeter move, but the Grecians' weakness from set-pieces was nearly exposed again when Mawene headed over from a corner as Fleetwood made a rare venture into opposition territory.
Sercombe should have done better when he was involved in an Exeter break – the Grecians having four men in the attack to Fleetwood's three defenders – but the midfielder, so talented but lacking in confidence right now, made a mess of the opportunity and lost possession.
With time running out, Danny Coles saw a tremendous, thumping header tipped over the bar by Davies and as Fleetwood countered, Tully made a terrific last-ditch tackle to deny Junior Brown.
A goal then would have been incredibly harsh on the Grecians, who showed once again that they do play well against the better teams in npower League Two. But they have to show that attacking intent for 90 minutes rather than 45 to turn these type of draws into victories because when they do, they are a far more dangerous side.