Grecians miss the chance to build on their recent success
If Exeter City end up looking back on this season cursing missed opportunities, then Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Rotherham United may be one such game they will pinpoint and think they could have done better.
The Yorkshire side arrived in Devon minus a number of key players and in mixed form. City were high in confidence after two fantastic wins on the road, but once again, they showed that old habits are dying hard as the Millers recorded a deserved 1-0 win at rain-lashed St James' Park.
Those old habits are a real source of frustration. Firstly, there is City's inconsistent home form. The Park was once a bit of a fortress for the Grecians, but, after this defeat, Exeter have mustered only 11 points from ten npower League Two games on home soil.
It is in stark contrast to their away form where the Grecians have collected 19 points from ten games and look a different outfit to the one that runs out at St James' Park.
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Another habit is Exeter's weakness at defending set-plays. Saturday's decisive goal came from a simple corner kick delivered to the near post, where Ian Sharps was on hand to glance a header across goal and into the far corner.
Yes, City have been better defending set-plays in recent weeks, but it was another soft goal in a campaign where, quite frankly, there have been far too many.
Another issue plaguing City is scoring first. The way Exeter set up makes it almost imperative for them to get the first goal because, as they proved at Gillingham on Tuesday, they are an effective team on the counter-attack. But when teams sit in and are happy to defend, the Grecians struggle.
Rotherham were good value for their first-half lead – which could have been more had it not been for two brilliant saves from Artur Krysiak – but City dominated after the break. For all that dominance, though, they barely tested Andy Warrington in the away goal and, when they did, it was speculative stuff from long range.
City's play in the final third lacked precision. At times, it was laboured and, when they did get into promising areas, there was a distinct lack of quality. The midfield were way below par and, in the first half especially, were completely dominated by a Rotherham side who worked their socks off to close down, hassle, win the ball back and play their football. If Exeter are to be successful this year, they have to be better than this and show similar traits, especially in midfield.
There is no lack of effort throughout the team, but when Exeter need players to step up to the plate when others are off form, they are not doing it. Alan Gow is key to the Grecians, but when he is not on form, or Jamie Cureton does not score, others have to show that they can be match-winners.
Saturday was a decent day for football. The rain was falling, the pitch was slick and the game started at a good tempo. The Grecians could have gone in front only for Gow to thunder a shot against the crossbar with his right foot from 25 yards, while Cureton was twice denied by Warrington, the second time from a Steve Tully cross.
Tully – along with Krysiak – was the only Exeter player to emerge with credit, in my opinion, and, if his team-mates showed the same level of urgency as he does, perhaps Exeter would not keep failing on home soil. Tully also had the unenviable task of keeping former Grecian Daniel Nardiello quiet. The City full-back kindly let him out of his back pocket when the ineffective Nardiello's number came up and he was substituted just before full-time.
Another player to have done OK was Tommy Doherty, but his involvement lasted 30 minutes before a hamstring injury forced him off. That was the cue for Exeter to lose their way as the tactical reshuffle failed. Jimmy Keohane replaced Doherty and, while he did nothing wrong as such, it was no great surprise when he was replaced by John O'Flynn after 30 minutes of action either side of half-time.
In between came the crucial goal. The alarm bells rung when Johnny Mullins headed a corner goalwards, but was denied by Krysiak's instinctive stop. From the resulting kick, Sharps got to the ball first and headed into the net for the only goal of the game.
It may only be the end of November, but Rotherham manager Steve Evans demonstrated that, should he find himself out of a job any time soon, he could always play the pantomime villain this Christmas time.
The controversial character is arguably the most vilified manager in English football and courts controversy wherever he goes. On Saturday, he certainly enjoyed some banter with the Exeter fans in the Old Grandstand, while his theatrics at many of referee Oli Langford's decisions provided as much entertainment as the fare on the field.
He was perhaps justified when substitute Mitchell Rose was sent off in the 90th minute for a foul on Exeter substitute Aaron Dawson. It was a free-kick, for sure, but the red card seemed harsh for a man who had only been on the field for two minutes. However, City failed to make the extra man count, with a Matt Oakley effort from long range the closest they came to equalising, but that was well held by Warrington.