Grecians' superior quality shines through in derby win over Argyle
WHEN you think of Devon derbies of recent times, you tend to recall cat-and-mouse type affairs that invariably end in draws, or narrow 1-0 wins.
Saturday's clash between Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle was a welcome exception to the rule.
From the first minute, the two sides played out a largely entertaining game, even if the first half lacked genuine attempts on goal.
There was plenty of good football on offer but, when Arron Davies opened the scoring for the Grecians on 56 minutes, it led to the game opening up and developing into an entertaining affair blessed with four goals of real quality.
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Luke Young's exquisite free-kick brought Argyle level, but ex-Pilgrim Alan Gow showed his former employers what they are missing with a moment of magic to give City the lead seven minutes from full-time.
Plymouth pushed men forward in search of an equaliser but, in truth, they never looked like getting one. Gaping holes appeared in the Pilgrims' rearguard and Exeter had gone close a couple of times before makeshift centre-forward Scot Bennett capped a superb individual display with the third in stoppage time.
The fact that it was such an open and entertaining game will mean little to the travelling 'Green Army', though. After all, derby games are about the result, and performance is secondary. But Exeter played the better football and were worthy of their win, even if the final scoreline perhaps flattered them.
Not since April 2011, when a James Dunne goal all but consigned Argyle to relegation from League One, have the Grecians enjoyed a Devon derby win. They were victors in a Johnstone's Paint Trophy tie against the Pilgrims during the 2011-12 campaign by virtue of a penalty shoot-out, but even the most ardent Exeter fan would admit that it felt somewhat hollow.
Saturday's win meant so much more, especially after last season, when the Grecians' record in derby games was so poor. Against their Devon rivals, Exeter picked up only two points with 1-1 draws at home to Argyle and away to Torquay United, while Westcountry neighbours Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham Town both picked up maximum points from clashes with City.
It is something that frustrates the Exeter supporters, and history seemed to be repeating itself when Young levelled for the Pilgrims. There was the question of a potential dive by Marvin Morgan as he went past Danny Coles, but there was no doubt about Young's brilliant 25-yard free-kick, which curled over the wall and beyond the outstretched hand of Artur Krysiak before nestling in the corner.
It was Argyle's first goal in 347 minutes, and their first since Reuben Reid netted the winner against Bristol Rovers on September 7. The travelling support rejoiced and it led to Argyle having their most dominant spell of the game, with Guy Branston heading over and Krysiak making a superb stop low to his right to turn a Reid shot around a post.
Reid certainly made an impression after coming on as a substitute. He had been dropped to accommodate new loan signing Paul Hayes, who had arrived from Brentford on Friday, but was anonymous throughout his hour on the St James' Park pitch.
Argyle looked the more likely to go on and win at that stage of the match, but the introduction of Exeter's Jimmy Keohane changed the game in the Grecians' favour.
The Irishman found the space between midfield and attack and, with seven minutes remaining, he received the ball with his back to goal 25 yards out and laid it wide to Gow.
The Scot was afforded too much space by the Argyle defence and curled a superb shot over the head of goalkeeper Luke McCormick and into the far corner of the net.
It was Gow's second moment of magic in the game. He had played a pivotal role in Davies' 56th-minute opener, which sparked the game into life.
The Scot received the ball and left Jamie Reckord for dead with an outrageous turn inside his own half, and ran at the heart of the Plymouth defence. Ahead of him, Davies ran from left to right and Gow slipped the perfect pass for Davies to take the ball in his stride, shift on to his right foot and lash while on the move into the roof of McCormick's goal.
But, if the first three goals of the game were down to individual brilliance, the third, in the final minute of stoppage time, was all about the team, which is appropriate given that City's win was built on an excellent team performance.
Danny Butterfield showed plenty of class on his full debut and he whipped a lovely ball into the right channel for the ever-willing Keohane to chase. He breezed past a tired-looking Branston and laid the ball into the box, where Bennett fended off Paul Wotton. With his back to goal, Bennett received, controlled, turned and passed the ball into the bottom corner with his left foot for a finish any top striker would be proud of.
It was no more than Bennett deserved for an excellent display. Many Exeter fans could be forgiven for fearing the worst when they lined up without key strikers John O'Flynn and Sam Parkin, but Bennett more than stepped up to the plate. He led the line superbly and, up against two burly centre-halves in Branston and Wotton, he was more than a match for them, both physically and aerially.
The win takes the Grecians up to third place in League Two and, after ten games, that is no bad place to be. They are only two points off top spot and the signs are that the squad is stronger than last year, when City fell just short of the play-offs.
As for Argyle, the inquest by manager John Sheridan and his coaching staff will have begun. They were good in possession for large chunks of the game but, in the final third, they were desperately poor.
All too often, crosses would drift harmlessly behind or into the goalkeeper's arms and, apart from a five-minute spell after their goal, they never looked threatening.
They did at least end their barren run without a goal but, on this evidence, the 17th-placed Pilgrims look anything but the promotion contenders Sheridan claimed they were following a 3-1 win at Cheltenham in August.