Injury-hit Grecians fall just short in play-off chase
If ever there was a game to encapsulate an entire season, then Exeter City's 1-0 home defeat to Cheltenham Town on Saturday was it.
City went into the game ravaged by injury, something which has blighted their campaign and none more so than in these crucial final few weeks of the campaign.
Their patched-up side played well in spells and created some decent opportunities, especially in the first half. But a failure to take them proved costly, as it has so often this campaign.
Russell Penn scored the only goal of the game to keep alive Cheltenham's hopes of automatic promotion. The Grecians showed plenty of huff and puff after going behind, but again, they lacked the sufficient quality to turn things round and ultimately went down to a tenth home defeat of the campaign.
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Frankly, that record is not good enough. Only Aldershot Town, who seem destined for relegation, have lost more home games than Exeter this campaign. When you look back on what has cost City their chance of promotion, home form is a fundamental reason.
Away from St James' Park, the Grecians have been different class. The tally of 11 wins they have accumulated is a new club record. But, as Paul Tisdale said after breaking the record at Morecambe with Exeter's tenth on February 9, it counts for nothing unless you can build on that with some kind of success.
At the time, the Grecians were riding high and with a good chance of automatic promotion. It stayed that way up until Easter, when they then suffered a horrendous run of form that brought four straight defeats. A draw at Wimbledon last week stopped the rot, but a side ravaged by injuries to so many key players were always battling against the odds to keep pace with their promotion rivals.
The loss of Matt Oakley in the goalless draw to Gillingham was, in the words of Tisdale, a straw too many. Since then, Exeter's midfield has been over-run and has under-performed, but it would be harsh to single out that particular area of the team for blame.
Injuries are a part and parcel of the game but, when you are already punching above your weight and competing against sides with considerably bigger budgets than you, they are such an inconvenience.
On Saturday, Pat Baldwin was ruled out with a hamstring strain and John O'Flynn and Mark Molesley were absent too. Liam Sercombe and Oakley remain long-term absentees, while Steve Tully played with a broken toe, Tommy Doherty struggles game-to-game with his back and a clearly not match-fit Alan Gow made his first start since the home defeat to Torquay United in January in a bid by Tisdale to keep Exeter's season alive.
That defeat to the Gulls was part of another factor in City's disappointing end to the campaign. In matches against Westcountry teams this season, the Grecians have mustered only two points from eight games played against the Gulls, Plymouth Argyle, Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham. Lessons can be learned from that as well; perhaps playing the occasion as well as the game should be factored into pre-match preparations.
In many 'derby' games this season, Exeter have performed poorly. They have been harried, hustled and knocked out of their stride by teams displaying old-school traits in such combat.
There was an element of that on Saturday, although, with so many first-team regulars missing, Exeter were always going to struggle with the physical element of the game. One of the exceptions was Jordan Moore-Taylor, who started at centre-back in place of the injured Baldwin. Moore-Taylor is another from the conveyor belt of youth and again showed that the seeds for a prosperous future based on home-grown talent are slowly sprouting.
Time and patience is needed with regards to that, but another factor in this season's failings are the slow starts Exeter make to matches. That was again evident on Saturday.
Just five minutes were on the clock when Sido Jombati's long free-kick was headed down to Penn. Exeter took too long to close him down and he fired a low shot across goal from the edge of the penalty box and into far corner.
Exeter's response to that blow was actually very good. Jamie Cureton failed to test Scott Brown with two great opportunities, Jamie Reid pulled a shot wide and Lawson D'Ath was off-target with a shot from distance. The common denominator with all those chances was that not one was on target.
Cureton spurned the best of those, the second coming from Doherty's quickly taken free-kick. Cureton showed great movement to get in behind the defender, but he snatched at the chance and pulled it wide of goal.
The veteran striker may have scored 21 goals this season, but he has been poor in the second half of the campaign and missed far more chances than he has scored. They have often been at crucial times as well.
Cureton is in the team to score goals and the team is built around that. His return of one in the last eight games is not good enough and, when he is not scoring goals, then it has to be questioned what else he brings to the team.
After missing those chances on Saturday, his head seemed to drop, although, in his defence, he was often starved of service. Long, high balls pumped in his general direction are not ideal for a 5ft 8in 'fox in the box' type of poacher. It was meat and drink to Cheltenham's two centre-halves and it reached a stage where Cureton was not even contesting aerial balls.
It was not until the final minute that Exeter actually tested Brown in the Cheltenham goal. Substitute Jimmy Keohane, one of the plus-points from the campaign, hammered a shot goalwards, but was denied by a superb finger-tip stop. It was as close as City came, but this was another game in which the number of efforts on target – one – was chronically short of what it should be for a home side. It is another reason for the Grecians missing out on the play-offs.
I don't like to call Exeter missing out on the top seven as a failure, as it should be remembered that they started the campaign tipped to finish in mid-table. In many respects, they have over-achieved this campaign. But then, the expectations of the players and coaching staff were that they were good enough, and the fact City were a top-seven side for so much of the campaign suggests that a failure is what it is.