Jamie Cureton bags his 13th of the season in Exeter City victory
There are many ways in which to win a football match but, for Exeter City, few would have been as sweet and satisfactory as Saturday's 1-0 success at Bradford City.
The Grecians have enjoyed some fine results on their travels this campaign, such as the 3-0 win at Accrington Stanley and a 4-2 thrashing of Oxford United. But nowhere have they had to dig in and show a steely determination to emerge victorious as they did at Bradford.
Until Saturday, City had kept only three clean-sheets in npower League Two this season. Conceding soft goals – especially from set-pieces – had been their Achilles heel, but you would never have guessed that to be the case in the none too shabby surroundings of Valley Parade.
The Grecians were compact and well organised and defended as though their lives depended on it. What helped was that they had something to defend: Jamie Cureton's sweet half-volley just before half-time was his 13th goal of a fine season and the only goal of a gripping encounter.
The Grecians rode their luck at times as well but, seven days after a poor refereeing performance cost them the chance of victory against Fleetwood, fortune favoured them in Yorkshire. Referee Andy Haines waved play on when Artur Krysiak appeared to handle the ball outside his penalty box in the first half and the dangerous Nahki Wells was denied what would have been a penalty when Pat Baldwin's soft back pass was short of Krysiak and the big defender stopped Wells from reaching it by blocking his path. But do not let that detract from what was a heroic defensive display from the former Colchester United man and his comrades.
The first half was an even affair as the Bantams enjoyed the majority of possession, but Exeter fashioned the better openings. As usual, Alan Gow was popping up in pockets here, there and everywhere and pulling the Bradford defence all over the place. It was from his exquisite pass that Cureton curled a shot against the far post and John O'Flynn skied high after a one-two with the Grecians' talismanic Scot as City started well.
It said something about Exeter's boldness and attacking intent that they went into the game with three men up front, but it certainly made for an attacking, end-to-end game. James Hanson headed wide from a Gary Jones free-kick and Krysiak got down well to force Wells' first-time, 20-yard effort behind for a corner kick.
At the other end, Scot Bennett skied high after a bout of head tennis presented him with a good chance 12 yards from goal, while Gow and Liam Sercombe both wasted free-kicks awarded within shooting distance of the Bradford goal. Haines was coming in for some stick from a disgruntled home crowd, but to be fair, he certainly did not let it affect him.
The danger in such a situation is that the referee will give something soft to get those dissenters back onside, but that was not the case on Saturday. In fact, he annoyed them further with a yellow card for Gary Jones, but they could have no complaints. The Bradford captain's foul on Gow was nasty, but it was the only way they could stop him from causing damage.
Another opponent to upset the home faithful was Cureton, who was understandably hurt after an attempted cross ended with him catching the boot of a Bradford defender. After a couple minutes of treatment in front of the hosts' supporters, Exeter's goal machine returned to the fray amid a chorus of boos and promptly opened the scoring.
It was some goal, as well. City's build up play was joyful to watch, starting with Baldwin bringing the ball out of defence. Eventually, it was played to the outstanding Craig Woodman, arguably the most improved player in the Exeter ranks right now.
He swung the ball to the back post where Matt Oakley headed it down to the lurking Cureton, who had peeled away from his marker to find space near the penalty spot. As the ball dropped perfectly for him, he positioned himself well to hook a fine half-volley into the far corner and give goalkeeper Matt Duke no chance.
Cureton's natural love is scoring goals and he certainly enjoyed this one, celebrating in front of those same people who had mercilessly jeered him only moments earlier.
The half-time whistle soon followed and thoughts immediately turned to September 13, 2008. Then, the Grecians were at Bradford and led 1-0 at the break only to capitulate in the second half to lose 4-1. This time, there was no repeat.
Bradford matched up and got tighter to Gow and suffocated Exeter's major attacking outlet. But, while they pretty much bossed the second half, Krysiak was rarely called into action. Former Torquay United striker Alan Connell, a half-time substitute, chipped an effort wide of goal and John Egan headed wide from a corner kick.
In response, Cureton latched on to a poor back pass and almost forced it past Duke, who did well to save with an unmarked O'Flynn screaming for the ball in front of goal.
Despite three minutes of added time being displayed, Haines proceeded to play five, but there was no way City were going to throw away their hard work. Their experience shone through as they played out the additional time relatively comfortably and held on for a fine victory.