Pilgrims fight back for a deserved share of the spoils against Exeter
Games are defined by big moments and Saturday's 1-1 Devon derby draw between Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle was no exception.
With the Grecians leading courtesy of Liam Sercombe's first goal of the season, the Reds had a glorious chance to go 2-0 in front when Jamie Cureton latched on to a woeful back-header by half-time substitute Robbie Williams.
Cureton had an age to decide what to do – and that was perhaps his problem. He had too long. He brought the ball under control and, with only Rene Gilmartin to beat, he curled a shot towards the top corner.
Unfortunately for City's 15-goal top scorer, his effort drifted wide of the far post and into the Big Bank to give the Pilgrims an almighty let-off.
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A goal then would, in all probability, have settled what in truth was a poor, scrappy npower League Two game with few chances. But the Pilgrims took full advantage of that let-off to grab a deserved equaliser as Joe Lennox bagged his first goal in professional football 16 minutes from full-time.
It was no more than Argyle deserved for a dominant second-half showing. However, they were reduced to ten men two minutes from time when Maxime Blanchard saw red for bringing down Exeter's John O'Flynn. It was his second booking of the game and he could have no complaints.
Despite five minutes of added time, Exeter failed to make their numerical advantage tell as the Pilgrims defended stoutly. To be fair, a winning goal for either side would have been unjust.
Argyle played the better football, but City had the clearer chances. None more so than Cureton's just after half-time.
The Grecians went into the game making one change to the side that beat Rochdale last week. Scot Bennett returned at the expense of Jimmy Keohane, while Plymouth also made one change to the side that beat York City to claim a first win in ten attempts. That saw Lennox come into the starting XI for the injured Paris Cowan-Hall.
Derby games are often devoid of attractive football and this was no exception. Almost from the first whistle, the tackles flew in and Exeter captain Danny Coles was fortunate to escape with just a stern talking to from referee Andy Woolmer for scything down Andres Gurrieri. From Mark Molesley's resulting free-kick, Rhys Griffiths made contact, but the ball drifted harmlessly wide of goal.
The Pilgrims were the quicker of the two sides to settle and they taught their opponents a lesson in how to play when you do not have the ball. Carl Fletcher's men closed down Exeter quickly, denied them space to play and knocked them out of their stride. Exeter, on the other hand, allowed Plymouth room to play and more than a few home players seemed a yard or so off the pace. It was not long before the visiting Green Army were giving it the "olés", but only after a brief period of Exeter pressure when the hosts came close to breaking the deadlock.
Sercombe's free-kick from an acute angle was superbly tipped over the bar by Gilmartin and, from the resulting corner, Bennett headed dangerously back across goal, but there was no one on hand to finish for the Grecians.
With the game-plan clearly not working, Paul Tisdale moved Bennett from his starting position as one of three centre-backs to a holding midfield role, but still the Pilgrims continued to probe and look the more threatening.
For all their possession, though, chances were at a premium. Molesley fired wide from distance and former Pilgrim Alan Gow did similar for Exeter, dragging an effort wide from 25 yards.
When the deadlock was finally broken, it was against the run of play. Coles brought the ball out from the back and played it into the path of Sercombe. He shrugged off the challenge of Onismor Bhasera before letting fly from 25 yards. The ball took a slight deflection before nestling inside Gilmartin's far post, with the goalkeeper scrambling in vain across his goal in an attempt to keep it out.
However, the goal did little to calm Exeter in their play. Everything seemed so rushed and panicked. Time and time again, they gave away possession, while, for a team that prides itself on playing neat, attractive football, they looked more like Wimbledon from the 1980s. Long balls pumped in the general direction of Cureton and John O'Flynn were meat and drink for Argyle's centre-half pairing of Blanchard and the excellent Darren Purse.
Rhys Griffiths was causing Exeter problems and won countless balls in the air, but, for all his aerial dominance, he had no support. The game was passing Gurrieri by and it was no great surprise when he came off at half-time as Fletcher shuffled his pack.
Bhasera was pushed into a more advanced role down the left, with substitute Williams filling in at left-back. His first contribution, though, was the woeful header which gifted Cureton his big chance.
Argyle continued to dominate possession, but still they could not breach the Grecians' back-line. Full-backs Steve Tully and Craig Woodman were in fine form for Exeter, while Coles and Baldwin were dealing with pretty much everything Argyle threw at them. It was in midfield and attack where the problems lay.
With the home crowd growing in frustration – the atmosphere in general was desperately poor for a derby game – and Exeter getting deeper and deeper, the equalising goal seemed inevitable. And that is how it proved.
The Grecians were slow in reacting to a ball played to Lennox, lurking on the right wing. He jinked along the penalty box before firing goalwards and his shoot took an almighty deflection before looping up over Krysiak and into the net via the far post.
Argyle seemed the more likely to kick on from there, but, once they got the goal, they retreated. Gow and the injured Matt Oakley were replaced by Kevin Amankwaah and Jimmy Keohane respectively, and Keohane was involved in Exeter's best move of the match.
He showed great composure when he picked the ball up in midfield and slid a wonderful ball through to Cureton. Again, the striker had only Gilmartin to beat, but he pulled his shot wide of the far post.
Both teams were defending well, although Argyle's task was made that little bit harder when Blanchard saw red. He had been on a booking since the 15th minute, when he had brought down Gow and, as soon as O'Flynn went down, the writing was on the wall for the Frenchman, who put his head in his hands.
The Grecians rallied a little, but it was not enough. Bennett sent a header wide in stoppage time, but that was as close as either side came to a winning goal.
The full-time was met with celebrations from Argyle, while Exeter trudged off knowing they simply had not been good enough and had spurned a good chance to improve their dismal home record.
They have a chance to make amends in their second Devon derby at Torquay United next Saturday, while Plymouth will hope to build on their hard work when they make the long trek to Accrington Stanley.