Match 17
25 October 2003.
FA Cup 4th qualifying round
Gravesend and Northfleet


Exeter City 0

Gravesend and Northfleet 0.


Saturday 25 October 2003.

Referee: R Desmond

Attendance 2686

FA Cup 4th qualifying round

THE romance of the FA Cup was in short supply at St James's Park on Saturday when two sides put on a stilted show wholly unworthy of the world's greatest domestic cup competition.

With cash at stake and a golden opportunity to book their place in the first round proper and raise the prospect of further riches and rewards the scene was set for a mouthwatering clash full of passion and guile. Yet Exeter and Gravesend somehow combined to present 90 minutes of drudgery that more resembled a pre-season kickabout than a blood and thunder cup encounter This was a spectacle which failed to ignite right from the opening whistle, nose-diving spectacularly into a sterile, dismal affair. It was one of those games that will be swiftly consigned to history without a moment's mention. On a positive note there is little chance that these two sides will dish up such dross again when they renew acquaintances at Stonebridge Road tomorrow night. There has to be a result when the two sides lock horns again, which should pave the way for a much more attacking affair. The reward for the eventual win- ners is an away clash against Conference high-fliers Chester City in the first round proper and the opportunity to pro- gress towards that third round draw when the great and the good of English football enter the equation. Exeter were dealt a crushing blow on the eve of Saturday's showdown when Sean Devine went down with a stomach illness and was forced to pull out. And the master plunderer, whose goals have powered City up to fifth in the Conference, was sorely missed throughout. The side looked rather lightweight in front of goal without the former Wycombe Wanderers man and how they will be praying he is back in the fold for the return. In truth this was the day when City's spiralling injury crisis took its toll, an afternoon when the chickens finally came home to roost and the club's lack of strength in depth was horribly exposed. The side have admirably overcome the spate of injuries besetting St James's Park in recent weeks, but those thrilling away day showings have merely papered over the cracks of a squad that has been whittled down to its bare bones. The midfield quartet of James Coppinger, Les Afful, Martin Thomas and Kwame Ampadu the backbone of the side who provide the Grecians with the invention and creativity needed to unlock sides -are all battling against injury while young gun Reinier Moor and nine-goal hitman Devine have also been confined to the treatment room and bed respectively

Dean Moxey, Sean Canham and Martin Rice, who were all set for a season competing at under-19 level, have been unexpectedly thrust into first team action with precious little experience between them. Eamonn Dolan must be the most frustrated manager in the Conference at present, given the sterling job he has done with the most depleted of resources. The St James's Park chief has spent the campaign pulling not just rabbits, but don- keys, elephants and even the occasional hippo out of the hat a remarkable feat considering the transfer embargo that continues to strangle his attempts to bolster squad numbers. But not even Dolan could dredge up the resources needed to prevail on Saturday - in a game that was forgotten by all who witnessed it precisely 30 seconds after the final whistle. The manager expressed relief that his side were still clinging on to their cup dream following the debilitating injury curse that has struck at the heart of his operation. "You can't go into an FA Cup game with only ten fit professionals, but that's what we had to do," he declared. "We were always lacking the cutting edge without Sean Devine. We missed him badly and it was a massive blow. "If you had told me prior to the match that the game was going to be nil-nil, I would have sub-consciously settled for that. But I am disappointed for the fans that we couldn't give them our best performance but I think they will understand." The Grecians were strangely subdued in the opening 20 minutes, seemingly distracted by the havoc caused by the latest injury jinx. They were left chasing shadows as the Kent part-timers stroked the ball around with nonchalant ease, defying their part- time status. Pint-sized striker Ben Abbey fired in an early speculative effort that sailed over the bar and Justin Skinner blasted a shot past the post. The wake up call had been served and City driven on by an animated and, on oc- casions, infuriated Dolan - suddenly sparked into life when Steve Flack robbed Lee Shearer before unleashing a rasping drive that whistled over the top. Scott Hiley and Barry McConnell provided the most enticing threat down the right flank, and they combined to set up Flack who was denied by recovering defender Francis Duku as he went to pull the trigger. The veteran right back then dispatched a dipping cross that connected with Flack's head but again City were out of luck as the ball went wide. As the half drew to a close, the home side did finally begin to take command. Gareth Sheldon saw his looping header land the wrong side of the post and Dwane Lee thumped a curling 30-yarder straight at Gravesend keeper Paul Wilkerson. The break had clearly whipped City up into a frenzy and they came racing out of the traps in search of a goal. Sean Canham planted a header straight at Wilkerson and then skipper Glenn Cronin released the fledgling striker whose weak shot flew into the grateful arms of the Kent shot stopper. It was a match crying out for someone to break the deadlock and transform the low key contest into an attractive spectacle. But still the mediocrity prevailed and City, with limited options, replaced the largely ineffective Canham with Kwame Ampadu and the flame-haired Sheldon switched to a more attacking role. Gravesend sensed blood when they em barked on an attacking ten-minute spell. First leading scorer Rob Haworth rifled past the post and then Steve McKimm shot straight at Rice. The visitors were buoyant and Ben Walshe could have settled matters when he was released by McKimm but his effort was smothered by Rice. Then with three minutes left the Grecians looked to have stolen victory when Flack's glancing header from a corner seemed to be heading into the roof of the net. But the effort cannoned off the cross bar, forcing City to head off to deepest, darkest Kent tomorrow night. Exeter might still be in the 2003/2004 FA Challenge Cup - but the road to the Millennium Stadium is looking somewhat jammed at the moment.



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