31 March 2001.
Flack hits record books.
EXETER CITY 2 BLACKPOOL 0
By NICK BEER CHIEF FOOTBALL REPORTER
STEVE Flack thrust a fistful of fingers towards an adoring Big Bank to celebrate his historic fifth goal in five consecutive games for Exeter City But he might as well have been signalling the points now required for Nationwide League safety following a thoroughly professional 2-0 dissection of promotion challengers Blackpool. Flack's 50th goal for the club - a fittingly typical far-post leap and header, sealed a near-perfect afternoon for the Grecians and boss Noel Blake. Fireworks and the visit of Football Trust top brass marked the official opening of City's gleaming new Ivor Doble Stand. And an Exeter side in this type of form can be relied upon to make any special occasion go off with a bang rather than a whimper. On-loan frontman Gary Birch stole in for a party-piece maiden strike for his temporary club. Flack very nearly failed to show up for the main event, a painful thigh strain and night long bout of diarrhoea threatening to keep away the belle of the ball, But the 'big man', as Blake is fond of calling him, proved the size of his heart matches that of his frame by duly appearing from the tunnel before kick-off. Flack's nine goals in 12 outings have coincided with Exeter's surge away from the foot of Division 3. Had the season had started a dozen games ago, City would currently be occupying an automatic promotion spot behind only run- away leaders Chesterfield and high-flying Hull City. But back in the real world, Saturday's victory hoisted the club into 17th spot in the Division 3 rankings-its highest placing for five months. Barring freak results, five points from its remaining six fixtures will be enough to safeguard the club's league status for another season. While the weekend's fireworks both on and off the pitch warranted the raising of a glass or two, the proper champagne must stay on ice until City are mathematically certain of avoiding the drop. Although Flack and Birch hogged the headlines, Blake was equally encouraged by an astonishing debut display from Frenchman Steeve Epesse-Titi. The Grecians chief signed the 21-year-old defender from Wolves two weeks ago without even managing to watch him in reserve-team action. In the absence of suspended Graeme Power and crocked duo Chris Curran and Neil Whitworth, Epesse-Titi was finally given his first-ever competitive taste of English pro- fessional football. He responded with a man-of-the-match performance of poise, pace, strength, technical. ability, aerial prowess, positional sense and coolness under pressure. And on Saturday's evidence, Blake should quickly set about bringing together player, agent, translator and the club employee responsible for drawing up contracts for next season. "I was very pleased with him," he said. "The reports we had of him were spot on, although I knew that within two days of seeing him in training.
"He was disappointed not to start before now, but he needed to have a look at us and see how we do things." Apart from the inclusion of Epesse-Titi, Blake understandably kept faith with the starting 11 who matched visiting Darlington in midweek. With 17 wins in 26 games under their belts, Blackpool arrived at St James's Park with a reputation as one of the section's most fluent and powerful attacking outfits. The gameplan, Blake revealed afterwards, was to keep it tight for the first 20 minutes, build a platform and then step up a gear. And the two sides spent the opening phase of the game warily sizing each other up. While most of Exeter's best work was channelled through roaming paceman Christian Roberts, classy former Manchester City and Derby winger Paul Simpson was marshalling affairs for the Seasiders. Despite an endless succession of interruptions for head injuries, the game ebbed and flowed entertainingly without producing much in the way of goalmouth action. Birch scooped over a Lee Zabek cross under pressure from early Blackpool substitute Danny Shittu on loan from Premiership Charlton and recently called up for international duty with Nigeria. But the visitors increasingly took a stranglehold thanks chiefly to Simpson's invention and the clever movement of front duo Tony Murphy and Richard Walker. Walker on a temporary loan from Aston Villa forced Arjan Van Heusden into a smart stop low to his right following Murphy's nod back from Simpson's cross. And the Seasiders carved out an even clearer opportunity four minutes before the break when Exeter failed to cut out a Gary Par- kinson long throw. Murphy again got his head to the ball, but midfielder Danny Coid could only scuff a simple volley into the hands of Van Heusden from just eight yards out. After greeting the half-time whistle with some relief, City then lost defender Mark Burrows to a back problem. Blake toyed with the idea of joining the action himself, but adventurously decided to switch to a four-man rearguard with wing- back Paul Buckle reverting to his more familiar midfield berth. And while the Grecians took time to adapt to the change of system, Shittu only just failed to apply his forehead to a Simpson free kick before the Blackpool playmaker's cross-cum- shot was superbly claimed by Van Heusden. Despite this early flourish from the visitors, the remainder of the contest belonged almost entirely to Exeter. Roberts turned his man brilliantly on the half-way line, scampered speedily towards goal but inexplicably failed to lay the ball off to a wide-open Birch. Flack vollied wastefully high and wide from the edge of the area after being picked out neatly by Roberts. With holes the size of the Blackpool Tower suddenly appearing in the visiting back-line, it was only a matter of time before Exeter broke the deadlock, and the goal duly arrived thanks to a defensive mix-up. Parkinson's ball back lacked both conviction and accuracy and, while Shittu was busy making up his mind whether to leave it for his goalkeeper, Birch simply nipped in and planted his shot under Phil Barnes. After volleying acrobatically but inaccurately from a tight angle, Flack finally became only the third Grecian since the war to score in five consecutive games. Buckle crossed from deep on the right touchline, Flack outjumped Shittu and the rest, as they say, made history. Having netted twice in 180 seconds, the Grecians should have bagged a third only eight minutes later. A sumptuous flighted pass from skipper Jamie Campbell picked out the darting run of Roberts, who lifted the ball over the advancing Barnes but wide of the post. But by that stage following a five-star performance from Flack and company-the party was already in full swing.
EXETER: A Van Heusden, M Burrows, J Campbell, S Epesse-Titi, P Buckle, A Roscoe, L Zabek, K Ampadu, C Roberts, G Birch, S Flack. SUBSTITUTES: S Fraser, M Rawlinson (for Burrows, 46 minutes), G Tomlinson, B McConnell, N Blake.
BLACKPOOL: P Barnes, T Jazscsun, I Hughes, B Reid, G Parkinson, P Simpson, M Milligan, R Wellens, D Coid, R Walker, J Murphy. SUBSTITUTES: A Rachel, P Clarkson, B Ormerod (Simpson, 78), D Shittu (Reid, 14), J Milligan (Coid, 63).
Gary Birch 71 (1-0)
Steve Flack 74 (2-0)
Birch (Exeter), Parkinson (Blackpool).
SHOTS ON TARGET:
Exeter 3, Blackpool 2
Exeter 9, Blackpool 4
Exeter 15, Blackpool 15
Exeter 7, Blackpool 4
Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
STEEVE EPESSE-TITI — An amazingly assured defensive display from the Frenchman in his first-ever appearance in English professional football
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"It was embarrassing. Our defending was shambolic and the first goal was farcical" Blackpool boss Steve McMahon.