7 April 2001.
Plymouth Argyle (a)
City sunk in the mud.
Plymouth 1-0 Exeter City
Report by Nick Beer.
ON a day when the world's most famous horse race sank in the mud, Exeter were outstayed by their fiercest rivals at a sodden Home Park. Aintree immediately after the Grand National would have made for a smoother playing surface than Saturday's disgracefully pot-holed pitch. Factor in a stiffening breeze and a wishy-washy referee and you're left with a shapeless, charmless runt of a game that plodded painfully towards its merciful conclusion. Even Plymouth's goal relied more on a collective lapse in concentration than any moment of inspiration. Fleeting flashes of brilliance from Gary Birch, Christian Roberts and debutant Damien Spencer failed to lift Exeter spirits for more than a split second. And the abiding memories of this wretched game will be of misplaced passes, mistimed tackles, mishit goal kicks and a thoroughly miserable band of Grecians supporters. Given the chances they created and the way they battled to the bitter end, City probably deserved a point out of their annual pilgrimage to the home of the Pilgrims. But their third single-goal away defeat in a row leaves the Grecians looking anxiously over their shoulders at the teams below them in the Division 3 table. Despite collecting a sensational seven points out of nine leading up to the their yearly jaunt down the A38, Noel Blake's troops must still harvest two victories from their remaining five fixtures to be sure of safety. The winning post seemed to be in sight last week-but perhaps there is another lap still to go of this year's relegation donkey derby. Pilgrims boss Paul Sturrock got it exactly right when he strode into his post-match press conference to reflect: "Bad pitch, bad wind, bad game, good result." He added: "The only thing our fans will remember about the game is that we won, the most important thing was the three points and we're happy that we've given them that." Spare a thought, then, for the Exeter contingent at Home Park who largely suffered in silence after watching their arch-rivals snatch a 20th-minute lead. Their hopes had earlier been cruelly raised by an exquisite Birch chip that sailed over Argyle keeper Romain Larrieu before clipping the underside of the bar and bouncing away. Their hearts jumped when Roberts embarked on a couple of rocket-fuelled runs either side of the half-time interval, and a late goalmouth scramble produced spurned half-chances for Steve Flack and substitute striker Spencer. But aside from that, the City faithful were pretty much starved of the fluent, high-tempo football they have come to expect from Blake's side in recent weeks. "We looked a bit tired in important positions," explained Grecians football consultant Steve Perryman. "It was never going to be a classic and both sides made too many mistakes. "With them being a goal up and having that wind behind them, it was very easy for them to clear their lines behind us in the second half. "It then took us a long time to get the ball back up to their end, create the chances we needed and put them under any sustained pressure." Blake and Perryman made just one change to their winning team-Graeme Power returning from suspension at the expense of rookie central defender Mark Burrows. Smooth operator Steeve Epesse-Titi and on-loan hitman Birch kept their places while borrowed frontrunner Spencer was handed a substitute role after serving his three-game ban. And Blake's heart must have sunk when he first laid eyes on the Home Park pitch, two thirds of which was more suited to motorcross than football. Argyle threatened to draw first blood when Paul Wotton thundered a free kick towards the top corner only for Arjan Van Heusden to fingertip the ball away for a corner. Perhaps wary of Roberts' pace, Plymouth's four-man defence was already starting to twist out of position when City gained possession. And Flack's simple flick on 13 minutes released Birch who would have marked his first Devon derby with a sublime opening goal had the crossbar and the underside of the cross bar at that not come to Argyle's rescue. Martin Phillips, former Exeter golden boy now Argyle darling then made his first contribution of the afternoon by cruising past Andy Roscoe down the Plymouth right. His cross was met first-time by Paul McGregor, but by then Grecians skipper Jamie Campell had moved smartly across to block. Former Southampton frontman Mickey Evans then capitalised on an unconvincing Epesse-Titi ball, raced clear of Campbell and was denied only by the advancing Van Heusden. And from the resulting corner arrived the goal that ultimately condemned Exeter to their fourth straight defeat at Home Park. Wayne O'Sullivan delivered the ball onto the edge of the six-yard box, Van Heusden and his defensive cohorts stood transfixed like children spying their first aeroplane and Friio accepted the invitation with open arms. Roberts, who was flitting between both flanks in his new roving role, burst past Jon Beswetherick and Craig Taylor, fed the ball into the danger zone only for the boot of Stuart Elliot to deny the lurking Birch. And then came a ridiculous 10-minute delay following Lee Zabek's sturdy but legal challenge on Friio inside the centre circle. Referee George Cain inexplicably failed to usher on a pair of waiting stretcher-bearers and added insult to injury by extending the half by only five minutes. Further examination of the Frenchman's ankle revealed only minor bruising- a display of theatrics later put down to his "Gallic temperament" by his embarrassed manager. There was still time before the break for Birch to slice wastefully wide following more exemplary work from Roberts. A flurry of chances arrived shortly after the break, Brian McGlinchey wasting the best of Argyle's from 15 yards and Flack failing to nick the ball past Larrieu from a neat Birch pass. Roberts then outstripped Craig Taylor on the Exeter left, pelted into the penalty area, but let fire with a shot so weak that Larrieu collected it like a good old-fashioned back-pass. With the wind picking up and Van Heusden's kicking gradually deserting him, City were increasingly struggling to make purposeful progress towards the Devonport End. And their final roll of the dice came six minutes from time when Flack reacted quickest from a corner, but Larrieu's sharp block ex- tinguished the targetman's hopes of scoring in six consecutive games to match a club record set a quarter of a century ago. And Spencer full of pace and power on a promising maiden appearance for the Grecians -fired an acrobatic volley a yard over the bar. With Phillips increasingly influential and substitute striker Sean McCarthy a constant menace, Argyle regained the initiative in the dying minutes. Exeter City mascot Alex The Greek described the derby as "the most tense game I have ever been to" after attending the match in disguise as a normal member of the public. "We were getting shoulder-barged going back to the coach after the game, being called 'scum' and all sorts of things," Alex (alias Rob Kemp) told the Echo. "I knew derbies were tense, but I didn't realise they were that tense." The real Alex in our line-up of four Grecians in Friday's paper was the one on the far left of the picture. Congratulations if you got it right.
R Larrieu, S Elliot, C Taylor, P Wotton, J Beswetherick, W O'Sullivan, D Friio, B McGlinchey, M Phillips, P McGregor, M Evans.
SUBSTITUTES: J Sheffield, S Adams (for Friio, 44 minutes), S McCarthy (Evans, 77), I Stonebridge (McGregor, 63), S Evers.
EXETER: A Van Heusden, J Campbell, S Epesse-Titi, G Power, P Buckle, A Roscoe, L Zabek, K Ampadu, C Roberts, G Birch, S Flack.
SUBSTITUTES: S Fraser, B McConnell, J Ashton, D Spencer (Ampadu, 83), M Burrows (Roscoe, 57).
David Friio 20 (1-0)
Roberts, Buckle, Burrows (Exeter).
SHOTS ON TARGET:
Plymouth 5, Exeter 3
Plymouth 9, Exeter 2
Plymouth 12, Exeter 14
Plymouth 3, Exeter 2
REFEREE: George Cain (Seaforth)
On an afternoon where few players stood out on either side, City's supposedly defensive wing-back looked more likely to create a goal then many of his team-mates. He was a driving force down the right flank and fulfilled his defensive duties with intelligence and due
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"Bad pitch, bad wind, bad game, good result"-Argyle boss Paul Sturrock.