21 April 2001.
Halifax T (h)
A point the sole return
Exeter City 0 Halifax 0
BY NICK BEER CHIEF FOOTBALL REPORTER
IT was not without a certain irony that the Premiership trophy and Worthington Cup were wheeled out at half-time in one of the most turgid affairs seen at St James's Park this season. Basement buffoons Halifax had apparently done their sums and calculated a point would be enough to keep the relegation dogs at bay for another season. To that end, two banks of four defenders lined up across the width of the pitch with the sole intention of throttling dear life out of the opposition. And, credit where credit's due, they can look back on a mission accomplished. Exeter at least tried to sneak the three points they needed to more or less rubber stamp their Nationwide League survival. But all the attacking ambition in the world couldn't make up for City's lamentable lack of creativity against an awfully limited side. Maybe Grecians fans have been spoiled at St James's Park in recent weeks with late winners, rousing comebacks, a lengthy un- beaten run, passages of truly pulsating foot- ball, the occasional stunning strike and a handful of terrific individual displays. But the 4,000-plus who turned up on Sat- urday surely deserved more for their dollar than the bottom-drawer dross they were served up by both sets of players. If either side ends up plunging through the trap-door in a fortnight's time, they will need only to insert the video marked 'St James's Park, April 21' to remind themselves why. And the presence of two of the biggest prizes in the domestic game only served to highlight the yawning gulf in class between players at either end of the professional spectrum. City who enjoyed 90 per cent of the - possession yet managed a paltry five at- tempts on target enter the final two week- ends of the season with their future still very much hanging in the balance. Victories ranging from the eyebrow-raising to the downright unbelievable for Lincoln 2-1 win at Chesterfield), Shrewsbury 1-0 home victory over Blackpool) and Barnet (3-0 home destruction of Rochdale), plus doughty draws for Carlisle and York, dragged the Grecians further into trouble. Only Torquay's neighbourly act of suicide at Home Park prevented the weekend from becoming a total washout. And the bitter truth is that City's struggle for survival looks increasingly likely to come right down to the wire. Exeter boss Noel Blake observed after- wards: "Three months ago we were dead and buried, but we're not drowning yet. "The players know how important it is that we stay in the league and how important it is that they stay in the league. "I don't like criticising other teams, but Halifax came here to stifle us and do a professional job, which is what they did. "I can assure you that I do plenty of finishing and shooting drills day in, day out on the training ground, but I can't get into the players' heads. "I am used to being criticised and I'm used to being vilified, but I've been playing three strikers for a number of weeks now." Steve Flack, Gary Birch and Christian Roberts all had their chances to grab the goal that would have undoubtedly settled the game in City's favour. But Halifax pair Robbie Painter and Craig Middleton who have both snubbed - chances to join Exeter over the past two years could also have snatched an unlikely and undeserved late victory for the visitors. And that would have left even Shaymen boss Paul Bracewell reaching for the smelling salts. The Everton legend, former Fulham man- ager and occasional England international was clearly delighted with his side's lack of artistry. "We're scrapping for our lives and so are they and so it was never going to be pretty," he shrugged. "We were never going to get it down and play football, but we stuck at it and could've nicked it at the end." Give him his dues, Bracewell seems to have quickly learned the secret of success in the rarefied depths of the Division 3 basement. With Steeve Epesse-Titi officially "tired", rookie Grecians defender Mark Burrows was rewarded for a sparkling display at Rochdale on Easter Monday with his first start of the month, but Blake otherwise kept faith with the side thumped 3-0 at Spotland five days earlier. Dorset referee Paul Alcock once famously decked by Paolo Di Canio and fresh from dismissing three Carlisle players in nine minutes last time out-embellished his card-crazy reputation by booking Halifax frontman Steve Kerrigan after only 55 seconds. But the game soon settled down into the pattern it would follow for the rest of the afternoon - City in control but their at- tacking moves repeatedly floundering on the rocks of a stubborn visiting rearguard. The first meaningful action of the afternoon came on 18 minutes when Flack burst through onto an Andy Roscoe pass only to scuff his shot into the hands of Lee Butler. And with the ball being treated to a variety of aerial views of the surrounding cityscape, the game stumbled aimlessly on until the Grecians broke down Halifax's barricades twice in the final moments of the first half. Flack's belligerence and Paul Buckle's measured cross found Roscoe unmarked at the far post, but the Merseysider's instant volley flashed harmlessly across goal. An even clearer opening then presented itself to Birch following Flack's flick from a slippery Graeme Power centre. The teenager had time and space to tee up his shot, but instead hurriedly volleyed well wide of the target from just eight yards out. City had to wait until 12 minutes after the interval for their next serious glimpse of goal, Flack ghosting onto Zabek's clever pass only to allow the opening to slip by. Painter marked his introduction into the game by peeling right onto a long Mark Proctor ball, the veteran frontman cutting menacingly inside and whistling his effort narrowly over the bar via the fingertips of Arjan Van Heusden. And only when Blake threw Bristol City loanee Damian Spencer into the fray on 70 minutes did the Grecians start perking up in front of goal. Flack tested Butler with a well-directed header from Buckle's long throw and Roberts flung himself at Roscoe's cross only to steer the ball into the arms of the Halifax keeper. Buckle and Ampadu both had shots charged down during the chaos created by a Roscoe free kick. But then came the Shaymen's clearest chance of the afternoon during one of their increasingly rare forays forward. Middleton collected a long Graham Mitchell throw, spun in space just inside the area and cracked a heart-stopping shot into the side netting via the outside of the post. There was still time for one last crawl upfield from the Grecians which resulted in Mark Rawlinson's intelligent lob over an advancing Halifax defence. Burrows and Spencer both reached the ball before Butler, but neither managed to squeeze it inside the post from a tight angle.
A Van Heusden, M Burrows, J Campbell, G Power, P Buckle, A Roscoe, L Zabek, K Ampadu, C Roberts, G Birch, S Flack. SUBSTITUTES: S Fraser, D Spencer (for Zabek, 70 minutes), M Rawlinson (Birch, 81), G Tomlinson, S Epesse-Titi.
L Butler, G Mitchell, C Clarke, P Mitchell, M Jules, C Middleton, N Redfearn, P Stoneman, A Reilly, S Kerrigan, M Proctor. SUBSTITUTES: C Mawson, M Clarke, R Painter (Kerrigan, 49), P Murphy (Reilly, 60), S Thompson.
Buckle, Spencer (Exeter), Kerrigan (Halifax).
SHOTS ON TARGET:
Exeter 5, Halifax 0
Exeter 5, Halifax 1
Exeter 15, Halifax 22
Exeter 6, Halifax 1
REFEREE: Paul Alcock (Wimbourne)