19th March 2005
Exeter City 0 Woking 0
Matt Bamsey at ST JAMES'S PARK
THIS might sound like misguided logic bordering on blind optimism, but Exeter City actually took a step closer towards securing an end-of-season play-off place on Saturday. Certainly the debate in the aftermath of the St James's Park stalemate revolved around whether this repres- ented a point gained or two points dropped. And it would be easy to claim that this was a missed opportunity given that the Grecians dominated their promotion rivals. But avoiding defeat against a side whose remaining nine fixtures involve five of the top 10 sides was paramount. And with Exeter City's run-in widely regarded as among the easiest of the chasing pack, optimism is riding high that the club can launch a promotion tilt. Four out of the five remaining home games involve teams located in the bottom half of the table. Yet the club can no longer afford to dish out charitable donations to teams who should have left St James's Park with nothing other than painful memories. The intrigue surrounding this year's race for the play-offs comes with the amount of teams harbouring hopes of a top-five place. Realistically every team down as far as Dagenham & Redbridge in 13th spot are still hoping to mastermind a surge into the play-offs. Defeat for City on Saturday would have left them seven points adrift of fourth-placed Woking and four points out of the play-off zone. And if Alex Inglethorpe's side can harvest a bumper Easter with a trip to Morecambe on Good Friday followed by the Easter Monday visit of struggling Farnbor- ough, then all of a sudden this point could prove priceless. That said, for all their high-octane attacking and steady stream of chances, the Grecians were forced to settle for a draw when all three were theirs for the taking. They monopolised possession, pushed forward at every opportunity and Paul Jones had virtually nothing to do. But they couldn't manage to eke out the winner their overwhelming superiority deserved, sparking fears of a repeat of last season's play-off heartbreak. For sheer seat-of-the-pants entertainment value, Saturday's scuffle at St James's Park deserved more than the goal drought it ended up with. The Grecians served up some tasty football in the first-half and only just failed to find a winning recipe against one of the most stubborn outfits in the section. Woking arrived with strict instructions to defend in numbers and then try and hit the hosts on the break. Nothing wrong with that given a similar ploy had reaped rich dividends last season following a 2-1 win. But their increasingly frus- trating tactic of wasting as much time as possible a trend mirrored by so many teams in recent times at St James's Park deserved to 1 be punished. Few could argue that Glenn Cockerill's side arrived in pursuit of a point and their wishes were realised following a typically dogged defensive display. Certainly the celebrations among their players following the final whistle served to reinforce that viewpoint. By the end of a painfully one-sided first 45 minutes, the hosts were on top and seemingly heading for their third consecutive league win. But if City had run into a brick wall during the first period, then Woking hoisted the draw bridge after the interval and cemented their resistance with plucky a rearguard action. An unapologetic Cockerill shrugged afterwards: "We knew we were going to have to defend well and that's what we set out to do. "A point definitely suits us more than them and hopefully we can push on into the play-offs now." Inglethorpe opted to stick with the same starting line-up which had plundered all three points in a 3-1 win over Bur- ton Albion four days earlier. Like two boxers feeling their way into the contest, the opening ten minutes was peppered with caution, both sides traded weak blows and the match lacked any real punch. That was until the home side finally decided to ask some questions of a rear- guard, which has only been breached once in their last four league games. In a carbon-copy of the training-ground move which led to Jake Edwards' goal at York City earlier this month, the former Yeovil Town front-man made a bee-line for the near post to connect with Alex Jeannin's beautifully flighted corner, only to see his header fly over the bar. Suddenly the game exploded into life and the fuse was lit for an onslaught of home pressure that proved almost relentless. City were in full flow, shut- tling the ball around with speed and accuracy without ever catching a clear sight of goal. Indeed, if some of their elo- quent football in recent matches had been translated into goals, then the play-offs would be a cast-iron banker. But their promotion hopes remain hanging in the balance, six wins from their last nine games is probably what will be required to claim a top-five spot. Much of the Grecians' first- half pressure arose from a series of teasing and tormenting bursts from pint-sized paceman Les Afful. The academy product caused palpitations for the Woking defence every time he raided the right flank and his first delivery was scuffed wide by Santos Gaia. It was fast becoming one-way traffic, the visitors camped in their own half in a bid to weather the storm. New signing Lee Phillips planted a header straight at Shwan Jalal before Afful slipped in between the two centre backs and curled his shot over the bar. But the guests, who enhanced their reputation as a bogey side having preserved their four game unbeaten streak against the Grecians over the past two seasons, refused to cave in. In fact they finally started showing signs of life on the half-hour mark, Chris Sharpling pouncing on Jean- nin's back pass only for San- tos Gaia to spring to the rescue with a timely clearance. For all the Brazilian's rock- solid defending, he was al- most left red-faced seconds later after slicing another Sharpling cross back towards his own goal. But his blushes were spared thanks to some alert goal-keeping from Jones as he averted any further danger with a composed clear-up operation. If Woking thought they had stemmed the tide by launching their first notable foray into their opponents half, then they were mistaken. Attentions swiftly switched to the other end, Afful thumping over the bar and the gathering contingent of away supporters after latching on to Jeannin's laser-guided 50-yard cross-field ball. And then on the stroke of half-time Edwards almost capitalised on Jalal's comical slip, but was denied when Jon Boardman launched a last-ditch goal-line clearance. Having survived a first-half onslaught, Woking breathed a huge sigh of relief they remained intact at the break. To be fair to City, the constant shrill of referee Roger East's whistle and his fail- ure to crack down on Woking's blatant time-wasting tactics contributed substantially to a far more dis- jointed second period. Some of the players were locked in animated conver- sation with the match officials as they headed down the tunnel at the final whistle. "There was plenty I wasn't happy with," said Ingleth- orpe, hinting at his displeasure over Mr East's performance. But the Grecians boss was sensible enough to keep his real thoughts to himself. Yet he did underline the extent to which his side had monopolised the contest, adding: "I thought we played extremely well and it's a test- ament to the players that we played against a side who are on a great run of form and our keeper hasn't had a shot to save all match. "We dominated the play in both periods and had the best chances. We should have won the game, but it's a point that could prove crucial.' To their credit, the Grecians sought to continue their high-tempo game at the beginning of the second period. Andy Taylor was thwarted by Jalal and Edwards wasted a glorious chance by steering a shot wide. But the game descended into a stop-start affair, scup- pering City's attempts to turn up the heat on their promotion rivals. In fact the bulk of the second-half action was confined to the final 10 minutes. substitute Gareth Sheldon forcing Jalal into a smart save low down to his right. Striker Sean Devine did put the ball into the back of the net only to have his effort ruled out for a blatant hand- ball with two minutes remaining. And then seconds after the board had signalled four minutes of added time, Gary Sawyer was presented with a golden opportunity to fire a late winner. Veteran Hiley found Steve Flack with an arching free-kick and the towering striker cushioned a header into the path of Sawyer. But the Plymouth Argyle loan signing, who was being observed by a Pilgrims' scout, squandered the opportunity to crown himself the hero by blazing over the bar.
Jones, Hiley, Gaia, Todd, Sawyer, Afful (Sheldon, 77), Ampadu, Taylor, Jeannin, Phillips (Flack, 74), Edwards (Devine, 67)
Yellow cards: Taylor, 27, Ampadu, 75
Jalal, Smith, Oliver, Boardman (Gosling, 52), Murray, Sharpling, Selley (Richards, 78) MacDonald (Jackson, 29), Cockerill, Jefferson, Nade
Yellow cards: Oliver, 83