Just spent Saturday afternoon spanking the unbeaten league leaders and inducting a new miniature hero. No biggie.
I know some of you refuse to acknowledge the importance of this result, mainly because we’re in League Two and you’re still angry. But you lot need to get a grip.
I’m not going to waste time explaining why beating top of the league is meaningful. By all means whinge about our position in the footballing structure – I’m still pissed off about it too – but a dismissive attitude to positive results isn’t going to bring a higher league back any quicker. We’re here now, for better or worse, and it’s about time we got to work putting things right.
I find it hard to believe that yesterday was a fair representation of the quality that the previously unbeaten Exeter City have shown to date. It’s a scathing indictment of the quality in this league if it is, because we basically walloped them.
Sure, it was a dreadful first half all round. Exeter started with a decent intensity and pressed us well for the majority of the opening forty-five. It certainly neutralised our ability to easily work the ball forward, leaving the players content to move things around the back line before resorting to a final, somewhat aimless play into the space ahead. It was all fairly tepid, and actually pretty boring, but once again – we were the dominant team. We may have been under pressure, but were still controlling the ebb and flow of the match which is an important tone to set.
Debutant Devon Kelly-Evans started the game behind the striker as a late replacement for Beavon, but it was a role he seemed ill-at-ease with. It wasn’t until Vincenti went off for Biamou, and Kelly-Evans was asked to move out wide left, that the youngster was able to face forward with the ball. He was still fairly cautious in the opening period, but the switch in position allowed him to gain possession in places that were more suited to his qualities.
While most fans seemed pretty anxious about how the match was unfolding, I was mostly comfortable. The timing of a goal doesn’t concern me as much as our approach to the game and whether opportunities are actually presenting themselves. From my viewpoint, the clearest area to exploit in that first half was down the left against an Exeter right-back who’d struggled in the opening ten minutes against Jodi Jones but was rather oddly offered a reprise as Robins switched Jones to the right to allow Vincenti an attempt at a recovery. This continued even when Vince exited so I can only assume Robins felt it important to pair Stokes with Kelly-Evans for a bit of moral and defensive support. That really was my main frustration from the first period as we allowed a shaky full-back off the hook.
Half-time drew a flurry of concerned tweets from people forgetting that teams don’t always score in the first half; a poor man in the middle of the pitched received a soaking playing Kick it for a Ticket; while Robins apparently gave the team instructions to work the ball faster.
Fortunately for us that was to be good advice, aided by a reduction in the Exeter pressing that was such a prohibitive force in the first half. As that subsided, we began to take better control of the match.
Strangely, the gaps in the Exeter back line opened up very early in the second half, which is usually the result of a side taking more attacking risks. Exeter did not do this, as they offered very little moving forward. Not to downplay the quality of our defensive work, however – it’s quite possible much of this was down to just how darned organised and competitive we were.
A nod has to be given to our central defensive partnership which adroitly marshalled top scorer Reuben Reid, with Rodney McDonald putting in a particularly impressive display. Jordan Willis was strong alongside him, giving up on the daft passing that regularly dents his confidence and focusing his attention on being an imposing competitor.
The chances to score presented themselves quite regularly as the game moved on, but there was a sense of complacency about our attacking decision-making and finishing. It’s pleasing to see us play in a way that looks so capable of generating goal-scoring opportunities, but the conviction wasn’t quite there all afternoon. Thankfully that wasn’t to be an issue, as it only took ten minutes of the second half to find the net and calm the anxiety in the stands.
Wannabe free-kick expert Jodi Jones lined up a shot on the difficult side of the goal, and while the odds of him scoring were unfavourable, he once again proved his resilience and pounced on the rebound from his own rubbish free-kick, capitalising on the off-balance defence and drilling a ball across goal. Contrary to what his celebration suggested, it was a clear own goal off and one that gave the players a timely boost to gain absolute control the game.
The attacks continued, and each of the forward line was involved in crafting chances. Nazon is such an important focal point and draws a lot of attention from the opposition. Let’s be honest – he only seems to be interested in the ball on his own terms, which may infuriate some fans as the season wears on, but his threat is clear and he is becoming a vital presence up top.
Biamou came on and provided a very handy aerial threat; one that plenty of fans still feel is lacking in our team. I must say, I find it hard to believe that game of football could prompt post-match concern about missing such attributes. He was a constant aerial pest.
Newcomer Kelly-Evans certainly worked his way into the game, with his comfort levels in possession increasing, much like his brother’s opening matches. Tiny or not, those two cope fantastically well on a pitch with the bigger boys, and while their height might be something we notice when they first line up, that doesn’t last long. Dev worked, tackled, dribbled, created… and most importantly, scored the goal that allowed us all to finally relax.
I’m genuinely made up for him, and felt oddly emotional when the goal went in. I say “oddly” because there’s not much that happens on a football pitch that can prompt me to take a breath like that did. Of course I bloody love goals, and lose myself in unadulterated joy each time we score. But when I saw him run a way to the fans, in that moment it hit me just what that goal meant to him and his teammates, and as daft as it may sound in a League Two game in front of 8000 fans – I think it meant something to me too. Either that or I’d accidentally swallowed my chewing gum without realising.
So, that’s that. We beat top of the league comprehensively. It wasn’t perfect, but it does offer a lot of value. To both us and the players.
This was a match which hopefully will serve to acclimatise many of our fans to the league a bit more, and help clear up just what we can expect. I’ve said it a few times already, but this season isn’t going to bring perfection. We’re simply going to have to learn to allow for a few more mistakes with the ball than our Championship or League One selves would have endured.
There comes a point when you have to be realistic and recognise that a player making a mistake is just not worthy of any concerted focus or panic. Especially when those mistakes happen in isolation. The key part this season, at this level, is the tenacity and resilience of our team in response to those mistakes. Their willingness to rectify and continue to try the right things, even if it means a mistake or two along the way. Because the errors are inevitable and they’re coming whether you like it or not.
We’ve got to be happy with the way things are shaping up, surely? Yes, there’s a lingering concern if we lose many more of our first-teamers because the squad is looking pretty thin, but even with plenty of “better players” missing, we were able to show dominance on Saturday. If we can continue to assert that control, and key players like McDonald and Jones continue to showcase their higher-level credentials, we all know where this season is heading.
Next up: The Swindon Slugs, and a great chance to consolidate the message that we mean business.