Fireworks from hat-trick-hero Ollie Watkins saw the New Years Eve celebrations begin early for Exeter City fans, as their 1-4 victory at struggling Newport County further cemented their place in mid-table.
With the sky looking as dull as the river to the ground’s west, the fans would have been hoping for a much different picture on the pitch. Unfortunately, the first ten minutes set out to treat them to much of the same – each side approaching cagily, with the ball going from end-to-end without really seeing any chances.
It was the hosts who found their way into the match first. A flurry of opportunities gave the home fans hope of an early lead, yet they squandered each of them. The best, coming just 15 minutes in, saw Rhys Healey make his way through to the byline, knocking it back across for Josh Sheehan. Unfortunately for County, the midfielder’s shot was straight at City ‘keeper Christy Pym, and what could have been a vital goal was little more than a weak attempt.
The visitors soon began fighting their way back into the match, yet they lacked any serious end product. It took until the 31st minute for Exeter to launch a significant shot – Liam McAlinden’s effort failed to trouble the goalkeeper, though, as it glanced past the left post.
Eventually, County were caught out. As the first half ticked over into injury time, McAlinden was picked out on the left wing on a counter attack. A speedy Watkins outpaced the defenders to win the header close to goal, and his aim was true. Exeter went into the half-time break with a perhaps undeserved 0-1 lead, but a lead nonetheless.
As the teams returned to the pitch, any hope of Newport building on their first half performance to work their way back into the match was quickly dashed. It took just two minutes into the second half for Exeter to add to their lead further. Again, McAlinden found Watkins in the penalty area, who slotted home.
With a growing advantage, the Grecians began to look more comfortable on the ball. Meanwhile, their opponents became further and further frustrated. Sloppy play at the back allowed Connor Riley-Lowe to slip one along the face of goal from the left wing. In scenes reminiscent of Exeter’s second goal just a few minutes earlier, David Wheeler found himself with an easy tap-in, and he took full advantage. 30 minutes previously this game had been on a knife edge; now, it was ecstasy for Exeter and a New Year’s Eve nightmare for Newport.
Sean Rigg clawed one back for the hosts near the end of the match, yet despite the chants of “we’re gonna win 4-3” from the home support, it would have come as a great surprise if it was anything other than a consolation goal.
Still, Newport weren’t quite finished. It took a headed clearance from Jordan Moore-Taylor to deny Josh Sheehan from adding to the scoresheet after he directed an impressive volley goalwards. Newport continued to press, desperate for any chance of a point that could put them closer to safety. However, against the run of play, Watkins sealed his hat trick. Making the most of a Newport side that had overcommitted in attack, he rounded the sliding County goalkeeper Joe Day to slot the ball into the empty net.
With just a single minute of the additional six remaining, that sealed the result, and sent Exeter into the New Year still on top of the away form table. More importantly, though, Exeter go into 2017 in the top half of League Two, quashing the fears of a relegation battle that plagued the start of the season.