C arlisle United fought back from 3-1 down to level the first-leg of this play-off semi-final, meaning the reverse fixture is poised on a knife edge.
Exeter City’s potent attack looked to have placed Grecian feet in the final, but a goal-keeping error and slack defending meant the semi-final will reach its dramatic conclusion on Thursday night, under the lights of St James Park.
Paul Tisdale, the City boss, had spoken of the need to enjoy the lottery of the play-offs, given Exeter were rock-bottom in November. It looked as though the players leant on such advice as the Grecians’ were an aesthetic blend of movement and thrust in the opening quarter of the game.
Ollie Watkins – Exeter’s star-man – provided the goods he has delivered so often this season when he surged into the United penalty area and lofted an inviting cross towards Joel Grant. Grant duly headed home, putting the Grecians 1-0 up.
It was the ideal start for Tisdale’s side: an early goal was meant to calm the nerves and allow his side to settle into their renowned rhythm. Yet, City looked distinctively vulnerable in the aftermath of their goal, with an equaliser looking inevitable.
‘from the depths of a relegation fight to the promise of the play-offs’
Carlisle’s equaliser arrived in cruel circumstances; a dangerous cross deflecting off Jordan Moore-Taylor into his own net. But, if Tisdale’s side is to be characterised by one feature this season, it is resilience. From the depths of a relegation fight to the promise of the playoffs, this City side knows how to deal with pressure. Indeed, they rode the Carlisle storm, and emerged with an unlikely goal on the stroke of half-time.
Ryan Harley’s first-time drive from the edge of the box appeared to be a simple formality for the Carlisle keeper, but with the shot travelling through a scrum of defenders he was left unsighted, and his reflexes not sharp enough to deal with a slight deflection.
Once again, City started the half the brighter team. Their persistence paid off, as David Wheeler slotted home for his 20th goal of the season. It was a typically composed finish from the Welshman, the ball cut back to him thanks to a bright run from Joel Grant.
Grecian fans would have been planning their trips to Wembley at 3-1 – such complacency and misplaced confidence appeared to have crept onto the pitch, however.
On the 71st minute, J. O’Sullivan’s cross evaded everyone, including the City keeper Bobby Olejnik. He was left flapping as the right-back’s hopeful ball somehow managed to find the top corner. A lapse in concentration from Olejnik, and Carlisle were right back in it.
They didn’t need a second invitation, either. Just two minutes after O’Sullivan’s cross-come-shot, S.Miller stole a yard to head into the City net. Two goals in three minutes put a momentary stop to any premature plans.
‘two goals in three minutes put a stop to any premature plans’
City came agonisingly close to making it 4-3 in the final seconds of the game, however, as Jake Taylor guided his effort off the upright. It would have been a fitting end to a narrative of twists, goals and excitement.
This result sets up what will surely be a scintillating night at St James Park. Away goals do not come into play during the playoffs, so it will be whoever is victorious on the night who gets the honour of playing at the home of English football.
The Grecians are menacing going forward and with a packed out St James Park, you would still bet on Paul Tisdale’s side striding into the final.