E xeter City booked a place at Wembley in emphatic style on Thursday night; a 95th-minute screamer from Jack Stacey ensured the Grecians emerged 3-2 winners on a rollercoaster night at St James Park.
Here are five things we learnt from the match – aside from the obvious fact that City is 90 minutes away from promotion.
The Grecians were rock bottom in November. The majority of fans were calling for Paul Tisdale’s head – it appeared as though a decade in charge had stagnated his side. Yet, Tisdale persevered, and his men rallied to the charge.
A stunning seven-match winning run in the league, aided by David Wheeler’s record-breaking scoring streak, saw the Grecians climb out of the drudge of the bottom and emerge as serious play-off contenders.
‘testament to the stoic mentality’
Resilience has been the narrative of this superb Grecian story, and it manifested itself once more against Carlisle United. 2-0 up with ten minutes remaining, it seemed for all the world that City had cemented a place at Wembley. But, two goals from the visitors in ten minutes cut short any premature plans. Lesser sides would have crumbled. But, testament to the stoic mentality that pervades this Grecian outfit, they bounced back, immediately looking for a winner. Indeed, there was something scripted about Stacey’s only ever goal for Exeter being the one that sends them to Wembley.
Joel Grant has to start at Wembley
Grant was a menace in the first fixture at Carlisle, scoring one and setting up a second for Wheeler. Thus, it came as some surprise that the speedy forward was left on the bench for the reverse leg.
However, his entrance onto the field gave City that spark they desperately needed: Carlisle were beginning to knock on City’s door and pile the pressure on. Grant’s beguiling feet and acceleration gave the Grecians’ an outlet, kick-starting the second wave of energy – a wave that led to Ollie Watkins’ second goal of the night, to make it 2-0.
Grant should have scored himself, though. A terrifically mesmerising run at the Carlisle defence saw him through on goal. The finish seemed simple enough, but Grant, bizarrely, decided to take on another defender, then another and just as it looked like he need simply tap the ball home, he shot straight down the middle – a simple take for the goalkeeper.
There is a certain beauty to lower league football that one seldom garners from top-flight football. There is an intimate relationship with the club; a connection fostered by openness and community as opposed to Premier League sides putting up a veil of secrecy and opaqueness.
This is perhaps a reason why the support is just so fervent at St James Park. Sure, there are myriad reasons more, but this footballing correspondence has nurtured a welcoming, yet passionate fan base.
The continual beat and roar from the Big Bank will have surely given the City players that extra ounce of energy in the dying minutes.
Watkins’ transfer fee
It seems inevitable that Ollie Watkins will depart Exeter City this summer. The youngster has been scintillating this year, scoring 16 times and turning provider five times.
‘vibrant, incisive and composed’
The 21-year-old is vibrant on the ball, incisive in his passing and composed in his finishing: two well-taken goals has only increased his transfer value.
With physicality to complement his obvious technical ability, there will be a number of clubs seeking his signature this summer. Players of Watkins’ ilk are rare, and he will demand a considerable fee – a fee that rose with his three goals over the two legs.
Special nights breed special moments
If Exeter manages to see off Blackpool Town on the 28th May, theirs will surely be the story of the season. There was an anticipation in the air, an excited energy that rippled through the stadium: somehow, there was an unspoken agreement that this Exeter side would win.
‘Perfect alignment of sucess’
This entertaining – the word does not do this semi-final justice – playoff has seen some special moments. Moments that should cast aside all contemptuous doubts over the quality of League Two football. Make no mistake, there was some serious ability on show.
None more so than Stacey. That he was able to find his mother in the chaos of a pitch invasion speaks to the perfect alignment of success imprinted on City in recent months.
The euphoria of a 95th-minute winner, by an unlikely hero, is simply illusrtative of the uniqueness that abounds Exeter City.