Exeter City’s dream of completing a remarkable season was dashed in a frantic and entertaining play-off final against Blackpool Town. An early goal from Brad Potts saw the Tangerines lead within three minutes, but City levelled through a sublime piece of skill from Wheeler. Yet, it was Town who would then go on to score the decisive goal through Mark Cullen midway through the second-half.
It was the Tangerines who settled into their stride quickest, racing to every loose ball as they looked to exploit a timid beginning from Exeter. Exploit they did as a driven ball from the back was deftly taken down by Town’s Cullen, who softly guided it into the path of Potts; making no mistake, Potts hammered the ball down to Christopher Pym’s right.
The 5,000 Blackpool supporters – the few who caved to the temptation of Wembley, rather than boycotting – were sent into ecstasy.
City’s nervous start continued, and it could have been 2-0 had Pott’s flashed cross found the arriving Cullen. Pym, the City keeper, sent three consecutive kicks out into touch, encapsulating the debilitating anxiety of the Grecians’ opening ten minutes.
But, if this season has taught City fans anything it is that their side is resilient. Exeter began to grow into the game, brushing off their opening lethargy, and Ollie Watkins’ could have responded emphatically had he beaten the outstretching Sam Slocombe in the 11th minute. David Wheeler’s knock-down fell to Watkins who expertly spun and dispatched a shot that looked bound for the net – Slocombe had other ideas, however.
Spurred on by a glimmer of a chance, the Grecians continued to apply the pressure. Joel Grant’s quick feet teasing opportunities but never evolving into anything meaningful. Indeed, a Ryan Harley header that drifted wide and a snatched shot from Lloyd James was all City had to show for 71% possession.
A frustrating 40 minutes for the Grecians looked to be heading into a lull before half-time, but a moment of magic from Wheeler saw City draw level. A quick free-kick from City left-back Craig Woodman evaded the Blackpool defence, with Wheeler creeping in through the back door; deceitfully losing his man, Wheeler took the ball into his path and artfully lobbed the on-rushing Slocombe. It was a finish that would not look out of place in the Premier League.
Paul Tisdale, kitted out in the latest season of Ted Baker looked on approvingly, his eye for style diffusing onto the pitch. Gary Bowyer’s men had finally succumbed to sustained pressure.
‘finally succumed to sustained pressure’
Bowyer will not have been happy with his team’s performance following their early goal – such displeasure was clearly manifested during the interval as his team once again started the brighter. Blackpool asserted their own authority on the game and could have scored twice through substitute Bright Osayi-Samuel. As Blackpool kept knocking on the door and a battling Grecian defence continued to resist, the physical Tory Brown fell to injury, replaced by Pierce Sweeney, which coincided with a move to 3-5-2.
It was this formational switch which can be attributed to what came next. A ball floated down Exeter’s left was flicked on by Kyle Vassel, allowing Potts to charge into the box and shoot at Pym. His shot was saved but fell to Mark Cullen who had an empty net to slot the ball into. Disorganisation revealed itself in space, and it was acutely exploited by Blackpool.
Naturally, Exeter reacted, but an attack that has been so potent all season stuttered and stalled. Town stoically resisted and could have scored a third had Osayi-Samuel been more clinical.
‘Grecians should be proud’
City huffed and puffed but it was apparent they had nothing left to give – a story that could have been magical ends, but the Grecians should be proud of the admirable resolve they have shown this season. Rock bottom in November, to an enthralling play-off final in May, it has been a rollercoaster season for the Grecians and you can expect more twists and turns next season.
Live from Wembley – Michael Jones
Exeter: Pym; Woodman; Moore-Taylor; Brown; Stacey; James; Taylor; Harley; Wheeler; Grant; Watkins
Blackpool: Slocombe; Mellor; Robertson; Aimson; Vassell; Potts; Cullen; Aldred; Daniel; Payne; Danns