Exeter City pressed the self-destruct button at St James’ Park yesterday as they conceded twice in the final three minutes to go down to a 2-1 defeat to Rochdale.
Jamie Cureton had put the Grecians in front on the stroke of half-time, but late goals from Ian Henderson and Bobby Grant earned a deserved win for Keith Hill’s team.
After an abysmal showing in the Devon derby loss to Plymouth Argyle on Saturday, Exeter desperately needed a response. The performance was better than what they served up at Home Park but, for a team chasing the dream of automatic promotion, it still was not good enough.
Exeter are five points off an automatic promotion place in npower League Two, and a three gap-point between them and Fleetwood Town in eighth leaves them looking nervously over their shoulders.
Manager Paul Tisdale made three changes to the side that started that shambolic loss at Plymouth.
Out went the injured Tommy Doherty, the one player to emerge with genuine credit from the Home Park debacle, while Kevin Amankwaah and Lawson D’Ath dropped to the bench. Steve Tully, Jake Gosling and Guillem Bauza came into the side.
The Grecians – again shooting towards the Big Bank in the first half – started well, with Cureton firing a free-kick goalwards. The ball was curling towards the far corner, but goalkeeper Josh Lillis dived at full-length to divert it behind for a corner.
Dale responded with a George Donnelly shot that was held well by Krysiak in what was an entertaining start to the game.
The Grecians survived an almighty scare on 17 minutes when Krysiak dropped a Henderson cross under no pressure. Shane Cansdell- Sherriff had an empty goal to aim at, but his header hit the inside of a post before being cleared by Danny Coles.
However, the best chance fell to Henderson, who knocked the ball horribly wide after good work on the right by Grant.
Exeter faded after a promising start and were struggling to put any passing moves together. Cureton spurned a good chance to set up Bauza, with Rochdale clearing the danger and, from the resulting break, Grant side-footed goalwards, but was denied by Craig Woodman’s excellent stop on the goal-line.
City were finding opportunities hard to come by, but Cureton did have one after a neat pass from Scot Bennett. Exeter’s top scorer turned sharply to fashion a one-on-one with Lillis, but the goalkeeper stayed tall and beat away the striker’s effort.
However, there was no mistake minutes later when Cureton broke the deadlock. Bauza did superbly to keep the ball alive and spread it wide to Gosling. His cross was touched by Cureton before he lashed the ball into the bottom corner for his 21st goal of the campaign.
Rochdale started the second half well, with Grimes again trying his luck from distance, but, again, Krysiak was equal to it.
However, the goalkeeper was having an erratic game. After a poor back pass by Tully, the Pole tried to play his way out of trouble and lost possession after trying to nutmeg Grimes, who robbed him of the ball. Luckily for Krysiak, the angle was narrow and his desperate dive at the ball was just enough to divert Grimes’ shot to safety.
Grimes curled another effort into the arms of Krysiak from distance as Exeter failed to keep possession for any period of time.
It was far from vintage stuff from Exeter, but they were just about holding on. Bauza skied high from distance before Grimes again went close for Dale, forcing Krysiak into another stop with a shot from 18 yards.
Exeter felt they should have had a second goal when Cureton finished smartly, but was denied by an offside flag. The striker clearly was when he received the ball, but his strenuous argument that the ball had deflected off a Dale defender en route to him fell on deaf ears.
It was a big and crucial call as, with three minutes remaining, Dale drew level. Henderson’s shot took a huge deflection off Mark Molesley, looped high into the air and, with Krysiak back-pedalling, the ball dropped into the corner of the net.
It was an unfortunate goal from the Grecians’ point of view, but you could not deny Dale deserved their equaliser. However, it soon got so much worse for City in the last minute of stoppage time.
Rochdale looked the more likely to snatch a winner and they duly did so. Molesley, who after his nightmare at Plymouth had another game to forget, gave the ball away and it was slipped through to Grant by Donnelly, who ran across the Exeter back line and slipped the ball under Krysiak and into the net.
Just how big a blow it is to Exeter’s automatic promotion aspirations remains to be seen, but one thing for sure is that over this Easter weekend the Grecians have turned in two of their worst performances for quite some time.
Exeter City (4-4-2): Krysiak; Tully, Baldwin, Coles, Woodman; Davies, Bennett, Molesley, Gosling (Keohane 68); Bauza (D’Ath 63), Cureton (Chamberlain 90). Substitutes (not used): Evans (gk), Moore-Taylor, Amankwaah, Dawson, Reid.
Goal: Cureton 45
Rochdale (4-4-2): Lillis; Rose, Edwards, Cavanagh, McIntyre (Rafferty h-t); Grant, Cansdell-Sherriff, Kennedy (Thompson 65), Henderson; Donnelly, Grimes. Substitutes (not used): Collis (gk), Rafferty, Barry-Murphy, Howarth, Gornell.
Goals Henderson 87, Grant 90
Referee: P Gibbs (West Midlands).