Exeter City paid the price for a first-half horror show in South Yorkshire last night as Rotherham United stormed to a 4-1 win in the battle of the play-off rivals.
After three straight defeats left the Grecians desperately clinging on to a play-off place, they slipped out of npower League Two’s top seven last night with another abject performance. That fourth straight loss coupled with a win for Bradford City over Bristol Rovers saw them overtaken by the Bantams in the division’s standings.
Exeter were behind after just 64 seconds as Scot Bennett lost the ball, Ben Pringle pounced, drove forward and lashed the ball into the bottom corner from 25 yards.
Former Grecian Daniel Nardiello made it two and Michael O’Connor added a third with barely 30 minutes on the clock.
It was much better from Exeter after the break, but Craig Morgan added the fourth before Danny Coles netted a consolation for Exeter 13 minutes from time.
Just how damaging this defeat turns out to be remains to be seen, but with the Grecians now out of the play-off frame, they must start winning, starting with Saturday’s trip to Wimbledon, to keep their promotion dream alive.
The Grecians made three changes to the side that were beaten by Dagenham & Redbridge last time out. As expected, Aaron Dawson started at right-back in the absence of Kevin Amankwaah and Steve Tully, while Mark Molesley and Jamie Cureton came in at the expense of John O’Flynn and Jake Gosling, who was not even named among the substitutes. Brighton loanee Anton Rodgers was, though and came on for his debut late in the game.
Rotherham fielded two former Grecians in the shape of former skipper David Noble and strike ace Nardiello.
There was some good news for Exeter fans before kick-off with the sight of a kitted up Alan Gow being involved in the warm-up. It seems the gifted Scot is tantalisingly close to a return to first-team action, but last night’s game came just too soon.
Northampton boss Aidy Boothroyd and Fleetwood chief Graham Alexander were interested incumbents of the directors’ box, obviously casting their eyes over potential play-off opponents.
There were 64 seconds on the clock when the Grecians fell behind. Bennett gave the ball away sloppily in midfield and Pringle advanced forward before unleashing a superb strike from 25 yards that flew into the bottom corner.
The Grecians were under the cosh again moments later when Kieran Agard won a free kick after turning Pat Baldwin on the edge of the box. Michael O’Connor’s effort was poor though and well blocked by Coles.
It was one-way traffic in the opening 15 minutes, but Exeter earned some light relief when Lawson D’Ath won a free kick 25 yards out and to the right of Scott Shearer’s goal. Craig Woodman’s in-swinger was on target and punched behind by the Millers’ goalkeeper.
Exeter failed to do much from the resulting corner and Rotherham broke at speed with Nardiello teeing up former Yeovil striker Agard, but he fluffed his lines six yards out.
It was a familiar story to recent games for the Grecians, who were wasteful in possession and struggling to get into the Rotherham half. When they did, Reading loanee D’Ath skied high from 25 yards. Molesley was also off target as the Grecians at last showed some attacking intent, although they lacked genuine belief and conviction.
However, it was 2-0 on 28 minutes and it was that man Nardiello that did the damage. He got past Dawson on the Exeter right and played a neat one-two before slipping the ball inside Krysiak’s near post from a narrow angle.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, two soon became three with half an hour on the clock. O’Connor picked up on a poor clearance and lashed home a shot that took an unfortunate deflection to leave Krysiak stranded.
Exeter were crestfallen. Cureton had barely had a touch before frustration got the better of him and he tried his luck with a volley from 30 yards plus, which went way over the bar. Other than that, Cureton’s only contribution to the game were a number of silly offsides.
However, like O’Flynn on Monday, he was having no service from a desperately poor midfield. D’Ath was full of running, but over-complicated things at times, Molesley couldn’t get into the game, Bennett’s passing was woeful and Davies offered absolutely no attacking threat.
Molesley and Dawson were taken off at the break and replaced by O’Flynn and Jimmy Keohane. Bennett switched to right-back, Davies and D’Ath joined forces in central midfield with Doherty and Keohane anchoring and topping the ‘diamond’ respectively.
The early signs were good as the Grecians at least started passing in more dangerous areas, even if the end product was not quite there with two poor crosses from Bennett.
However, more poor defending led to a fourth for the home side on 52 minutes. Alex Revell kept the ball alive and headed back into a dangerous area. The Grecians, so slow to react, failed to clear and Morgan rammed the ball past Krysiak from ten yards.
Exeter responded with O’Flynn’s glancing header from D’Ath’s cross landing on the roof of the net, but it was a rare moment of promise for the 222 travelling Grecians to get excited about.
D’Ath, who was ever willing and central to all of Exeter’s best moves, was again off target from long range before Rodgers was handed his Grecians’ debut as a substitute for Doherty 19 minutes from time.
He started spraying the ball around with confidence and with 13 minutes left, the Grecians pulled a goal back. It came from Davies’ corner, which Coles headed goalwards and the linesman deemed the ball had crossed the line before a Rotherham defender tried clawing it to safety with his hand.
However, that was as good as it got for the Grecians, who were certainly better in the second half and played some neat football. But the damage was done by that woeful first half hour.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Shearer; Tonge, Craig Morgan, Arnason, Skarz; Agard (Ainsworth 73), O’Connor (Frecklington 83), Noble, Pringle; Nardiello, Revell (Odejayi 79). Substitutes (not used): Warrington, Rose, Ridehalgh, Rowe.
Goals: Pringle 2, Nardiello 28, O’Connor 30, Morgan 52
Exeter City (4-5-1): Krysiak; Dawson (Keohane h-t), Baldwin, Coles, Woodman; Molesley (O’Flynn h-t), Doherty (Rodgers 71), D’Ath, Bennett, Davies; Cureton. Substitutes (not used): Evans (gk), Bauza, Reid, Moore-Taylor.
Goal: Coles 77
Booking: D’Ath, O’Flynn.
Referee: S Duncan (Tyne & Wear)