EXETER CITY may be feeling things are not entirely going their way at the minute but, for the third game running, they were given a generous helping hand in their quest for three points at Burton Albion.
Fifty-six minutes were on the clock when John O’Flynn’s fierce shot was parried by Burton goalkeeper Dean Lyness. The ball ricocheted off Ian Sharps and rolled into the net to give Exeter a deserved lead at the Pirelli Stadium.
Incredibly, it was the third game running in which an own goal had put Exeter in front. But, as was the case at Bristol Rovers, the lead was somewhat short-lived as the Brewers equalised within two minutes to earn themselves a share of the spoils from a 1-1 draw.
On the face of it, a point against a side who were play-off semi-finalists last season and look a good bet to repeat that feat at the very least again this campaign is no bad return. Perhaps the biggest indication of events, though, was at full-time and hearing the Brewers’ boss, Gary Rowett, claim Exeter were more than good value for their point and probably deserved to win.
The own goal was actually the only thing that did go Exeter’s way. They had two goals disallowed in the first half and always looked the more likely to score, although their full-backs were given a stern test all afternoon by Burton’s outstanding wingers, Jimmy Phillips and the on-loan Zeli Ismail.
That said, Craig Woodman and Danny Butterfield showed all their wily know-how to keep them at bay, although Burton’s goal did have a touch of déjà vu about it. Ismail’s low cross on the Exeter left found Adam McGurk, who swept the ball past Artur Krysiak. It was like watching winning goals for Bristol Rovers and AFC Wimbledon all over again.
Other than that, though, it was another solid display from City’s back line. The excellent Pat Baldwin dealt with pretty much everything pumped in the general direction of Exeter’s two centre-halves, and he was ably assisted by captain Danny Coles.
In front of them, Matt Grimes showed his class with some neat passing and lovely touches on the most tricky of playing surfaces, while Scot Bennett offered protection to the back four and a physical presence in midfield.
That allowed Jimmy Keohane the freedom to create for City. and he turned in another excellent display. Liam Sercombe carried on where he left off against Oxford with another energetic show and Arron Davies was always a threat with his crosses from the wing.
However, O’Flynn was Exeter’s stand-out player. Despite having not started since the 2-2 draw with Bury at the end of November, he was asked to lead the line, with manager Paul Tisdale opting to give Tom Nichols a rest, perhaps with half an eye on Tuesday's Premier League Under-21 Cup quarter-final with Burnley.
The Irishman, touted as a possible departure from St James’ Park prior to last Friday’s transfer-window closure, repaid his manager’s faith with a fine all-round performance full of endeavour and running, which is exactly what Exeter needed from him.
He could have had a penalty when he was bundled over on the stroke of half-time and was unlucky not to score as well. It was unclear whether he got the final touch in a goalmouth scramble following an Exeter corner, but it would not have mattered anyway, with the referee blowing for an apparent foul on the Burton goalkeeper.
The former Barnet striker was then denied by a linesman’s flag after heading in from Sercombe’s cross. That looked more obvious, but the link-up play between Sercombe, O’Flynn and Keohane was a feature of Exeter’s play all afternoon.
In fact, that trio combined for the opener, although it was the unfortunate Sharps who was credited with the goal, but there was little he could do.
The same could not be said of Exeter, who seemed to fall asleep as Burton levelled within 90 seconds, much to the frustration of everyone connected to the Grecians.
Bennett spurned a glorious close-range chance to win it when he blazed high from Davies’ low cross and then O’Flynn stood the ball up for Davies to head against an upright in stoppage time.
City are still far from their fluent best, but the signs of progress are clear to see and the two well-earned points in the past week sets them up nicely for next Saturday’s mouth-watering clash with Portsmouth.