Exeter City staged a remarkable comeback to win a five-goal thriller at promotion-chasing Southend United.
The Grecians were trailing 2-1 at half-time after Mark Phillips; brace for the home side had overturned Jimmy Keohane’s early opener for City.
But a stunning strike from Liam Sercombe levelled matters eight minutes from time before Eliot Richards bagged his first goal for the club soon after to cap a stunning comeback, a much-needed result and an excellent performance.
The Grecians made three changes to the side that drew with Portsmouth last week. Christy Pym was handed his Grecians’ debut with Artur Krysiak injured, while Matt Oakley returned for his first start since the end of September.
John O’Flynn was preferred up front to Tom Nichols, while Southend’s front line had a familiar look about it with former Grecians Barry Corr and Lee Barnard, who was on loan at St James’ Park during the ill-fated relegation season of 2002-03, in tandem.
Pym was under pressure early on when Southend won a free kick, but the 18-year-old shot-stopper confidently came and took the ball.
It was all fairly even, but the opening goal came on ten minutes. Daniel Bentley’s poor clearance went straight to Davies, who headed it forward for Keohane, who ran through to slip the ball into the corner from 12 yards.
City’s lead lasted less than two minutes. Southend won a free kick from wide on the right and Ben Coker’s delivery found Phillips, who headed past Pym under very little pressure from the Grecians’ backline.
City were straight back on the attack and O’Flynn teed up Keohane with a brilliant cross, but his header was saved by the legs of Bentley. Moments later, the goalkeeper was penalised for sliding out the box with his hands on the ball to gift City a free kick. The ball eventually came to O’Flynn, who was denied by Bentley, low down to his left.
O’Flynn almost capitalised when Oakley picked him out with a superb pass, but his shot was blocked and went for Exeter’s sixth corner of the first 20 minutes.
However, it was from a Southend corner from where the next goal came. Hurst’s delivery again picked out Phillips, who notched his second goal with far too much ease as Pym came and didn’t get near the ball.
City’s defending from set plays was embarrassing. From another Hurst delivery, Phillips headed over the bar, but it was far from one-way traffic. Sercombe teed up Keohane, who was denied by Bentley’s one-handed stop for yet another corner.
Coker was narrowly wide with a free kick from 20 yards, while City had a great chance to equalise on the stroke of half-time. Keohane was denied by Bentley when played through on goal and Phillips crowned a good half for him personally when he brilliantly blocked O’Flynn’s follow-up. Coles headed over the bar from the resulting corner to bring an end-to-end half to a close.
However, it was a half where Exeter were left cursing their defensive vulnerability with two incredibly soft goals conceded. Going forward, they had looked a threat all afternoon and could have more than Keohane’s goal to show for their efforts.
City started the second half well with Sercombe’s shot deflecting off one of his own players and going just wide, but Pym almost gifted Southend a third. His poor clearance from down by the corner flag went straight to Corr, who shot wide from 20 yards with the goal at his mercy.
Adam Thompson headed over with another good chance for Southend and Sercombe came close to an equaliser with an exquisite chip that Bentley did well to tip behind.
Will Atkinson’s shot deflected off substitute Bedsente Gomis and deflected just wide – it was his first touch of the ball – while Eliot Richards was denied by Bentley soon after he had entered the fray.
Richards and David Wheeler had come on for Keohane and Oakley, but it was Davies next to try his luck only to be denied by more desperate defending. From the resulting corner though, City drew level.
Sercombe swapped passes with Grimes, who laid the ball back to his team-mate, who ran to the edge of the penalty box and leashed a stunning shot that flew across goal and into the top corner.
Kevan Hurst volleyed into the hands of Pym as the game exploded into life with five minutes remaining and as Exeter countered, Nichols, who had just come on, saw a shot deflect behind.
From the resulting corner, the ball went deep and was picked up by Richards. He showed terrific skill to get the better of Ryan Leonard, cut onto his right foot and lashed the ball past Bentley.
Richards then turned provider to set Wheeler scampering clear, but he was denied by Bentley once again as four minutes of stoppage time were displayed.
Wheeler won his side a free kick after a brilliant run up the right wing, but City were in no mood to take it quickly. And they played out time with great professionalism to seal a remarkable win.
Southend United (4-4-2): Bentley; White, Phillips, Thompson, Coker; Hurst, Timlin (Williams 85), Leonard, Atkinson; Corr (Eastwood 77), Barnard (Gomis 69). Substitutes (not used): laird, Straker, Payne.
Goal: Phillips 12, 22
Exeter City (4-4-1-1): Pym; Butterfield, Bennett, Coles, Woodman; Sercombe, Oakley (Wheeler 73), Grimes, Davies; Keohane (Richards 70); O’Flynn (Nichols 84). Substitutes (not used): Krysiak (gk), Moore-Taylor, Dawson, Parkin.
Goal: Keohane 10, Sercombe 82, Richards 87.
Referee: G Ward.