EXETER CITY 2 DAGENHAM & REDBRIDGE 2
THEY wanted to score the first goal, believing it would stand them a better chance of victory, but even that was not enough for Exeter City to end a five-month wait for a win at St James’ Park.
That run has seen the Grecians slide alarmingly down the League Two table and, after Saturday’s results, they sit six points above Northampton Town, who occupy one of the two relegation places, along with Torquay United, a further four points adrift.
However, it could have been much worse for the Grecians, had substitute Eliot Richards not scrambled the equaliser in the dying seconds of Saturday’s contest.
The Grecians looked set to throw away all of their good work in the first half with a crazy ten-minute spell after the interval, which saw them concede twice.
But with another defeat seemingly on the cards, Richards directed Matt Oakley’s right-wing cross goalwards and the ball bobbled, bounced and squirmed through the grasp of goalkeeper Chris Lewington and just about crossed the line, with Scot Bennett on the spot looking to finish things off himself.
It means Exeter can go into Tuesday’s huge clash with Northampton at St James’ park with a little more confidence. The clash with the Cobblers really is the proverbial ‘six-pointer’.
Win and the Grecians can haul themselves nine points ahead of Chris Wilder’s side. Defeat and the gap is closed to three. It is barely worth thinking about.
However, there were many positives for Exeter to take from their draw with the Daggers. They dominated the first half and deservedly led at the break, courtesy of Tom Nichols’ sixth goal of the season.
The young striker has been one of the stories of the season, with his career at St James’ Park at one point seemingly going nowhere. But some storming performances for the reserves and in the Under-21 Premier League Cup have earned him his chance.
Nichols is far from the finished article, but his game has improved immeasurably this campaign and he showed a predatory instinct to put Exeter 1-0 up with a clever back-heel after Matt Grimes had scuffed the initial chance.
The goal itself was down to the sheer hard work and perseverance of Sam Parkin, who is showing signs of the player we saw back in the autumn. He showed great tenacity to win the ball on the touchline and lay it back to Craig Woodman, and it was from his deep cross that David Wheeler nodded down to Grimes to shoot and Nichols to grab the glory.
It was his sixth of a campaign in which he was making only his 19th appearance, and 11th from the start. But Exeter will need a few more goals if they are to preserve their Football League status.
It was also just what City had wanted. In the build-up to the game, players spoke of getting their noses in front, but it was then their failure to get a second goal that probably cost them.
They had a few half-chances, but nothing clear cut, although Parkin could perhaps have done better when he got to Nichols’ chipped cross, but his chested first touch was just too strong and ran through for Lewington to gather the loose ball.
City were actually looking the more likely to score when disaster struck shortly past the hour mark. No one was on hand to finish Bennett’s deep cross, and as Dagenham broke Exeter suddenly found themselves stretched and vulnerable.
Eventually, the ball came to Luke Norris, who had struck a post with Dagenham’s sole chance of the first half, and he curled a fine effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
The goal seemed to stun Exeter, who then found themselves trailing in controversial circumstances. Captain Danny Coles was adjudged to have pulled back or blocked Brian Saah in the box and, without hesitation, the referee pointed to the spot.
Medy Elito’s penalty finish was coolness personified, as he nonchalantly passed the ball into the corner.
Exeter responded with a penalty shout of their own – a handball seen by hundreds, but not by the man that mattered – and it seemed as though it was going to be another one of those days.
But, in the sixth minute of stoppage time, a cross from the right was turned goalwards and should have been an easy take for Lewington. But he lost control and fumbled the ball over the line for the equaliser.
It was scruffy, but that does not matter. Any goal at St James’ Park is most welcome, but it was no more than Exeter deserved for their dogged determination. That is something they will need plenty more of against Northampton.