The Ant Moxey Report
So on a chilly afternoon at the Park, City and Gillingham serve up the classic 'game of two halves' and share the spoils in a 1-1 draw in front of 5761 supporters, the biggest turn out at the Park since the Yeovil game way back in August. City lined up: Jones; Seaborne, Taylor, Duffy; Golbourne, Harley, Dunne, Cozic, Tully; Stewart, Stansfield.
Employing the same 3-5-2 system that saw City win their previous home game against Southend, it was the home team that enjoyed the best of the opening exchanges in a frenetic opening ten minutes. This was demonstrated perfectly with Stewart's flick for Tully to race down the right before driving in a cross to earn a corner.
Then on the quarter hour Golbourne muscled through two challenges near his own corner flag before bursting down the left. He then played the ball through the middle to Stewart who cleverly dummied allowing the ball to run on to Cozic bursting forward. He continued the move by playing the ball out to Tully on the right whose cross was cut out at the near post in a lightning City break.
At the 20 minute mark Stansfield and Stewart combined well inside the box to set up Stewart for a cross shot that was deflected over the bar for another corner.
In the 25th minute Gillingham had a glorious chance to take the lead when jet heeled striker Simeon Jackson got away from Matt Taylor on the left touchline before racing in on goal. however, instead of laying the ball off for the unmarked Dennis Oli in acres of space ten yards out, Jackson wastefully shot feebly into Jones midriff.
A minute later Taylor atoned for his error with a towering header that Stewart flicked on to Stans speeding down the left where he ripped a square ball across to Stewart whose good looking drive from the edge of the box clipped a defender before deflecting away for a corner. However, from that corner Oli broke virtually the length of the field shepherded only by the back tracking Harley. But Harley did his job perfectly and with Duffy racing back to cover Oli was forced wide such that his eventual shot was from a ridiculously tight angle and straight into the side netting.
Just after the half hour mark Gillingham had another great chance when a cross from the left was met with a bullet header from Rashid Yussuff, but he'd not figured on the athleticism of Paul Jones as he dived full length to spectacularly palm the ball around the far post for a Gills corner.
With Gillingham in the ascendency as the half drew to a close, Oli once again spurned a terrific Gills chance blasting high and wide onto the Bank from ten yards out after the City defence had been well and truly carved open. But there was one final chance which summed up the half fairly well when a City throw in ended up at Harley some 30 yards out, but his long range drive lacked both the power and direction to unduly trouble the Gills underworked keeper.
That would surely change in the second half though with the introduction of Richard Logan at the expense of James Dunne at the start of the half, which also saw City change formation to a 4-3-3 with Golbourne and Tully reverting to more conventional full backs and Duffy moving forward into midfield alongside Cozic and Harley with Logan slotting in on the right side of a front three with Stewart on the left and Stansfield in the middle.
The results were almost instant with a Harley corner being driven back into the Gills box where confusion reigned among the defenders where the ball was eventually hacked clear. It wasn't clear for long though as Bertie's long range smash was gratefully grasped at the second attempt by the keeper as Stansfield looked to pounce.
A cross field ball from Tully found Logan who nodded down for Stewart in one of the best moves of the game so far, but unfortunately Stewart's deftly flicked volley with the outside of the boot that the keeper tipped onto the roof of the net was immaterial as the lino's flag had been long since raised.
In the 12th minute Logie's long ball down the right sent Stansfield scampering but his first time cross was planted straight at the keeper by Stewart at the far post, then five minutes later City's endeavours looked to finally be rewarded when Logie steered the ball into the path of Tully who burst through into the box before crossing at the by-line. A defender's arm definitely put the ball behind for a corner, but was it hand to ball or ball to hand though? Much to the consternation of the majority of the crowd, the latter was the ref's decision so what looked like a pretty good shout for a penalty came to nothing.
A minute later a free kick a few yards back from the corner of the box from Harley was again met by the finely cropped bonce of Logie whose knockdown was hoisted over the bar by the well placed Stewart. Midway through the half Bertie was withdrawn as Alex Russell entered the fray and within a minute City were in front.
With Russell patrolling the edge of the box menacingly, he collected the ball 30 yards out before inviting Duffy to try his luck from a yard or so to his left. Duffy's daisycutter was well struck, but it needed a cruel deflection of a defender to divert it into the football-sized gap between the keeper's despairing dive and the base of the far post to give City a deserved 1-0 lead.
But the lead lasted barely minutes. Gillingham pressure from the restart saw the ball eventually worked to the left side where a series of missed clearances ended up with a cross from the left being drilled high into the net by Stewart Lewis from the edge of the box that despite getting a strong hand to, Jones had little chance of keeping out.
With 20 minutes remaining City's final substitution saw the excellent Stansfield replaced by the equally twinkle-toed Stuart Fleetwood as City went in search of the winner. As with both Logie and Russell before him, Fleet's impact was almost immediate, latching onto Logie's flick from a raking Russell ball and hitting a dipping drive that the keeper collected comfortably.
On the half hour City very nearly did get the winner with a fine effort from Russell, but he could only look on in agony as his 25 yard volley from a Harley corner crashed against the base of the post before being smothered by a grateful keeper. Five minutes later Fleetwood's trickery saw him burst into the box with a roadrunner-esque turn of speed before crossing to the far post where a defender somehow managed to crash the ball over the bar rather than into the back of his own net under severe pressure from Logie, then a further five minutes after that Duffy pressure on the keeper from a Harley cross after a good run down the left had the keeper and defender flapping before eventually clearing.
Then finally, with virtually the final kick of a cracking second half, Harley hit a well struck free kick from distance into the arms of a keeper who was pleased to finally hear the full time whistle.
But talk about a game of two halves - the first was a mish mash of bad passes, poor efforts and a general lack of fluidity through the midfield and up front. It was all too hurried and too disjointed. The introduction of Logan and change in formation changed all that though, and the second half was a much better affair both in terms of enjoyment and the likelihood of scoring.
In goal Jones once again had a fine game, one save in particular standing out. Plus his handling and distribution were good too, which is contrast to his central defensive colleagues' in the first half. Course this wasn't helped by City continuing the baffling tactic of midfielders laying the ball back to defenders to lamp it up the pitch, but in the second half when they decided to play football instead the distribution of both Taylor and in particular Seaborne improved greatly.
And speaking of Taylor, despite being pushed by all of his fellow defenders for Man of the Match, it was the big man who proved captain inspirational with a literally towering performance at the heart of the City defence. And while we're on the subject of inspirational, Tisdale's substitutions were pretty much that, with each making marked improvements to the team's balance and chances of winning the game. Logan's in particular was a fine performance, and along with both Taylor and Stewart, won virtually everything in the air.
Then we come to the biggest bonus of all - we managed to keep all 11 players on the pitch, which has been something of a novelty recently. Although to be fair to the players - all of them - they kept their shape and kept their discipline well which should be acknowledged especially during a tricky first half when things weren't always going according to plan.
And so we look forward to a new decade with hope and confidence. We're in good shape and we're reasonably well placed to ensure survival in this division. I doubt we'll ever go through a decade like the one we've just been through, but it's finished on a high with so much to look forward to, not least of which is the next home game in two and a bit weeks' time when league leaders Leeds are the visitors.
It's a tricky start to 2010 with games against Norwich, Leeds, Yeovil, Carlisle and MK Dons in January, and whilst it's hard to see where the points will come from - we also play Southampton in the first game of February - this is a team that continues to surprise us when we least expect it. So happy new year to you all and let's look forward to what the future holds with excitement rather than trepidation - see you at Leeds game then, where we'll hopefully be a goodly number of points better off before we travel to Yeovil later in the month. I can't wait.
The majority of our match reports are the views of our volunteer writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Exeter City Football Club.