Exeter City fell to a first defeat in ten Sky Bet League 2 games, succumbing to a 1-0 defeat in Stevenage.
The game looked like it was going to play out in a goalless draw, until Boro sub Charlie Lee was on hand to sweep in a winner with less than ten minutes remaining on the clock.
The Grecians created several good chances either side of the break, but ultimately couldn’t find the net against a stubborn home defence.
made his first start for Exeter City since returning to the club, while also coming into the starting XI is Liam Sercombe
, who missed the home fixture against Carlisle United the previous weekend with a knock.
Neither goalkeeper was truly tested in the opening exchanges – the first time that James Hamon
had something to worry about was when Dean Parrett’s free-kick from the right-hand byline found men unmarked at the back stick but the contact was weak.
Soon after a direct ball forward from Craig Woodman
headed away by Dean Wells, but only as far as Alex Nicholls – he touched on for Liam Sercombe
, but the first-time strike on the half-volley was wide of the target.
The first save of note came from City stopper Hamon – a touch of fortune from Parrett allowed him space to cut back from the right byline and Ryan Brunt fired a snapshot from six yards, and the crow were already celebrating before Hamon saved and held the shot.
Lee Barnard had to be withdrawn after less than quarter of an hour after going down injured in the Exeter area, and his replacement Lee went close with a header soon after when the Boro were creating several chances.
At the other end, City came closest so far through Nicholls – Sercombe drove into space, found Nicholls on the left-hand side of the box, and the forward cut in and rattled the crossbar with a curling effort. The ball stayed alive and Matt Grimes
collected, and saw his effort from outside the box deflected behind.
Hamon again kept the game goalless with another fine stop – after captain Matt Oakley
had been judged to have handled outside the area, Charlie Adams whipped a left-footed free-kick over the wall and the Guernseyman got all the way over to save and hold.
Nicholls and David Wheeler
, playing as the two most advanced players for Exeter, twice combined to trouble the Boro goal. Wheeler nodded on a big diagonal from Oakley to find Nicholls in the inside right channel, and he forced goalkeeper Chris Day to save with his feet.
Then it was right-back Christian Ribeiro
that found Wheeler on the run – he trapped the ball with his chest, laid in Nicholls, but the forward just lifted the ball a fraction to high as he tried to dink over the advancing stopper, but it landed on the roof of the net.
Once again Wheeler and Nicholls combined – it was a lung-busting run from Wheeler into the left-hand channel that allowed him to hold off two defenders before squaring for Nicholls, but a desperate block from Boro captain Ronnie Henry kept out the City man.
Exeter fans had hearts in mouths before half-time when teenage midfielder Grimes went down clutching an ankle, but after being assessed he managed to continue until the break.
Half-time: Stevenage 0 Exeter City 0
City could have been trailing within seconds of the restart as a ball pumped up to half-way was flicked on by Brunt, and Lee steamed into space but lashed over as he approached the box.
Then Exeter had a chance to net the game’s first goal – Nicholls profited from a poor defensive touch from Jerome Okimo and hung up a ball – no-one was arriving but Grimes had a shot blocked, before Scot Bennett
latched on and put a rebound narrowly wide.
Ribeiro had to hobble off injured shortly after the break, meaning an introduction for Davies from the bench as City had to reshape the team.
Tom Pett came a whisker away from scoring for Boro as he shot across goal from the right with his left foot – it evaded any touches and skimmed past the far post.
The game took something of a prolonged break when City man David Wheeler
was left nursing an injury after an off-the-ball incident, which left the forward on the floor and the Exeter bench incensed, but went unpunished.
As the game ticked into the final quarter, Lee rattled the woodwork with a dipping half-volley from the best part of 30 yards which had evaded the desperate dive of Hamon – it was a weak City throw that had allowed the opportunity to come in the first place.
Sub Davies had a chance to shoot from outside the area as he received from Bennett and cut in off the left, but the ball just bobbled as he struck. At the other end, Brunt shot from a tight angle inside the box after a scrappy passage of play and Hamon was well-placed to block.
Centre-half Danny Butterfield
chanced his arm at opening his Exeter goalscoring account with a powerful drive from the best part of 35 yards, forcing a smart stop out of goalie Day.
The breakthrough goal came just six minutes from time, when a cross in from the left was kept alive in the area and swept in by Lee on his left foot to leave Hamon stranded.
Exeter were denied a penalty claim when bodies were flying in the box as Sercombe put into the danger zone from the left, but the referee wasn’t interested.
And with four added minutes to see out, the Boro held out the Exeter threat and claimed all three points.
Full-time: Stevenage 1 Exeter City 0
Day; Henry, Charles, Wells, Okimo; Adams (Whelpdale 78), McAllister, Parrett, Pett; Barnard (Lee 14), Brunt (Beardsley 90).
Unused subs: Beasant, Walton, Conlon, Deacon.
Goal: Lee (83).
Hamon; Ribeiro (Davies 51), Butterfield, Oakley, Woodman; Bennett, Grimes, Sercombe; Harley (Morrison 87), Wheeler, Nicholls.
Unused subs: Pym, Tillson, Keohane, Nichols, Cummins.
Referee: Dean Whitestone