Exeter City claimed a late Christmas present at the Park with a 1-0 Boxing Day win against Cheltenham Town.
It was Tom Nichols
’ goal on the hour which proved the difference on the scoresheet come the final whistle, as Exeter recorded a first ever win against the Robins.
It also marked a second clean-sheet for 19-year-old stopper James Hamon
, following a shut-out against Carlisle United a fortnight ago.
There were two changes to the starting XI for the Grecians – following the previous weekend’s defeat at Stevenage, David Wheeler
took a seat on the bench, as did Christian Ribeiro
, who picked up a knock at Broadhall Way.
Into the starting ranks came striker Nichols, as well as Clinton Morrison for his first start. Jordan Moore-Taylor
also returned to contention and to take a seat amongst the subs.
Exeter City started in confident fashion but Matt Richards was the first player to take a punt from the best part of 30 yards, but looped his left-footed effort well over the bar.
Alex Nicholls won a corner for Exeter and as Lee Vaughan headed clear, a clash of heads left Joe Hanks laid out cold. After a worrying delay for the Cheltenham man, he finally got back to his feet with some assistance, but had to be replaced by Zack Kotwica.
Former Rochdale striker Terry Gornell received his ball midway inside the City half but was allowed space to turn – he drove at the home defence before pulling a shot wide of James Hamon
’s near post.
Nichols was the first City player to test Robins stopper Trevor Carson as he hit a snapshot from the right but the goalkeeper saved well.
Butterfield twice made crucial interventions to deny the Robins from taking the lead – a low delivery from the right by Raffaele De Vita needed cutting out, before bravely steeping to nod away Kotwica’s centre from the left with players lurking.
Morrison won a free-kick with more smart hold-up play 25 yards from goal to allow Matt Grimes
to whip an effort goalwards, but he shot over the bar.
Nichols came within a Trevor Carson palm from scoring a wonderful solo goal – released down the left by Grimes, he burst in off the left flank, danced through the defence, and picked a spot through a crowded six-yard box, only for the Northern Irish stopper to save.
The Robins had to make a second change before half-time, with captain and former Grecian Matt Taylor needing to come off and be replaced by Jack Deaman on the half-hour.
Despite Exeter camping in the visitors’ half of the field, Cheltenham did have some threat on the break and Omari Sterling-James flashed a shot across the face of Hamon’s goal and wide.
At the other end, Nichols was quickest to a loose ball and teed up Ryan Harley
, who curled a first-time shot wide.
Cheltenham were defending deep and in numbers and not allowing much space for Exeter to work an angle – Grimes had a pop from outside the area after spotting a bit of room but his effort was blocked.
Half-time: Exeter City 0 Cheltenham Town 0
Exeter continued the second period in a similar vein to how they ended the first by putting pressure onto a stubborn defence. Craig Woodman
squared for Harley, who dug out a shot from the edge of the box, but missed the target by a yard.
The visitors were absorbing most of the Exeter pressure and making it tough to find a route to goal. On the hour Morrison was replaced by Wheeler as the Grecians looked to add a different option to attack.
And within a minute, Exeter had the opener. Nicholls broke down the right flank, played into the path of near-namesake Nichols when he was on the run, and he placed a left-footed shot beyond the reach of Carson and it nestled into the far corner.
Sub Wheeler could have made it two within moments, as he nipped in to steal possession on the left, cut inside, and blasted with power – it was straight at Carson.
And Nichols came within the post’s width of a glorious second for him and City. Receiving outside the area, he spotted goalkeeper a couple of yards off his line – a beautiful chip left the goalkeeper sprawling but the post denied him.
Chasing a deficit, Cheltenham looked more and more to attack but City were holding their advantage well. Ribeiro and Arron Davies
were introduced to help City tighten up the game.
Davies found space to dink a ball into the path of Nichols – he sprayed a ball to Wheeler who wormed into space, but a powerful effort was blocked behind.
Craig Braham-Barrett wanted a penalty as he pirouetted on the way to ground in the box, but the referee waved away the protests.
A late free-kick from Richards was dealt with by a stern City defence and kept at bay, as the Grecians held on for three points.
Full-time: Exeter City 1 Cheltenham Town 0
: Hamon; Butterfield, Bennett, Oakley, Woodman; Grimes, Sercombe, Harley (Davies 80); Nicholls (Ribeiro 72), Morrison (Wheeler 60), Nichols.
Subs: Pym, Moore-Taylor, Keohane, Cummins.
Goal: Nichols (61).
: Carson; Vaughan, Taylor (Deaman 31), Brown, Braham-Barrett; Ferdinand, Hanks (Kotwica 7), Richards, De Vita (Williams 79); Sterling-James; Gornell.
Subs: Gould, Bowen, Harrison, Haworth.
Attendance: 4,591 (153 away).
Referee: Brendan Malone