City upset Argyle in Devon Bowl
Plymouth Argyle 2 Exeter City 4
Devon Professional Bowl final
7th May 1986
The narratives behind the two clubs’ league campaigns had been entirely at odds, meaning each side approached this fixture with very different temperaments.
Plymouth Argyle were able to approach the match in buoyant spirits, having finished second behind Reading in the Third Division, and as such earning themselves promotion. They even had their best suits with them, as they were due to attend a civic reception to celebrate their feat the same evening. Exeter, meanwhile, had played all 46 games in their own league campaign but their own future was unclear.
Lying in 20th at the start of the day, Exeter City had plenty of reason to have half an eye on what was happening over at London Road the same evening. Rather than the carefully-synchronised final day of a league season that we have now, in the 1985/86 season there was one final Fourth Division match between Peterborough and Rochdale left to play on that Wednesday, kicking off at the same time as the Devon Professional Bowl final.
The Posh were just safe from being drawn into bottom four on 55 points, but the Dale were one of five clubs on 54 points. With an inferior goal difference to Exeter they lay 22nd in the table, but only needed a draw in Cambridgeshire to avoid the prospect of having to apply for re-election to the Football League. If Rochdale didn’t lose, it would mean the Grecians would join neighbours Torquay – who propped up the table – in the battle to retain League status.
Right at the start of the season, the Pilgrims had already been victims of an upset at the hands of City. The sides had been drawn together in the first round of the Milk Cup – and it was Plymouth who were left crying over spilt milk as they failed to convert a first-leg 2-1 advantage as Exeter ran out 2-0 winners at St James’ Park to take an aggregate win.
If they were hungry for revenge, then it couldn’t have compared to the Grecians’ insatiability to prove a point and bag some silverware for the season. City flew into a lead at Home Park after merely 85 seconds – Geoff Crudgington kept out a Steve Harrower effort, but Gary Jackson put in the rebound.
Just before half-time, Crudgington got himself into a spot of bother after handling the ball outside of his penalty box. It was Tony Kellow that stepped up, and smashed home the dead-ball for a two-goal lead.
Plymouth manager Dave Smith tried introducing Darren Rowbotham and John Uzzell to stem the tide – both had already played once that day, featuring for Argyle’s reserve string at Bristol City.
It seemed to lift the Pilgrims somewhat, who found a way back into the tie just after the hour mark after Russell Coughlin converted a spot-kick after Garry Nelson had been floored in the box by Kellow.
But City had a two-goal buffer again soon after when Harrower beat the offside trap after being laid in by Nicky Marker and slotted the ball past the oncoming goalkeeper.
The arrears were cut again with a little over ten minutes left to play as John Clayton headed Plymouth back into contention, but victory was sealed three minutes from the final whistle when Marker was again the provider, as Ray Pratt pounced in the box – and with it, allowing Exeter’s name to be etched onto the trophy.
Despite a fantastic victory, some silverware in the cabinet and upsetting the Pilgrims before their trip to the Lord Mayor, the day ended on a sour note for the Grecians. News filtered through that Peterborough hadn’t been able to hold onto their lead against Rochdale, as the visitors struck a late equaliser to draw the match 1-1 and push City into the dreaded 21st spot.
So Exeter faced a nervy wait to learn their fate at the Football League’s annual meeting; mercifully though, along with the Gulls, their League status was renewed for another year. And they’ll have been thanking their stars for the reprieve too, because the following year the League introduced automatic relegation from the fourth tier for the very first time for the lowest ranked team.