Grant, Harley and Wheeler on target during impressive display in Cumbria
Exeter City head into the second leg of their play-off tie with Carlisle United with the tie with the scores level at 3-3.
The Grecians had led the first leg tie, at Brunton Park, 3-1 midway through the second half thanks to goals from Joel Grant, Ryan Harley and David Wheeler but the Cumbrians hit back to level the scores before Reuben Reid had a goal ruled out for offside and Jake Taylor hit the post in the final minute of stoppage time.
City manager Paul Tisdale made three changes to the starting line-up. In came Craig Woodman, Bobby Olejnik and Grant for Reid, Ethan Ampadu and Christy Pym.
City started the match brightly, with Ollie Watkins having a shot well blocked by Michael Raynes before getting on the end of an inviting cross from Pierce Sweeney in the 12th minute and hitting an effort just over the crossbar.
That good start was then rewarded in the 15th minute as Watkins latched onto a throw from Sweeney and hit a cross into the six yard box that Grant got his head to. Carlisle keeper Mark Gillespie looked to have got enough of a block on the shot to keep it out, but the ball trickled over the line via the right-hand post.
Carlisle were a danger right throughout the first half though and got plenty of balls into the box. Troy Brown made a goal-saving header when he cleared a cross from the right, just as Jamie Proctor looked to head home, from six yard out, and then Reggie Lambe curled a good effort inches wide after a quick passing move from the hosts.
So the Blues were deservedly level on 32 minutes when Nicky Adams’ dangerous cross from the right was turned into his own goal by City skipper Jordan Moore-Taylor.
And in the minutes that followed the hosts had two good chances to take the lead as Luke Joyce hit an effort a couple of yards wide after a corner dropped to him 25 yards out and then Moore-Taylor made a superb block when Reggie Lambe tried to fire past Olejnik from inside the box.
That resolute defending proved crucial going into the half-time break as the lively Grant produced a good run and pass to set up Harley with a shooting chance from outside the box and the City midfielder’s effort took a deflection on its way past Gillespie to put the Grecians back in front.
City began the second half well and came close to making it 3-1 when Wheeler headed a Harley corner towards goal, but Gillespie produced a superb one-handed stop to deny him.
However, two minutes later, the Grecians were in front as Grant got past his full-back and found the feet of Wheeler on the edge of the six-yard box and he side-footed the ball into the corner of the net for his 20th goal of the season.
Back came Carlisle though as Olejnik dived at the feet of substitute Shaun Miller to stop him from tapping into an empty net.
City thought they had made it 4-1 minutes later though as Grant got in on the left side of the box and shot across goal for Watkins to tap in at the back post. The linesman’s flag went up to deny him, but replay suggests Watkins was onside.
Then on 71 minutes Carlisle were back in the match as substitute John O’Sullivan hit a cross that took a wicked deflection to loop over the head of Olejnik and into the back of the net. A minute later and the Blues were level as Shaun Miller headed past Olejnik from close range.
City then had two glorious chances to go into the second leg with an advantage, but substitute Reid had his goal also disallowed for offside – when replays suggest that was also the wrong decision – and then Jake Taylor hit the outside of the post.
So both teams head into the second leg of the match with the tie delicately poised for Thursday’s game at St James Park.
Carlisle United (4-3-3): Gillespie; T Miller, Liddle, Raynes (S Miller, 60), Grainger; Bailey (Waring, 67), Joyce, Devitt (O’Sullivan, 55); Lambe, Proctor, Adams. Subs not used: Crocombe, Kennedy, Gillesphey, Waring, Nabi.
Exeter City (4-4-2): Olejnik; Sweeney, Brown, Moore-Taylor, Woodman (Reid, 68); Wheeler (Stacey, 76), Taylor, James, Harley; Watkins, Grant (Holmes, 76). Subs not used: Pym, Tillson, McAlinden, Croll, Reid.
Attendance: 9,708 (571, away)