It was heartbreak for Exeter City on Sunday Afternoon as for the third time in recent seasons Cheltenham Town knocked the Grecians out of the FA Cup.
In a gripping game that kept a captivated, all be it rather soggy, crowd involved for over two hours of football, Tom Davies’ Robinesses won a penalty shoot out to progress to Round Two.
This had been billed as a game of two evenly matched sides and the first quarter of the game certainly emphasised that. City probed with their neat possession based football, whereas Cheltenham’s well organised defence and quick counter attacking football always posed a threat. As the half progressed, the Grecian’s began to slowly turn their territorial advantage in to chances. Hope Suominen struck a forceful volley in to the midriff of a Cheltenham defender, before Abbie Britton neatly cut inside her marker and drilled a low cross towards Connie Pengelly, who just failed to connect.
After a cagey start, the first goal came just after the half hour mark, a breakdown of possession allowed the visitors to counter with pace and as a ball was put through for Billie Haynes she never looked like missing. City responded well to the setback, a fiercely driven free kick was tipped past the post by Robyn Levett, but they could not make good play outside the penalty area lead to clear cut chances inside it.
With forty five minutes left to remain in this season’s FA Cup, the home side started the second half well. Abbie Britton drove in to the penalty area from her full back position and was up ended by a defender. The referee, who by this time was upsetting both sides, failed to give a foul and instead pointed for a goal kick. An interesting decision. Hope Suominen, who was covering all areas of the pitch, then showed great skill to beat the full back and square for Connie Pengelly, her effort brilliantly saved by Levett. The visiting keeper was again at her best when she palmed over a Pengelly strike that looked destined for the top corner, if any point of the game tipped the balance towards the Gloucestershire side, it was this one. Two outstanding saves from an outstanding Goalkeeper.
The game became scrappy and bad tempered as both sides fought for that Second Round place. Clive Watts rang the changes, Mia Preston and Sasha Henderson offered more energy in the exhausting conditions. Sasha Henderson particularly excelling in the right full back position. With time now running out, City needed a moment to fall their way and when Connie Pengelly attacked the away defence a stray tackle brought the attacker to the floor. The referee pointed to the spot. Abbie Britton calmly dispatched the penalty and it was all to play for.
The late drama was not over. Hope Suominen’s step over put her clear and with a square pass in desperate need of being converted there was no one on hand to do so. Cheltenham then looked to have won it, a ball over the City defence was chipped home but the Linesman’s flag went up. After a chat between the officials for no apparent reason other than for dramatic effect, the offside decision remained. And so to Extra Time.
Both teams had their chances to win the tie in the additional thirty minutes. Abbie Britton struck the foot of the post from distance before a long range effort for the visitors just missed the cross bar in what would have been an outstanding strike. The biggest chance saw the Grecians defence block two goal bound efforts after the ball had deflected off of Rhiannon Dumper from a save as she advanced from goal. This really was a game in which both sides gave it everything and, after a six week lockdown imposed break, you could only be in admiration of the effort on display
Heading in to penalties and both teams started well, scoring their first three. However, with the afternoon she had been having, you felt that Levett was going to have a big say in the balance of this tie. It was to be her save from Phoebe Baker that broke the pattern. Baker was outstanding all game, in midfield and then central defence, it was harsh on City’s Number Seven to end her afternoon this way. Cheltenham successfully converted their next kick and, with Anthea Kaptein hitting the top of the bar with her strike, City were out.
As a despondent City were clapped from the pitch by an appreciative crowd, the disappointment was clear, but this is a team that gave everything and can be proud of their efforts. One more game to go in 2020 and a return to League action will hopefully be the perfect tonic to head in to a successful 2021.