Exeter City were rewarded with a hard-earned point on the road, coming from behind to play out the second half with ten men thanks to Yanic Wildschut's strike.
Despite a positive start, City were punished late in the first half as Jack Aitchison got himself sent off, Stevenage took advantage through Carl Piergianni’s header. City came out in the second half fired up and City’s Surinamese super sub, Wildschut flicked the equaliser home at the near post. City then played the remainder of the second half in a successful low block, denying each and every Stevenage attack through to the final whistle while even fashioning their own couple of chances.
Exeter City visited The Lamex Stadium, home of high-flying Stevenage, on the back of an extended run of poor form. Newly promoted Stevenage sat in third place as the game kicked-off and promised to be tricky opposition for the travelling Grecians who were in search of their first league win since September.
Manager Gary Caldwell named four changes from Saturday’s home defeat to Port Vale: In a new-look setup with four at the back, Alex Hartridge and Cheick Diabate came in at centre back, replacing the suspended Will Aimson and shifting Pierce Sweeney to the full back position; Kyle Taylor and Reece Cole in central midfield completed the changes. Striker Sonny Cox found his way onto the bench, having been recalled from his loan at Yeovil.
City started positively with Dion Rankine dancing in the Stevenage area, stringing together a chain of delightful stepovers and on the other wing, Ilmari Niskanen winning City the first corner of the game. The corner didn’t lead to a shot on target, but nonetheless the wind remained in City’s sails who continued to begin the game positively. Stevenage’s first chance of the game came in the tenth minute in which a dangerous ball floated into the box and was left for Niskanen to shield and kick over his shoulder out of play.
Down at the other end, City won their second corner of the game as Rankine’s burst of pace left the Boro’s fullback in the dust. Rankine delivered a low cross into the box that had to be put behind the goal by the Stevenage defender with Niskanen threatening to pounce on the end of it. The corner was unfruitful again but was a signal to the supporters that City had escaped the previous Stevenage pressure unscathed.
Following a period of sustained possession, Hartridge’s pass was intercepted in a dangerous position. Stevenage attackers flipped a switch and forced a foul from Dion Rankine on the corner of the 18-yard box. The free-kick was in a threatening position but Stevenage’s Forster-Caskey slipped as he struck the dead ball, leaving Vil Sinisalo to collect the cross and ignite a City counter, quickly ended by a pass just out of Taylor’s reach.
In the closing ten minutes of the first half, Stevenage’s corner was dealt with by a towering header from Hartridge, setting off another City unfruitful counterattack. The first half had begun to descend into a game of header tennis before a scary moment for City supporters, saved by heroics from “Super Sinisalo in goal”. A sloppy back pass left Sinisalo in a foot race with a Stevenage attacker for the ball, outside of his box, Vil was forced to put in a crunching sliding challenge to get to the ball before the attacker. Then, the ball fell kindly for a second Stevenage attacker who would look up to see an empty net beyond Vil who was stranded in no man’s land. Vil opted to square up to the attacker and, keeping his arms behind his back, blocked the shot with his chest – keeping the game level.
Just before the break, City found themselves down to ten men and one goal down. City were flying and the passion was back in the ranks, but the passion quickly came back to bite them as Aitchison, who was already on a yellow, received his second for dissent – questioning the referee’s decision to book Taylor. Stevenage, smelling blood, quickly took advantage of the extra man as Piergianni headed the hosts into the lead. City had a strong first half and would be very disappointed not to come in level at the break.
The second half began just as Caldwell would have hoped. Having switched Taylor out for Wildschut at half-time, his Surinamese Super Sub scored the equaliser: Rankine dropped his man on the right-wing, leaving him on the floor and shimmied past another defender to deliver a sweet ball into the near post for Wildschut to flick home in front of the travelling Grecians. City were back in it and fighting with underdog spirit, backed by an away end in full voice.
Having dominated possession in the first half, City’s game plan was now counterattacking football. Stevenage had the lion’s share of chances although nothing looked to threaten Sinisalo’s net. The first time that the Boro got close in this period was through Jordan Roberts who released a venomous strike just over the bar from inside the area. City remained solid at the back, although they did begin to accumulate numerous bookings: Sweeney, Sinisalo and Niskanen all found themselves in the book in the second half for what the referee deemed to be dissent, time-wasting and a foul respectively.
City’s Finnish internationals then combined to keep City in the game, the first was Sinisalo who pulled off a close-range save that had The Lamex in awe – the second was Niskanen who blocked another shot on the line. Caldwell then made his third change of the evening, bringing on the experienced Tom Carroll for Reece Cole before being forced into making his fourth sub as Wildschut went down injured. Wildschut was replaced by Cox who, fresh from his recall was bursting with energy – he would need to be as the referee’s assistant indicated nine additional minutes. Cox killed a minute of the added nine by dribbling from deep inside his own half, beating two Stevenage men before eventually being dispossessed on the edge of the Stevenage area.
City endured a relentless Stevenage barrage, with their first break coming in the 94th minute, thanks to a Stevenage free kick on the edge of the box. Harvey White delivered but as he did so, lost his footing and Sinisalo collected the weak effort. With five more minutes to play, The Lamex was on the edge of its seat. Attack after attack was nullified by City’s ten men fortress who were able to hold out and take a very well-earned point home.
Exeter City: Sinisalo (GK), Jules, Hartridge, Diabate, Sweeney (C), Cole (Carroll 86’), Trevitt, Taylor (Wildschut 46’/ Cox 89’), Niskanen, Rankine (Kite 68’), Aitchison.
Unused Subs: MacDonald (GK), Scott.
Stevenage: Ashby-Hammond (GK), James-Wildin, Butler, Thompson, Piergianni, Sweeney, Forster-Caskey, Freeman, Reid, Thompson, Hemmings.
Subs: Hegyi (GK), Macdonald, List, Roberts, Vancooten, White, Thompson.
Referee: Ross Joyce.
Attendance: 4,007 (352 away).