For the first time this season, Exeter City came from behind to claim all three points after an action packed 2-1 win over promotion chasing Peterborough United.
A first-half penalty from Harrison Burrows rewarded Peterborough’s dominance in the opening half-hour before Michael Olakigbe’s sending off changed the tone of the game. Reece Cole stepped up with two wonderful set pieces, one from each side of the pitch, as both were turned in by Peterborough’s own men.
City played host to high-flying Peterborough United on a damp, floodlit Tuesday night fixture. With 13 places separating them from The Posh, City had their work cut out, especially given the disappointing result in their most recent fixture which saw The Grecians drop points against Westcountry rivals, Bristol Rovers. In that game, City created decent opportunities and kept Rovers at bay for most of the game, only conceding to an impressive strike from outside of the box.
Manager Gary Caldwell made two changes from the fixture versus Bristol Rovers as Will Aimson and Luke Harris returned to the starting XI, replacing Dion Rankine and Pierce Sweeney. Cole took the captain’s armband in Sweeney’s absence. Notable members of the Peterborough lineup included City academy graduates, Archie Collins and Joel Randall.
Harris started the game aggressively, showing his intent early on and ‘letting his man know he’s there’, conceding a free kick in the first ten seconds of the match, just inside the Posh half. This was the first of a short string of free kicks given in the opening minutes as the game threatened to become a scrappy affair, only accentuated by strong winds adding an air of unpredictability to the high balls.
City found themselves riding their luck just inside the ten-minute mark as Collins and Randall provided a blast from the past, combining to put the ball in the net in front of the Big Bank, before the offside flag was acknowledged and the goal was ruled out.
Just before this, Ilmari Niskanen picked up a yellow card as he brought down Ephron Mason-Clark in front of the Adam Stansfield Stand. It was a nervous start for City as they were pinned back, struggling to play out of the high Peterborough press and unable to smack it long as any high balls were pushed back by north-easterly winds.
The following ten minutes saw City grow more comfortably into the game and create some opportunities of their own as Jack Aitchison and Sonny Cox were able to hold up play in the Posh half, providing outlets for the City defence.
Vincent Harper won City their first corner of the game, stealing the ball from Michael Olakigbe and having his cross blocked by his opposing Posh defender. The resulting corner was a threatening one, played into the back-post towards the towering Zak Jules who was just unable to direct the ball home.
City went behind just after the half-hour mark courtesy of a penalty from Burrows. Aimson’s trailing leg caught Mason-Clark on the intersection of the byline and the City area, there was no doubt as to whether it was a foul but questions were raised on the exact location of the foul. The referee, Tom Reeves made the judgement that it was inside the box and the Peterborough captain dispatched the resulting penalty, sending Vil Sinisalo the wrong way and putting an end to the Finnish international’s penalty save streak.
City were gifted a golden opportunity ten minutes later as Josh Knight played Aitchison through on goal with only the keeper to beat. St James Park prematurely celebrated as Aitchison appeared to do everything right, putting the Peterborough keeper, Bilokapic on the ground and playing it to his left. Bilokapic pulled off a superb save, sticking his leg out to deny Aitchison and save Knight from embarrassment. This was the last real opportunity before the half-time whistle, meaning the sides went in with one goal separating them.
An unchanged 22 returned from the tunnel 15 minutes later although City appeared to be a different side, coming out with a newfound energy. As City found themselves dominating possession in Peterborough’s third, they were caught out as a sloppy pass was cut out and Collins found himself carrying the ball across the pitch, playing the ball through to Olakigbe who was eventually denied at close range by Sinisalo.
Minutes later, Harris appeared to be clean through on goal before his heavy touch put an end to the attack before it could really get started. Following this, City’s luck changed as Olakigbe, who had been threatening on the right of the pitch was sent off for a second yellow after he brought down Vincent Harper to stop City’s counterattack. Olakigbe’s dismissal promised to allow Harper more freedom on the flank as he had previously been withheld by the threat of Olakigbe on the counter.
Looking to capitalise on the extra man, Caldwell showed his hand first, making his first change of the match on the 61st minute as Aimson and Niskanen were replaced by Sweeney and Rankine. This change saw an adjustment in formation as City transitioned to four at the back with Sweeney collecting the captain’s armband from Cole.
Before the Peterborough manager could react to Caldwell’s change, the Posh almost had a second as Sinisalo came flying out of his area and was rounded by Ricky-Jade Jones. Jones was forced wide and left unable to convert from the tight angle, a let-off for City. The Peterborough change saw Randall replaced by David Ajiboye.
City’s first chance against the ten-man Peterborough saw Bilokapic deny Harper from putting his name into the ‘goal of the season’ hat. Harper struck true and sweet across the goal from the edge of the box, the Big Bank readied itself to spring in celebration but instead, Bilokapic made a claim for ‘save of the season’, clawing the ball out of the air to deny the City winger.
When Cole signed in the summer, Grecians were promised that he was a set-piece specialist, he was about to make good on that promise.
City pulled level on the 75th minute via a free kick from the edge of the box. As City were awarded the free kick, murmurs of ‘Reece Cole territory’ filled the ground. Cole read the wind like a seasoned golfer, whipping the ball across the face of goal and into the back-post. The ball then found its way into the back of the net. Whether it went straight in or if it went in via the gloves of Bilokapic or if Rankine turned it in at the back-post remained a mystery but there was one thing that was for certain: City were back in it and Cole was the man that made the difference. Cole’s wicked ball had clawed City back into it and City had the wind, both literally and figuratively, in their sails.
City's no.12, not content with one, then set up the second to put City ahead. From Sweeney's quickly taken short free-kick, Cole whipped the ball low into the box. A delightful set-piece that saw the ball fall into the danger area, leaving Cheick Diabate to pounce for the ball versus Katongo. Diabate, who had been played as a striker earlier in the season, found himself in somewhat familiar territory as his poacher’s instinct saw him apply pressure to Katongo who eventually turned the ball in himself.
Caldwell brought on new man Ryan Woods, replacing Cox to solidify the City defence. The game was turned on its head and Peterborough were now left to attack the St James Road end but to no avail as Sinisalo denied their only real opportunity with a strong left hand. City held out well as Peterborough struggled to threaten them.
Tom Reeves blew his whistle and St James Park erupted. City claim three hard-earned points against tough competition, finishing the evening in 14th position.
Exeter City will look to continue this strong run of form in their next fixture as they face Wigan Athletic away on Saturday, 10th February.
Exeter City: Sinisalo, Aimson (Sweeney 61’), Diabate, Jules, Niskanen (Rankine 61’), Cole, Carroll (Eisa), Harper, Aitchison, Harris, Cox (Woods).
Unused Subs: MacDonald, Hartridge, Wildschut,
Peterborough United: Bilokapic, Katongo, Knight, Edwards, Burrows, Collins, Kyprianou, Olakigbe, Randall, Mason-Clark, Jones.
Subs: Crichlow, Fuchs, De Havilland, Clarke-Harris, Ajiboye, Mothersille, Steer.
Referee: Tom Reeves.
Attendance: 5277 (288 away).