Second half strikes from Reece Cole and Sonny Cox made it three points and three unbeaten at home for City as they were 2-1 victors over Carlisle United at St James’ Park. The result moves the Grecians out of the relegation zone and three points clear of Reading.
Following an agonising 3-2 loss away to Reading, City were looking to bounce back at St James’ Park and climb out of the relegation zone. The Grecians started the day in 21st place, just below last week’s opponents on goal difference. Carlisle started the game immediately below Exeter in 22nd place knowing three points on the South Coast would take them above the Grecians.
Gary Caldwell made three changes to his starting XI from last week’s game, new signing Luke Harris made his first start since his loan move from Fulham, Pierce Sweeney came in to captain the side and Cox returned to lead the line. Among the absentees for City, Harry Kite who picked up a training ground knock and Will Aimson who continues to recover from an injury sustained against Portsmouth on December 29th.
Among the starters for the visitors were two new signings in the form of Luke Armstrong who joined for an undisclosed fee from Harrogate Town and Harrison Neal who joined from Premier League side Sheffield United.
It was an electric start by the Grecians, Cox doing well to dance down the touchline before pulling the ball back to Harris who was denied brilliantly by a sliding Carlisle defender after only a minute. Shortly after the Grecians threatened The Blues’ goal once again, Cole finding Harris once again inside the 18-yard-box, but the debutant could only drag his shot wide of the left post.
The visitors had to wait until the 17th minute of the match for their first shot of the match, Sean Maguire was found in space just outside the area but could only manage to blast his attempt high over Vil Sinisalo’s crossbar. Maguire was involved once again just minutes later when he squared up and cut past Cheick Diabate inside the box before drilling his cross low into Sinisalo. The City keeper palmed the attempt away but gathered on the second occasion after it deflected back off Sweeney and into the Finn’s grasp.
The Grecians responded well as Dion Rankine wriggled his way past Jack Robinson and made his way into the penalty area. However, the winger was unable to find a red and white shirt in the middle to tap the ball into an empty net and the ball was cleared from danger by Paul Simpson’s men.
The biggest chance of the first half came just before the break as Carlisle found themselves three against two with the City defence on the counter-attack. Jordan Gibson played the ball through to Josh Emmanuel who had a clear run on the Grecians’ goal but could only drive his shot straight at Sinisalo after a poor first touch.
As the half time whistle was blown, there was a case for cautious optimism from the City crowd. The home side enjoyed the lion share of possession in the first 45 minutes and despite troubling Gabe Breeze in the Carlisle goal, the hosts had put together various promising moves.
Minutes after the restart it looked as though City has taken the lead, first through Aitchison whose low strike was smartly saved by Breeze and then by Harris who missed the ball completely on his first attempt before driving wide of the goal at the second time of asking. It looked as though the Grecians had let a big chance go to waste, but it wasn’t long before amendments were made. Harris’ driven cross towards Cox was cleared by the Carlisle defence before rolling nicely to Cole on the edge of the penalty area. The midfielder let a fizzing shot fly which travelled past Breeze and into the bottom right-hand corner to give City a valuable lead.
Gibson gave Carlisle the chance to respond just moments later but his strike from outside the box was steered wide of the right post and out for a goal kick. The visitors were left to rue their missed chances to respond when City doubled their lead with just over ten minutes remaining. Aitchison’s strike from just outside the area struck the left post before falling nicely to Cox who tapped into an empty net from six yards out to give the Grecians a commanding lead.
It looked as though City were going to cruise to victory until the 85th minute when the visitors grabbed a late lifeline. City did well to initially clear a dangerous corner kick, but substitute Dan Butterworth was on hand to steer his volley into the bottom left-hand corner from 18 yards out.
Carlisle continued to put pressure on the Grecians goal, but it was too little too late and City started off 2024 with a hard earnt win.
The result means the Grecians leapfrog Reading in the table, climbing out of the relegation zone and having a game in hand on a couple of the teams above. For their next instalment of league action, City travel to promotion-chasing Blackpool as they look to replicate their recent home form on their travels.
Exeter City: Sinisalo, Rankine (Scott 87'), Sweeney, Diabate, Hartridge, Jules (Niskanen 74'), Carroll (Taylor 78'), Cole, Aitchison, Harris, Cox (Wildschut 78').
Subs: Macdonald, Borges.
Carlisle United: Breeze, Lavelle, Gibson, Charters, Whelan, Robinson, Mellish, Maguire, Emmanuel, Neal, Armstrong.
Subs: Holy, Armer, Edmonson, McCalmont, Butterworth, Garner, McGeouch
Attendance: 6420 (294 away).
Referee: Carl Brook.