Exeter City returned to league action with an outstanding performance at Swindon on Sunday, hitting the third placed hosts for six and moving to the top of the division in the process.
The Grecians began with no signs of a Christmas hangover, Sarah Stacey guiding a header just wide from an early corner before Phoebe Baker’s near post effort suffered the same fate. City were on the front foot throughout the early stages, Stacey, Jenna Markham and Ishbel Zuurmond with slick combination play offering the chance for Zoe Cunningham to fire narrowly wide.
It would be the Cunningham and Zuurmond combination that opened the scorer, Cunningham driving towards the Town defence and slipping a pass into Zuurmond who cut inside and poked the ball into the roof of the net.
Town broke for the first time, lofting a shot over Abbi Bond’s goal, but once the Grecians regained possession, they looked a constant threat. Mollie Taylor was providing a succession of opportunities on the City right, but to the home side’s credit they threw bodies in the way to block a series of efforts on goal.
Cunningham had a great chance to extend the lead, creating the opportunity with a weaving run through defenders but her effort was sliced wide. Zuurmond’s cross just cleared Stacey’s head, before the midfielder again wriggled clear only for her low cross to be missed by the onrushing Markham on the stretch.
For all City’s play and threat, the half time whistle began to loom with the frustration of not having a far more comfortable lead. Yet, with Zuurmond’s relentless energy the Grecians would get that crucial two goal advantage before the break. The midfield magician closing down a Town clearance and racing clear, her weighted pass across to Stacey was tapped into the goal from close range.
City still had opportunities through Baker and Markham before the whistle blew, a comprehensive first half with only the final pass preventing the Grecians from being out of sight in this contest.
Cunningham created the first chance of the second half, driving into the penalty area and seeing her initial shot blocked, the follow up effort striking the upright. However, with the Grecians on top, it would be Town who scored next. Meg Jarvis slipped in behind the City defence and her low cross was fired in by Annie Colston
To their credit, this is not a City side that gets fazed easily, and five minutes later the two-goal advantage was restored. Zuurmond slaloming her way into the penalty area and forcing a good save from Town Goalkeeper Emily McGrogan before the rebound fell to Markham to poke over the line.
With the home side tiring, Markham was fouled in the penalty area with a late lunge, Stacey drilling in the fourth from the spot, before Markham grabbed her second. Taylor, who had threatened all afternoon with her driving runs from wing back, fired a low cross and the City forward smashed the ball home from close range.
Zuurmond then committed the Town defence once more, a stray foot bringing her down for another spot kick, Stacey completing her hat trick with a low drilled effort into the same corner.
Abbie Britton and Aaron Wakley’s side are fully aware how big a year this is, and the City Management must have been delighted with, arguably, their team's best performance of the season. With the Grecians fellow title challengers no doubt looking at this as a game City might slip up in, this was certainly a definitive statement that City are in the title race for the long haul in 2024.