Monday, 5 May 2008

Exeter make it to Wembley

Goodness, I'm almost too physically and emotionally exhausted to write after this afternoon's extraordinary last minute break-and-enter victory for Exeter City, taking them to Wembley on 18 May and another crack at getting back into the Football League. "Incredible" (Sporting Life) is indeed the word. Torquay fans must be in shock.

Usually I take my place in the sedate seats at St James' Park. But at Plainmoor I was in the stand right behind the goal where most of the crucial action took place. Exeter can count themselves lucky to have such passionate fans, and there wasn't a hint of a wavering in support when, after a cagey first half in which the Grecians had much possession to little effect, the Gulls took the lead just after the hour - meaning that City needed two goals just to take the Blue Square Premier play off (improbably) into extra time in the second leg.

Being a footballing pessimist who can normally pick a loser at a hundred paces (I'm a Sons fan, after all!), I confess I thought, "ah well, that's it." Torquay had the luck in the first leg, and one-team loyalist and veteran Kevin Hill, attaining the club record 473 appearances, seemed to have put the matter beyond dispute when he volleyed in from 12 yards on the hour. But shrewd Exeter boss Paul Tisdale instantly changed the formation to 3-4-3, the Big Bankers turned the volume back up, and within ten minutes substitute Ryan Harley had sneaked the ball through a bevvy of defenders to restore a bit of pride. Up to that point it was in doubt whether City could ever break through.

The atmosphere begun to change noticeably. It was still an uphill task though, and only when Richard Logan was carelessly bundled over by Torquay keeper Simon Rayner and last week's last ditch goal-poacher Chris Zebroski did the hope really flood back. Then, with extra time the anticipated next step, Wayne Carlisle (pictured) crossed superbly from the right and Logan beat the keeper at his far post, just in from of me. We could hardly believe it.

The Gulls flung everyone forward in a desperate attempt to salvage something from a tie which has seemed to be heading inexorably in their direction. It was agonising. Finally, well into time added on, City broke and landed the knock-out punch when Carlisle side-footed into the bottom-left hand corner to make it 4-1 on the day and 5-3 on aggregate. Pandemonium and ecstasy broke loose when the referee blew his whistle. "We're not going home!' roared the Grecian Army. They'll prize themselves away for Wembley, I'll bet. Extraordinary scenes.

I thought my match day programme columnist stints were over 'till the Summer now that Dumbarton and Exeter have played their last home games. But the Wembley Brochure deadline now beckons on Thursday. It'll be a pleasure...

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