Exeter City were left wondering how they lost their first game of 2014 as struggling Mansfield Town picked up a 1-0 win with the perfect smash-and-grab at St James’ Park.
The Stags scored the only goal on the stroke of half-time through Lee Stevenson, before withstanding a second half barrage from the Grecians in a one-sided second half.
Twice the Grecians were denied by the upright, but the one crumb of comfort that they can take from the game was the way they played in that second half, which was undoubtedly one of their best display on home soil for some time.
Exeter made one enforced change to the side that won at Torquay. Matt Gill, who limped off with a hamstring injury in that game, was replaced by Matt Grimes, who came on for the experienced midfielder at Plainmoor.
The opening stages were scrappy with neither team settling. But Mansfield had the first chance when Ollie Palmer rounded Artur Krysiak, but with his shot going in, Scot Bennett positioned himself perfectly to clear off the line.
With the low, blinding sun again causing problems for Exeter, shooting into it and towards the ST James’ Road End, they were struggling to create anything. Mansfield again went close when Lee Stevenson burst through from midfield, but dragged his shot narrowly wide of Krysiak’s upright
Matt Rheade volleyed wide from 20 yards before Exeter created their first chance on 15 minutes when Sam Parkin’s header was collected by Alan Marriott. The big striker then headed down for Liam Sercombe, but he couldn’t get a shot away
Jordan Moore-Taylor was off-target with a header, although he was under heavy pressure from a Mansfield defender, while Nichols had a penalty shout turned down after being shoved to the floor by James Jennings.
It was certainly better from the Grecians, who went close again when Gow smashed a 15-yaerd shot over the bar on 27 minutes and Nichols was off target with a similar effort soon after.
Parkin headed another good chance into the path of Gow, who was again wide of the mark, before the Scot returned the compliment moments later with some great play in midfield. Unfortunately, Parkin couldn’t take his pass and the ball ran through to the goalkeeper.
It wasn’t all one way traffic with Rheade seeing a shot deflect into the arms of Krysia and on the stroke of half-time, poor defending allowed Lee Stevenson to run through and slide the ball past Krysiak.
It was harsh on the Grecians, who had not played that badly, but poor defending had cost them again. They made a strong start to the second half though, with Nichols clipping the outside of the post with a free kick, while Mansfield’s persistent time wasting was annoying everyone, but the referee, it seemed.
However, the best chance fell to Nichols when Gow stepped over a low Grimes cross and the youngster, with plenty of time and space, shot straight at Marriott from ten yards.
Rheade headed straight at Krysiak, while Jimmy Keohane came on for Wheeler for Exeter just before the hour mark. He was immediately involved and set up Nichols, but he dragged his shot wide of goal.
Sercombe was denied by Marriott after a strong, surging run and more good work by Nichols, while Anthony Howell drilled a shot straight at Krysiak and saw another effort saved by the Pole moments afterwards.
John O’Flynn replaced Parkin, who had played well for City, with 21 minutes remaining, while Mansfield used the break in play to make two changes of their own, which took at least two minutes to do!
City’s second half tempo was excellent and by now, with ten minutes remaining, they were camped in and around the visitors’ box. Crosses and shots were raining in, but the ball just wouldn’t go in for Exeter.
Jake Gosling added to City’s attacking threat three minutes from time, but still they were unable to finish off their crosses into the box.
Six minutes were added on for the various delays and time wasting, in which Keohane tried his luck from distance, but shot straight at Marriott and when Gow’s wonderful run ended with a shot coming back off the inside of the post, Exeter knew it just wasn’t their day.
Exeter City (4-4-2): Krysiak; Butterfield, Baldwin, Bennett, Moore-Taylor (Gosling 87); Wheeler (Keohane 58), Sercombe, Grimes, Gow; Parkin (O’Flynn 69), Nichols. Substitutes (not used): Pym (gk), Woodman, Davies, Reid, Gosling.
Bookings: Butterfield, Parkin.
Mansfield Town (4-4-2): Marriott; Sutton, Dempster, Tafazolli, Jennings; Westlake (Murray 71), Clements, Howell, Stevenson (Daniel 71); Palmer (Miekle 72), Rhead. Substitutes (not used): Deakin (gk), Briscoe, Dyer, Beevers, Miekle.
Goal: Stevenson 45
Bookings: Westlake, Stevenson, Clements.
Referee: D Bond.