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Soft goals leave Bradford City too much ground to make up
Exeter 4, City 1
Not for the first time, Gary Jones traipsed away from St James Park with a scowl.
“I hate coming here,” he muttered. “We always get beat by four. Rochdale got done here 4-0 last year when we got relegated and now this one.”
In truth, the final scoreline in no way reflected the manner of the game. Some more open-minded Exeter fans in front of the press box even admitted their side were a bit fortunate to take another three-point step towards promotion.
But you could understand how the City skipper felt. He had done more than anybody to try to right the ship after two woefully soft goals in the first half destroyed any immediate plans of closing the gap to the play-offs.
City had given it a good go in the final 45 minutes, driven on by the sweat and toil of Jones and the pace and dancing feet of a rejuvenated Kyel Reid.
But ultimately a first defeat since Wembley has effectively consigned the Bantams among the mid-table also-rans. The distance to the top seven is now ten points – a fairly decisive margin, barring a late spurt of the 1996 variety.
It’s not just Jones with bitter memories of this particular corner of Devon. For City, it felt like a depressing episode of déjà vu.
Four years ago, the Stuart McCall promotion bandwagon was derailed when a freak wind-assisted cross drifted over Rhys Evans from the touchline.
On Saturday, Evans was sitting on the home bench watching Matt Duke suffer similar indignities.
Ex again marked the spot where City’s hopes of finally scrambling out of League Two were effectively buried for at least another 12 months.
A pre-match storm of Noah’s Ark proportions transformed the pitch into a heavy, unpredictable field strewn with patches of surface water. The accompanying swirling wind just added to the problems for both keepers.
Duke’s embarrassment soon followed when he was caught out by Exeter’s first corner. Left back Craig Woodman drifted the ball on the gust and the keeper could only finger it on to the back post and in.
Exeter’s second hardly made for better viewing. With half-time in sight – and the home side offering no threat since that early gift – Jake Gosling’s looping cross flicked off Nathan Doyle to deceive Duke and allow loan midfielder Lawson D’Ath to mark his debut with a close-range header.
Phil Parkinson’s team line-up – and set-up – had been well received with the City fans. Alan Connell, who has become their cause celebre over recent weeks, got his chance as the boss tweaked the system.
But Parkinson had not factored in the weather and the sudden deterioration of the playing surface; best laid plans and all that.
The City chief said: “The pitch looked great when we came. But then there was the torrential downpour and it didn’t really suit his type of play.
“Alan’s more of a technical player but it became more about turning the opposition round. But he did okay, he showed some good touches and deserved to stay on the pitch because he had a go.”
Connell converted to a more conventional striker when Parkinson threw on his two wingers at the break. Thompson and Doyle were sacrificed for Reid and Zavon Hines and City were ordered to push up the pitch.
Having sat too deep before, the back four now played a higher line and the team moved further into home territory as a result.
Admittedly Exeter hardly had reason to chase the game with a two-goal cushion. Their stylish gaffer Paul Tisdale, bedecked head-to-toe in the latest Ted Baker designer gear, looked a composed figure on the touchline.
Facing a side who had kept seven clean sheets in their last nine outings, Parkinson was predictably far more animated outside the adjoining dugout.
But he was pleased with what he saw – especially from Reid, who finally cast off the shackles that have been holding him back to look like the winger we all know can terrify any defence in this division.
Exeter resorted to triple-teaming him but that did not stop a steady supply of crosses that were begging to be finished.
With Hines trying to do the same on the right, admittedly with mixed success, City were having that “right go” that their manager had promised.
Hanson could have had two as one effort was bundled off the line and another stretching volley flew over with keeper Artur Krysiak a spectator.
Eventually the pressure brought a reward, with Reid following Woodman’s lead with a goal direct from a corner – though the decisive touch came off the head of the Exeter defender at the near post.
But City’s comeback ambitions were halted in their tracks within four minutes as the impressive Scot Bennett blasted past Duke from 25 yards.
A fourth Exeter goal, from a three-on-three break as John O’Flynn tapped in after Duke had parried from Mark Molesley, added some unnecessary gloss on the result.
So it was defeat in his 100th City game in charge for Parkinson and a growing sense of realism that the top seven is disappearing over the hill.
Parkinson said: “We made changes and you always take responsibility as the manager when it doesn’t work. But I honestly don’t believe it was the system or the personnel.
“I just don’t think we played with enough drive or determination in that first half in difficult conditions. You’ve got to accept it’s a battle first and foremost.
“If we’d been prepared to stand up and be counted then it would have given us a great chance because we were loads better in the second half. We had them on the rack.”
One point from the double-header in Devon was at least three below par. The task is looking too great as the list of remaining games hits single figures.
With Exeter’s own bid for an instant return to League One continuing to gather momentum, at least it may spare the Bantams a trip back there next season.
Not that it will have been any consolation for Jones and Co during their latest dissatisfying journey back up the M5.