IT DIDN’T get any better than beating Exeter at Valley Parade for Gary Bowyer.

Home victory over the Grecians a year ago lifted the Bantams up to second – and proved the high-water mark of the last manager’s 11-month tenure.

The subsequent slide summed up Stuart McCall’s pre-match message before Saturday’s reacquaintance with the Devon side that “it’s not where you are in November”.

He was talking about the current team’s moderate start after recording only three wins from their opening 10 games – all against clubs in the bottom four.

McCall insisted there were signs of improvement on the back of handsome wins against moderate opposition. The 10-goal show against Southend and Tonbridge had restored self-belief in a group previously reeling from three straight defeats.

In the same way that City’s lofty placing 12 months ago did not turn out to be an accurate reflection of where they had dropped when the season was suddenly curtailed, the table right now may have no bearing whatsoever of what might follow.

On the afternoon that the club unveiled the new players’ tunnel, there were signs of light at the end of it.

All right, like the tunnel hastily assembled in time for the game, there is plenty still to be built. It remains a work in progress on the pitch just as much as off it.

Fingers will be pointed at the dodgy defending – “criminal” was McCall’s description – that surrounded both Exeter goals.

There were other heart-in-mouth moments late on as the visitors threatened to snatch it in the closing moments with a determined late rally.

But equally, City going forward were a joy to watch at times. The sweeping counter-attack for their opening goal was as slick as the three-pass move that had ripped open Southend in the previous home game.

And this was against a team who are actually very good.

Given City’s success rate to now has been based solely on lower opposition, Exeter’s visit represented a serious test of this improvement that McCall had been talking up.

Remember how leaders Newport had come to Valley Parade and won at a canter?

So, leaving the pitch/switching off the computer monitor with the feeling that City could/should have pocketed all three points certainly feels like a step in the right direction.

It certainly won’t do corporate morale any harm going into the first game-free midweek since the end of September.

Exeter’s unbeaten run extends further than that and the Bantams had to face them minus another key performer. Bryce Hosannah’s small hamstring tear picked up as he set up a late goal at Tonbridge is likely to sideline him for the rest of the month.

Add the talented Leeds youngster to Lee Novak, Gareth Evans, Kurtis Guthrie and Zeli Ismail and McCall is still minus a significant bulk of what he would class his first-choice match-day squad.

That should not be forgotten as they battle for some consistency with performances and results.

The effort and determination against Matt Taylor’s talented outfit could not be knocked, even if the errors and panicky moments kept the viewing audience on the edge of their sofas.

How different it might have been when City pushed for a decisive third goal had Valley Parade been packed to the rafters.

We say it every time but a contest as open and exciting as this one would have had the place rocking.

That missing ingredient was never more evident than when Billy Clarke jumped in the air in spinning celebration in front of a vacant Midland Road stand.

His elation at scoring the opener, his third goal in two games, was obvious – that joy from such a crisp finish deserved an appropriately-enthusiastic backdrop to share the moment.

Clarke, once again, was the pick of the Bantams. After the low of that penalty miss at Bolton, the Irishman has bounced back to his best and how much better  the team around him look for it.

“Billy might sometimes not be at his best but he’ll always give you everything he’s got,” said McCall. “He’s been terrific and people say he can’t play as a striker.

“Billy’s been playing up there and he scored last week with a header, as well as the free-kick obviously, and then he gets a breakaway and finishes with aplomb.”

The goal after 10 minutes was the first of three against the run of play in a breathless first half.

Exeter had just won a third corner which was claimed by Richard O’Donnell who bowled it out to Callum Cooke.

He surged upfield on the break before cutting inside and playing the perfect pass through the retreating defence. Clarke, who had run from deep in his own half, did not have to break stride as he swept home.

Anthony O’Connor twice got forward to create further chances before City switched off to allow Exeter to level.

Elliot Watt cuts a composed figure on the ball but he needs to learn when just get to rid.

That was the case as his indecision around the City box was seized on by Jake Taylor and Matt Jay poked through O’Donnell’s legs.

Exeter’s second goal was equally shoddy from a home perspective. Cooke did not track his runner before Reece Staunton was outmuscled by Ryan Bowman to convert from close range.

Ghosts of Newport flickered as Exeter threatened more and O’Donnell crucially denied the excellent Joel Randall and Jay.

“Is anyone going to get close to them?” bellowed a frustrated Clarke from halfway with much harsher words to that effect.

But City got the perfect pick-me-up in first half stoppages. This time it was Exeter’s turn to navel-gaze as Watt’s mid-height corner carried through for Staunton to volley his first senior goal.

Austin Samuels replaced calf victim Cooke at the break as McCall looked to test the visitors with pace. But the youngster lacked composure with a flashing effort over the bar.

Jokull Andresson brilliantly denied O’Connor’s thumping header from a corner as City upped the ante.

Defensively, they had also got themselves together after the earlier wobbles.

But Exeter came on strong again late on and Randell Williams cursed loudly at himself when he planted a free header wide after nobody had picked up his run into the area.

City again lived on their nerves in four minutes of added time as O’Donnell pulled off a diving save from Randall before foiling Bowman’s follow-up.

Defeat would have been cruel at the end of a rip-roaring tussle which neither team deserved to lose. A fair outcome and a good point all things considered.


Billy Clarke is in a rich vein of form right now. He scored City’s opener from a sharp counter-attack and opened up Exeter with his quick-thinking and passing.


Reece Staunton will never forget his first senior goal and the timing was perfect for City right on half-time.


“Criminal” was Stuart McCall’s description of both Exeter goals – City made it too easy for a dangerous attacking team.


With Bryce Hosannah out with a small hamstring tear, Tyler French came in at right wing-back.

Otherwise, Stuart McCall stuck with same team and formation that had beaten Southend and Tonbridge.

REFEREE: James Bell

BOOKINGS: Jay, Sweeney, Law (Exeter)

SHOTS ON TARGET: City 6 Exeter 6

SHOTS OFF TARGET: City 6 Exeter 9

CORNERS: City 6 Exeter 10

FOULS: City 2 Exeter 11


CITY: O’Donnell 7, A O’Connor 7, P O’Connor 6, Staunton 6, French 7, Watt 6, Cooke 6 (Samuels 46min, 6), Pritchard 6, Wood 6, Clarke 8 (Scales 86min), Donaldson 6. Subs (not used): Longridge, Richards-Everton, Cousin-Dawson, Mottley-Henry, Hornby.

EXETER: Andresson 7, Key 6 (Caprice 90min), Sweeney 6, Parkes 6 (McArdle 46min, 7), Sparkes 6, Randall 8, Collins 6, Taylor 6, Williams 7, Jay 6 (Law 79min), Bowman 6. Subs: Lee, Seymour, Fisher, Hartridge.