Seventh Heaven for Ryan Harley as Grecians win Devon derby


Ryan Harley –

A first half brace from Ryan Harley saw Exeter City triumph over rivals Plymouth Argyle at Home Park. The result came as something of a shock, with Plymouth top of the league and enjoying a head-to-head run of three consecutive victories over their Devon counterparts. Exeter, meanwhile, had won just once in the league since September and had dropped down to 14th after throwing away a late lead to draw with Crawley last time out.

If the visiting side’s confidence had been dented, it did not show, because the Grecians controlled the early stages and attacked well down the left side of the pitch. Left-back had been a problematic area for the team this season, with Craig Woodman and Jamie McAllister struggling to establish themselves in that position. When McAllister came off injured after 11 minutes, it allowed Jordan Moore-Taylor to move from centre-back to left-back with Christian Ribeiro coming on, and Exeter looked balanced. Moore-Taylor showed his versatility, looking equally adept in attacking and defensive phases of play.

Plymouth did not show the qualities one might expect from a team competing in a derby game. They were too slow to close Exeter’s players down when they got into the final third and lacked a competitive edge.


Curtis Nelson –

After a slow start from Plymouth, it looked as though the hosts had been re-energized, at least temporarily. A superb, and perhaps unexpected, attacking run from centre-back Curtis Nelson won a corner for the Pilgrims, and this movement seemed to stir the home fans. Nelson was arguably Plymouth’s most competitive player on the day, the academy graduate looking dominant in the air and assured in possession.

Graham Carey was among Plymouth’s more productive players in the first half and his cross from the left-hand side found Jake Jervis, who glanced his header wide of the far post. That, however, was one of the few moments in which Jervis was involved. The former Birmingham man had enjoyed much of his early season success in a role that allowed him to cut in from the right flank. As a main striker, he looked uncomfortable and struggled to fill the void of the injured Reuben Reid, who had scored 43 goals in under 3 years at Argyle.

Other men on the Plymouth treatment table included midfielders Hiram Boateng and Carl McHugh. Boateng has impressed with his energy and youthful exuberance since joining on loan from Crystal Palace while McHugh has added aggression and tenacity in midfield, after moving forward from his original centre-back position. Both players offer Plymouth the kind of qualities that they severely lacked on Saturday and their absence was a key factor behind the team’s disappointing derby display.

Gregg Wylde looked to run at Exeter’s Arron Davies on occasion but the right-back helped firm, meaning Wylde’s influence on the game became limited, as Plymouth instead looked to play via the middle of the pitch. This was exactly what Exeter wanted, as they were able to congest the central areas and stop their opponents finding space in the final third.

In some respects, the visitors looked in more danger when they had the ball than when they didn’t. The Grecians’ willingness to play the ball out from defence, rather than opt for the more old-school punts up field, at times meant they invited unnecessary pressure. Plymouth, however, did not take sufficient advantage of one of Exeter’s few weaknesses. The hosts did not press with enough aggression and had they done so, they may have had more joy.


David Wheeler –

Exeter’s David Wheeler has risen from non-league football in recent years and the 25-year-old played his part in the opening goal. Wheeler latched onto a high ball from Danny Butterfield before being tripped in the box by Plymouth’s Kelvin Mellor, Harley coolly converting the resultant penalty. That was a sour moment in a disappointing game for Mellor. The right-back struggled to combat Exeter’s threat down the left hand side and did not offer the necessary width to support inside forward Craig Tanner.

Exeter’s penalty came after one of Plymouth’s better spells in the match, but the goal seemed to knock the proverbial stuffing out of the Pilgrims. Just nine minutes later, Harley was once again in on the goalscoring act, this time in more eye-catching fashion. The former Swindon man picked the ball up in the opposition half and danced forward, teasing Oscar Threlkeld and Josh Simpson into misjudged sliding challenges before slotting the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.

Harley was no doubt the star of the show on Saturday, yet some credit must also go to young forwards Jamie Reid and Ollie Watkins. Aged 21 and 19 respectively, neither player had started a league match this season and Paul Tisdale showed incredible belief in them to start both in such a big game – perhaps a pivotal one in Tisdale’s Exeter tenure. His faith was rewarded, as both players hassled and harried Plymouth’s back-line relentlessly, giving their opponents no time on the ball. Both players had come through the academy at St James’s Park and their level of passion for the derby game surpassed that of the entire Plymouth team.

Exeter sat back after their second goal and looked well-organized, with centre-backs Ribeiro and Troy Brown dealing with any high balls in a confident manner. However, the duo might have been tested more had Plymouth committed more men into the box, which Derek Adams’ side struggled to do all afternoon.


Ryan Brunt

The Scottish manager plotted Argyle’s route back into the game at half-time, as a seemingly apt rendition of ‘Baby, give it up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band blared through the tannoy. Adams’ decision was to take off Wylde and put on target man Ryan Brunt for the second half. While Brunt was able to hold the ball up and win the occasional flick-on, his lack of pace showed at times and the former Bristol Rovers man was not given the support and service he needed. Carey had moved to the left in Wylde’s place and while he and Tanner showed brief flashes of quality in the second half, both wide men had the inclination to drift inside. Unfortunately for them, Exeter were able to get men behind the ball due to the insurance of a two goal lead.

Plymouth left-back Gary Sawyer was not apprehensive about getting forward, yet neither did he beat the opposing full-back one-on-one. For the former Leyton Orient man to get to the byline, he needed to play triangle passing exchanges with the midfielders and this often granted Exeter extra time to get men in the way. Although Wylde had not been overly effective in the first half, Adams’ decision to take him off may have been counter-productive. Plymouth were missing a winger who could run past a full-back and this may be an area Adams will look to address in the transfer market.

One of the home side’s better performers in the second half was Oscar Threlkeld, who did well in a holding midfield role and helped limit the effects of Exeter’s few breakaways. Indeed, it was Threlkeld who scored Plymouth’s goal – a right-footed half volley from the right of the ‘D’ that bounced into the far corner.

This goal lifted the home fans, but surprisingly, not the home team. Exeter were able to retain possession after Threlkeld’s strike, as the hosts failed to build the kind of momentum one might have expected. In fact, the next meaningful effort at goal came from the Grecians. Harley tried for a hat-trick but his shot fell just wide after a delicate lay-off from the lively Watkins.


Graham Carey –

Plymouth had their moments with Graham Carey, who Adams had praised in his pre-match programme notes, coming close to scoring on three occasions. One of his shots was saved by Bobby Olejnik, one flew just over the bar and his stoppage time free-kick found the top of the net.

All of Carey’s efforts, however, had come from outside the penalty area and this was indicative of the way the second half transpired. Paul Tisdale’s side sometimes make up for a lack of physical prowess with their mobility and effective reading of the game, and that was the case on Saturday. The Grecians were very disciplined in the second half and due to the way they managed the game, Plymouth could not create any clear cut chances.

The Pilgrims seemed to approach this match with an unprofessional sense of complacency. The Green Army became the green civilians, as they lacked battling qualities and showed no desire to fight for the ball. Shortly after the match, Derek Adams stated his intentions to get experienced spine of his team back fit and one can understand why. Goalkeeper Luke McCormick, arguably the best keeper in the division, was out on Saturday, along with defender Peter Hartley, who had started every game prior to Saturday’s match. Those two players had been a pivotal part of Plymouth’s strong defensive record. Throw in the aforementioned absence of McHugh, Boateng and Reid and we can see that Adams’ small squad is in danger of becoming overly stretched.

Exeter’s victory means they are now just three points off the top seven. If the Grecians are to sustain a play-off push this season however, they must learn to perform better against the lesser, perhaps more battle-hardened sides. So far, Paul Tisdale’s side have ended Leyton Orient’s 100% record, they have been the first team to beat Portsmouth this season and now they have turned over league leaders Plymouth on their own turf. Each of the aforementioned sides undertake a smooth passing approach whilst boasting technically gifted players, but on each occasion Exeter have beaten them with a disciplined display. However, against the more direct and combative sides, AFC Wimbledon and Barnet to name a couple, the team have been bullied by the opposition’s power.


Paul Tisdale –

Saturday’s result was a confidence-boosting for Exeter and in Jamie Reid and Ollie Watkins, Paul Tisdale may have unearthed two attacking gems. However, the next step for the Grecians is to acclimatize to the rigorous and physically demanding nature of League Two football in the winter. Had Plymouth been more brutish in their approach, it might have been a different story.