JUST when things were looking bright in the Yellow world, United’s season took a turn back to the dark side and against the worst possible opposition as well.
Exeterpopped into Plainmoor and were comfortably outplayed in the opening 45 minutes, but somehow led after Karl Hawley missed a penalty for the Gulls and Tom Nichols exacted the ultimate punishment with a super strike.
David Wheeler added another fine goal on the hour and the game looked over until Hawley pulled one back but, as United began their desperate search for the leveller, Alan Gow pounced on a poor error to complete a 3-1 win for the Grecians.
United manager Alan Knill was forced into two changes from the Boxing Day draw with Bristol Rovers and the first was a major blow. A burst cyst forced out in-form striker John Marquis and his role as the central striker went to Hawley.
The other Yellow change saw Jordan Chapell also struggling with injury and he dropped down to the bench, allowing Courtney Cameron his first start in three months.
United’s bench was also missing Jayden Stockley, who has gone back to parent-club Bournemouth in a bid to finally fix the injured back that has blighted his time as a Gull. The shuffling opened up a space for second-year apprentice Sam Chaney to join the replacements.
Exeterboss Paul Tisdale opted for just one change to the side narrowly beaten at Cheltenham three days ago. Matt Grimes dropped down to the bench and was replaced by former Swindon forward Sam Parkin.
The game started at a pace expected from a Devon derby and young Jak McCourt wasted no time introducing himself to the Exeter midfield with some biting tackles in the early stages.
Perhaps the legs were still rattling when Liam Sercombe scythed down Billy Bodin on six minutes for the most obvious penalty you are ever likely to see.
Hawley grabbed the ball in confident fashion and looked to drown out the Exeter jeers from behind the goal, but those jeers turned into huge cheers as Krysiak guessed correct, diving to his left to produce an excellent save from the spot.
It was the last thing Hawley’s confidence needed but his team-mates did everything possible to remedy the miss, with Bodin and Damien Mozika driving the Gulls forward in a mini-siege on the Grecians’ goal.
Tisdale was soon forced to shuffle his midfield pack, as the experienced Matthew Gill hobbled out of the action to be replaced by Grimes after just 15 minutes of a frantic derby.
The Grecians were struggling to find their rhythm on a pitch that had defied torrential recent rain to look in fairly good condition and the Gulls, led by the dancing feet of Bodin, were the side causing more problems in the final third.
When the visitors did get a sniff at goal, it stemmed from a loose touch by McCourt presenting the ball to Parkin on the edge of the area but the youngster made swift amends with a block tackle to remove the danger.
United wasted no time in piling back up the other end and Bodin tied left-back Jordan Moore-Taylor in a big Yellow knot before his driven cross to the near post was beaten clear by the clenched fists of Krysiak.
There was no doubt the better football was coming from those in Yellow, including a magical trick on the wing by captain Lee Mansell, but the lack of clear-cut opportunities was a credit to stubborn defending from Exeter.
The resistance was rewarded with a stunning goal on 38 minutes from Nichols. Parkin was the instigator by winning an aerial tussle with Anthony O’Connor that left United’s centre-back crumpled on the ground.
Nichols seized the ball on the flank, weaved a path inside and then let fly with a fabulous right-foot strike from 25 yards that beat Michael Poke at the near-post. The pace on the shot was superb but still harsh on the Gulls.
Cameron sought an immediate riposte with a well-executed left-foot volley aimed at the top corner but Krysiak shuffled his feet across to safely clutch the ball, and the away end at Plainmoor was understandably bouncing.
The half ended with a fabulous save from Poke to deny a skidding drive by Wheeler but Krysiak would not be outshone, producing an equally impressive block to again disappoint Hawley after the outstanding Bodin had created room for the shot.
It was difficult to comprehend how the Gulls began the second period as the team trailing but a failure to capitalise when dominating games has been the scourge of their season so far.
Exeter, rightly chuffed with the scoreline, emerged from the interval looking a brighter outfit and passed the ball with the authority that has been their hallmark in recent seasons.
United’s growing problem was a strange reluctance to cross the ball when opportunities arose. The approach work was decent but instead of slinging it in the box to see what happens, the extra pass or body swerve allowed the visitors time to recover.
Cameron decided it was time to change the pattern and he delivered an enticing ball to the near post after skipping past Danny Butterfield, and Hawley was only denied a vital equaliser by Krysiak swiftly narrowing the angles.
Within a minute, City were two goals clear and it was another excellent finish from the visitors. Wheeler looked no threat when he picked up the ball on the left wing but in a flash, he raced past Aaron Downes and Dale Tonge.
Poke was suddenly exposed and despite closing the angle, Wheeler had the momentum to rifle a tremendous side-foot shot into the bottom corner and send the away end wild with joy once more.
Bodin, who else, grabbed the chance for an instant reply and was unlucky to see his thunderous strike narrowly miss the top corner. Grimes then had a free-kick tipped over by Poke and it was clear the next goal was massive.
Knill decided the time was right for a change with a quarter of the match remaining, introducing Elliot Benyon for McCourt and switching to the conventional 4-4-2 system.
The new man took just a few minutes to make his mark, chasing down a long pass from Mansell into the right channel and then delivering a swinging cross for Hawley to volley neatly past Krysiak.
The goal was a study in simplicity and testament to the theory of getting the ball in the box at every given opportunity. Credit to Hawley for making belated amends after missing the early penalty.
Momentum was now in Yellow backs and Krysiak needed good hands to gobble up a low shot from Benyon. Chapell then came on for Cameron and Exeter removed Parkin for the fresh legs of Arron Davies.
The Gulls were throwing men forward, a point proved by O’Connor popping up on the right wing after more good work by Bodin and the defender’s driven cross forced a good clearance from Pat Baldwin.
Sadly, the same Gull was responsible for conceding a decisive third for the visitors. O’Connor appeared to have the situation under control when a headed clearance from midfield fell at his feet but an untimely stumble allowed Gow the space to race through and slot past the stranded Poke.
Tisdale had the luxury of then replacing his match-winner with Jimmy Keohane and the Grecians sauntered across the finish line with infuriating comfort.
You must score when on top in games and United have three days to heed that lesson before the next Devon derby at Home Park on New Year’s Day.
United [4-3-3]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Dale Tonge, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 4 Aaron Downes, 21 Thomas Cruise; 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 17 Jak McCourt (26 Elliot Benyon 67), 36 Damien Mozika; 11 Courtney Cameron (12 Jordan Chapell 74), 9 Karl Hawley, 10 Billy Bodin. Substitutes [not used]: 5 Krystian Pearce, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 20 Nathan Craig, 22 Sam Chaney, 31 Daniel Sullivan.
Booked:Downes 62, Mansell 76
Exeter [4-3-3]: 1 Artur Krysiak; 2 Danny Butterfield, 4 Scot Bennett, 5 Pat Baldwin [capt], 15 Jordan Moore-Taylor; 7 Liam Sercombe, 35 Matthew Gill (29 Matt Grimes 15), 32 David Wheeler; 10 Alan Gow (22 Jimmy Keohane 88), 20 Tom Nichols, 25 Sam Parkin (11 Arron Davies 78).
Substitutes [not used]: 3 Craig Woodman, 18 Jamie Reid, 19 John O’Flynn, 29 Matt Grimes, 30 Christy Pym [GK].
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Attendance: 4,231 (1,255 away).