TWO fabulous goals at the best possible venue kept United’s slim hopes of survival very much alive on Easter Monday.
The Gulls travelled to arch rivals Exeter City knowing that anything less than a win would confirm relegation out of the Football League. Even then, results elsewhere could have been fatal but Bristol Rovers, Wycombe and Northampton all lost.
If the full-time verdict was very satisfying, United’s prospects looked very bleak 17 minutes into the game, when Scot Bennett slotted home the opener for the Grecians, who are also in the relegation mix.
After the interval, United threw everything forward and a sublime free-kick by Courtney Cameron soon had the Gulls level, setting the stage for substitute Ashley Yeoman to smash home a fantastic winner four minutes later.
United manager Chris Hargreaves made two changes after the agonising loss to Dagenham on Good Friday, with Damon Lathrope preferred to Ben Harding in midfield and Nathan Craig replacing the injured Billy Bodin.
Exeter boss Paul Tisdale made three changes to the side that draw 1-1 at Chesterfield to kick-off their Easter weekend, withdrawing Matt Grimes, Danny Coles and John O’Flynn for a new trio in the form of Pat Baldwin, Matt Gill and Tom Nichols.
A positive start from the Yellows saw Shaquile Coulthirst surge down the centre and bundle his way into a shooting position, but right-back Danny Butterfield did well to sweep in behind and make a fine cover-tackle.
The Grecians were struggling to find their rhythm in the midst of dogged engine-room work from Lathrope and captain Lee Mansell. Cameron then whipped over a fizzing free-kick for the outstanding Anthony O’Connor to glance narrowly wide.
From the next Yellow foray, the ever-industrious Elliot Benyon picked up on a loose header by Craig Woodman to weave his way into the box, but the final shot was too high to trouble young home goalkeeper Christy Pym.
United were in control, which was what made the first goal especially galling. An innocuous diagonal pass found Nichols in space and with Martin Rice advancing off his line, a short pass inside presented Bennett with an easy finish into the empty net.
The understandable disappointment in Yellow ranks was almost wiped out when a long ball from Krystian Pearce was a fraction too strong for the run of Coulthirst.
An even better chance would follow immediately after as Cameron chased down a ball on the left wing, laid back to Baily Cargill, who instantly looped a cross to the back post, where Benyon possibly should have done better than nod narrowly wide.
Exeter responded with their own spell of pressure and United needed a decent block from Peacre to deny Bennett a second. The same Gull was then culpable for a rare slip but O’Connor read the situation to deny Nichols a run on goal.
United finished the half in control of possession and territory but the lack of penetration prompted Hargreaves to remove Craig for Yeoman at half-time, and switch to a very attacking 4-2-4 formation.
Tisdale also made a change at the break, removing Nichols for O’Flynn but it was the new Gull who had an immediate impact, combining neatly with Cameron to win a corner. The set-piece fell to Lathrope on the edge of the box but he volleyed over.
O’Flynn responded with a bustling run to create space for a shot dragged wide by Liam Sercombe but the next highlight would be a stunning first goal in Yellow for Cameron.
The dual determination of Yeoman and Coulthirst won the free-kick just outside the area, but in a position that required an exquisite curl over the wall and into the top corner. Step forward Cameron to execute with perfection and it was game on.
There was tremendous urgency and tempo in United’s approach, typified by O’Connor overpowering two Grecians to win the ball and launch a long pass over the top.
Exeter were caught completely flat-footed and Yeoman got the wrong side of his man. There was still plenty of work for the youngster but his rifled half-volley gave Pym no chance, and the Yellow Army went wild with joy.
Seconds later, Pym won the battle with Yeoman as another long ball caught out the home defence but the shot was blocked by the goalkeeper’s legs.
Inevitably, the Gulls started to defend a little deeper and Pearce began the rearguard with a block on Matt Oakley’s shot. Tisdale introduced David
Wheeler for Matt Gill to give his side more attacking potency.
Elliot Richards fizzed a low shot wide on 67 minutes before a super challenge by Lathrope released Cameron in the left channel, and his low cross was inches away from finding the back-post run of Coulthirst.
Wheeler, however, was having an influence on the game and Yellow hearts stopped as a low cross drifted in front of the visiting goal. O’Flynn then suffered the embarrassment of being a subbed off 35 minutes after coming on, with Grimes the new option.
Wheeler arguably had the best chance to level with 10 minutes remaining but dragged his shot wide. The same Grecian then scooped over the bar from close-range amid scenes of unbearable tension for United.
O’Connor and Lathrope, among many others, were immense as the ball kept being pumped into the United area but Rice was the man to seal the points against his hometown club, tipping over brilliantly from a header in the final seconds.
It is still a very long shot for United to survive but the trip to Mansfield on Saturday now has real hope.
Exeter [4-5-1]: 30 Christy Pym; 2 Danny Butterfield, 5 Pat Baldwin, 15 Jordan Moore-Taylor, 3 Craig Woodman; 14 Eliot Richards, 8 Matt Oakley, 35 Matt Gill [32 David Wheeler 64], 4 Scot Bennett, 7 Liam Sercombe; 20 Tom Nichols [19 John O’Flynn H-T][29 Matt Grimes 81]. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Artur Krysiak [GK], 6 Danny Coles, 22 Jimmy Keohane, 25 Sam Parkin.
Booked: Woodman 71
United [4-5-1]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 30 Baily Cargill; 27 Shaquile Coulthirst [8 Ben Harding 89], 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 6 Damon Lathrope, 20 Nathan Craig [14 Ashley Yeoman H-T], 11 Courtney Cameron; 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Michael Poke, 4 Aaron Downes, 12 Jordan Chapell, 15 Niall Thompson, 20 Danny Stevens.
Booked: Yeoman 62, Lathrope 82
Referee: Roger East
Attendance: 5,221 [478 away].