We managed to make hard work of that one. Or rather it seemed like we wanted it to be easy and Exeter weren’t simply content to play patsie. The instructions seemed to be blow them away early and coast the game, to save energy for the two away trips coming up next week. And it nearly worked, as in the first 25 minutes we must have had at least 10 attempts on goal. But nothing went in and by the time the first goal came, shortly before half-time, we had lapsed into some pretty ordinary stuff, which continued for most of the second before we were gifted what turned out to be the winner.
Shock, horror, a change to the starting XI. Semedo was presumably unfit and was replaced understandably by Spring. No real problem there – and Spring went on to have a fine game – but the only concern was whether this would disrupt the team, in particular Racon, who has looked very comfortable alongside Jose so far this campaign. In the event it mattered little, which is credit to Spring. Although over the final two-thirds of the game we were pretty poor, I’d put this down more to an apparent desire to conserve energy than the change to the team.
We did come out of the blocks well and to borrow another cliché if it was a boxing match .... With Sam causing problems down the right and Exeter both unable to hold the ball and carrying no evident attacking threat we could easily have been two or three up. There were no glaring misses, just a succession of half-chances. Bailey and Youga put in superb crosses which weren’t finished off, while a free kick in a very dangerous position on the edge of the box saw Shelvey shoot weakly (is there something in his contract which says he has to take every attacking free kick and corner?).
Without at least one goal for our efforts and the early storm seen off, not surprisingly Exeter came more into it. And while not looking especially dangerous they were assisted by some individual mistakes. Richardson was caught out badly once and later gave away an unnecessary corner which produced a powerful header well cleared on the line by Bailey, while Llera, who again looked dominating for most of the time, horribly misjudged one cross (was the sun in his eyes?) which almost let them in.
By now the crowd were getting restless and it came as a little surprise when we took the lead. A short corner was well played in and Bailey managed a deft touch to convert. Relief all round and at the break it seemed like one more and we could all go home happy.
Unfortunately even against modest opposition scoring goals often requires effort – and for most of the second half that was lacking. Pass and move is great, but pass and stand still kind of defeats the object. Too often players were static and when one – most often Racon – tried to raise the tempo and make things happen they ended up isolated. There were good moments, but not the sustained control of the game we saw early on. And Exeter again grew in confidence. Their left-winger was a problem all afternoon and again mistakes crept in. Elliot, who otherwise had a fine game, made a complete hash of one cross and was fortunate to see the ball headed over. They did open us up through the middle once, but the effort was ruled offside.
McLeod came on, this time for Burton rather than Shelvey. And after an indifferent start he was to show Deon’s talent for being in the right place as Exeter gifted us a second. Shelvey found himself in a good position on the left but put in a poor cross. Instead of one of the three defenders hoofing it clear, their keeper came and palmed it out to around the penalty spot, straight to McLeod’s feet. For a forward who the manager says just needs a goal to really kick on you couldn’t ask for much more. He didn’t miss. (It’s a small point, and I’m delighted with the way we are playing this season, but it’s evident that at this level you are often gifted goals and sometimes just getting the ball into dangerous areas is enough to produce mistakes.)
That we all thought was game over. Wagstaff came on for Racon, with Sam – who was anonymous in the second half – switching to the left and Bailey moving inside, presumably to shut up shop. Instead a shot was pushed out by Elliot, who then managed to turn to follow-up over the bar. And there was still time for a cross to be headed home to give Exeter some hope. The goal came as the fourth official was signalling three minutes of injury time and, with a little messing around by the corner flag, the time was played out, with Sodje coming on in the final seconds (did this extend the game as I reckon the officials added at least five minutes). As he’s off for the Nigeria squad I trust this won’t prove to be the shortest appearance in a Charlton shirt (and as noted in the programme, with Llera only one booking away from a suspension we could have problems in the games ahead).
So, general relief at the final whistle and, although it wasn’t a great display overall, if it was a win negotiated without too much exertion that’s fair enough. We will find out over the coming week. I didn’t much care about Leeds’ last-minute winner; it’s far too early to be that concerned about whether we are first or second - and in any event whether we are top next Saturday will be down to how we cope with the next two away games.
Elliot: 7/10. Sound overall but loses a point for the misjudged cross.
Richardson: 7/10. Was up against a tricky winger and was found out once or twice, but kept at it and got forward well in the second half.
Youga: 8/10. Solid defensively and got forward well throughout the game.
Llera: 7/10. As with Elliot, loses a point for one bad moment, but generally impressive.
Dailly: 8/10. I thought he had an excellent game, good interceptions and a calming influence.
Bailey: 8/10. Scored the goal, headed off the line, plus some dangerous crosses. Hope the investigation from Norwich comes to nothing.
Spring: 8/10. I’d make him my man of the match. Read the game well and kept things ticking over, with a couple of very timely tackles.
Racon: 7/10. Never stopped trying to make things happen, but ended up down some blind alleys, usually through lack of support.
Sam: 7/10. Very good early on, but disappeared from the game in the second half as we struggled to get things working going forward.
Shelvey: 6/10. Not especially good today, shot wide from a good position. Might claim an assist for the second goal, but it would be stretching a point.
Burton: 7/10. Some very good link-up play, but was tiring in the second half (maybe feeling the nose?).
Subs: McLeod (7/10 – wasn’t setting the game alight, but was in the right place for the second); Wagstaff (6/10 – no time to have a real impact); Sodje (10/10 – didn’t put a foot wrong).