SEVENTY-THREE PLACES apart in the League, but inseparable on the day. Who says the magic of the FA Cup died along with Manchester United's defection?
In the increasingly mad world that is professional football, the FA Cup provides a mighty blast of sanity. Roy Keane could buy Exeter's First XI with his weekly wage, but Cup football continues to defy the brutal logic of the stock market and insists on unearthing unlikely heroes.
Yesterday, on a strangely subdued afternoon at St James Park, Everton's multi-million- pound strikeforce was thwarted by a 37-year-old goalkeeper who had just been for an interview at the Post Office in preparation for life after football, and his replacement, an electrician who had to take a pay cut to pursue his dream of playing professional football.
Stuart Naylor was redecorating his house and pondering his first winter for 15 years back on civvy street until a phone call from Peter Fox, the burly manager of Exeter City, pitched him into one last season. At the other end of football's evolutionary cycle, Jason Matthews was wondering whether he would ever get a chance to play in the League when a loan spell at Taunton Town from Nuneaton Borough brought him to Exeter for a friendly and an unexpected role as understudy to Naylor.
The denial of Everton was a joint effort, Naylor making several fine saves in the first half and, when he was forced to retire at half-time suffering from concussion, Matthews carrying on the good work in the second. A reflex parry of Kevin Campbell's close-range header as Everton's slick passing threatened to overwhelm the Nationwide Third Division side will not be bettered this season.
"It's a dream come true," Matthews said later in a broad Gloucester burr. "I couldn't have told the story any better." Once another header, this time by Francis Jeffers, had bounced off Matthews' chest and Campbell had slid the rebound wide, Exeter began to sense that their luck was in. Though understandably outplayed for most of the match and relying increasingly on the trusty hoof into the swirling wind for relief, Exeter deserved the pre-Christmas windfall of a replay at Goodison Park on 21 December.
"We didn't have the flair to create an upset," said manager Fox, who has had his own share of Cup goalkeeping glory in the past. "But we gave a good account of ourselves."
Exeter did more than that. Urged on by the regulars in the Cowshed, surely the only stand in the League to be serviced by a tea trolley, they ran themselves into the immaculate St James Park pitch, chasing and harrying their masters at every turn.
In the young trainee Geoff Breslan, Exeter have an asset which might yet finance the redevelopment of the south stand. Breslan, quick and confident, proved a real handful for Don Hutchison until he was replaced by the combative Steve Flack on the hour mark.
If it was a tricky tie on paper for Everton, who have not won in eight Premiership games, their attitude could not be faulted. The weather, high winds and driving rain punctuated by rare bursts of sunshine, was ripe for a Cup upset, and Fox had a sneaking hope that the sight of the venerable dressing room with its single toilet might unnerve the upper-class visitors. Instead, Everton rolled up their sleeves, keeping the tempo high and the passing slick on a billiard-table surface.
Only in front of goal did their concentration slip. Four times in the first half, Naylor was forced to smother shots by Campbell and Jeffers as Exeter's flimsy offside trap failed to spring shut. Campbell and Nick Barmby had goals disallowed for fractional offsides in the first 15 minutes, but the best chance of the half fell to Jeffers, who, put through by Unsworth, outpaced the defence but shot straight at the goalkeeper.
Moments later, Campbell let a similar opportunity go begging but accidentally clattered the advancing Naylor with his boot. Naylor lay prostrate for several minutes as referee Steven Bennett inexplicably let play continue around him. The club doctor decreed at half-time that the former West Bromwich keeper's afternoon was over.
So neatly did Matthews fall into the same pattern that a few in the 6,000 crowd did not notice the switch. By now, Everton were beginning to run Exeter ragged down the wings and the Cowshed were beginning to get nervous. A neatly placed cross by Barmby landed firmly on the head of the advancing Campbell in the 60th minute. That seemed to be the end of the gallantry until Matthews shot out a left hand to deflect the ball away.
Everton spurned other chances, Exeter continued to hurl bodies into the breach, but the die was cast. For only the third time in 20 years, Exeter's name goes into the draw for the fourth round.Reuse content