Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
WHATEVER the reasons, Paul McGrath could not have picked a more awkward moment for his latest attack of the AWOLs. The famed resilience of Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager, must have been under severe strain for most of the Cup tie at Exeter's St James Park. And the 10,000 capacity crowd should have streamed out of The Cowshed lowing contentedly at having humbled their Premiership visitors.
Instead they had to ponder why fortune seldom favours the brave. It chose here to let Villa save their reputations and faces with a 60th- minute penalty.
There was no doubt that it was a penalty. Dean Saunders had scorched past Peter Whiston on the hour and the defender's only recourse was to pull the legs from under the Welshman while he was still within range. The Villa striker made a professional job of the spot- kick and the adrenalin surge that had lifted Exeter on to a par with their visitors visibly waned.
Alan Ball, the Exeter manager, was pleased as punch with the performance and admitted that they were punished for their only mistake. Ron Atkinson meanwhile kept his own counsel, although it was obvious that anyone thinking the stuff of a late Premiership challenge is lurking within this Villa side should seek help.
The shuffling of the pack necessitated by McGrath's absence did underline what a tower of strength Shaun Teale has become, although Steve Staunton did have a nervous afternoon as Russell Coughlin, the Exeter captain, persisted in pushing accurate through-balls to the willing Stuart Storer. The Second Division side's tactic of filling the midfield with bodies caused most of Villa's discomfort as Kevin Richardson, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton found it nigh impossible to shake themselves free of defensive duties. This might explain why it took Villa more than half an hour to force a meaningful save from Peter Fox in the home goal.
Except for the scoreline, little went right for Villa. Dalian Atkinson may as well have stayed in bed; Saunders still lacks the confidence that is mother's milk to goal-scorers; only the resourcefulness of Teale and Earl Barrett epitomised the class difference that should have separated these sides. But, what the hell, isn't that what the FA Cup is supposed to be all about?
Goal: Saunders 0-1 (60).
Exeter City (4-4-2): Fox; Minett, Brown, Bailey, Whiston; Daniels, Coughlin, Davies, Wigley (Phillips, 67); Storer, Ross. Substitutes not used: Redwood, Veysey (gk).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, Cox; Houghton, Parker, Richardson, Townsend; Saunders, Atkinson. Substitutes not used: Whittingham, Small, Spink (gk).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).