Football: Villa weather Devon storm

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The Independent Online
Exeter City. . 0

Aston Villa. . 1

Saunders pen 60

Attendance: 10,570

RON ATKINSON may have sent Aston Villa out against Exeter on a dank Devon afternoon with some misgivings as the absence of Paul McGrath from defence forced him into unforeseen changes of both plan and personnel.

The misgivings were justified, as for almost an hour Villa failed to get a grip on their Second Division opponents. Their discomfort almost turned to shame in the 24th minute when Russell Coughlin sparked a sweet Exeter move with a perfectly weighted pass to Mickey Ross. The striker swept past Shaun Teale to rattle the Villa crossbar from six yards.

The opening minutes should have been warning enough for Villa. Both Simon Davies and Stuart Storer got behind their defence rather too easily, but cooler heads would have made more of the chances than simply driving their crosses into Mark Bosnich's arms.

Exeter were clearly on an adrenalin surge and a full half- hour had gone before Peter Fox in the Exeter goal was required to make a meaningful save - a splendid tip-over of a Ray Houghton volley.

By comparison, Bosnich must have wondered what was going wrong in front of him. Ross left Neil Cox for dead on the left touchline but he vainly decided to impersonate Roy of the Rovers by dribbling past every defender in sight. Coughlin, however, kept steering enough accurate and purposeful balls through to Storer and Ross to keep the Villa defence, especially Steve Staunton, on edge.

The half-time breather did not appear to do much for Villa's nerves as Exeter strove to find the extra gear that would bring them a result. Then, on the hour, it all changed.

Dean Saunders chased a ball that had been hit to Villa's right wing with more hope than accuracy. But the Welsh striker was allowed to collect and turn, to find himself facing Peter Whiston. Saunders accelerated past the static defender into the penalty box, and as Whiston tried to recover, it looked inevitable that his tackle would concede the penalty. It did, and Saunders placed the kick beyond Fox to save Aston Villa's blushes.