Exeter given a taste of own medicine

<preform>As Manchester United replay looms, FA Cup heroes struggle to live with being favourites at a lesser level. Mike Rowbottom</b></i> reports from Billericay</preform>
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The Independent Football

At 2-0 down with less than 10 minutes remaining of Saturday's FA Trophy third-round tie at Billericay Town, it seemed Exeter City, between appointments with Manchester United, were about to suffer a scaled-down version of the upset they had inflicted at Old Trafford a week earlier.

At 2-0 down with less than 10 minutes remaining of Saturday's FA Trophy third-round tie at Billericay Town, it seemed Exeter City, between appointments with Manchester United, were about to suffer a scaled-down version of the upset they had inflicted at Old Trafford a week earlier.

As the Conference club teetered on the brink of defeat by opponents from the Ryman Premier League, two divisions down, an elderly Exeter fan announced in true "jumpers for goalposts" fashion: "It's heroes to zeros, isn't it?"

The visitors' predicament was made harder to bear by incessant mockery from Billericay's fans, who frequently aired the proposition that Cornwall is better than Devon. There were sundry references also to sheep, tractors - hardly fair given that the home side's ground backs onto rolling acres of farmland - and Plymouth Argyle.

However, two goals in the space of two minutes from Jake Edwards and Sean Devine eventually renewed the status of the side who will play host to Sir Alex Ferguson and co for their FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday night. Heroes they remain, and it is hard to envisage anything taking place at St James' Park that will alter that perception.

As the supporters filed out of the ramshackle New Lodge ground, their differing reactions to the result echoed those induced by the previous week's goalless draw in Manchester - although this time it was the Exeter fans who were expressing the world-weary frustration of those with so much to do and so little time in which to do it.

"A replay," said one visitor to his mate. "That's all we need right now." For the home contingent in the crowd of 1,380, however, the match had an entirely different feel. "We got a replay," said a Billericay fan in blue, adding with a rueful laugh: "We're still in the draw."

The parallels with the Old Trafford match went further, as Exeter took to the field with five of those who had started the match in Manchester on the bench. Billericay, whose keeper, Paul Gothard, saved a penalty from Exeter's Gareth Sheldon after just three minutes, took full advantage.

Seven minutes before half-time, Billericay's centre half, Robin Trott, achieved what Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Alan Smith had failed to do a week earlier by heading home from a corner, and a minute into the second half more abysmal Exeter marking allowed Steve Forbes to force home another goal.

It seemed the forebodings of the 500 or so visiting supporters were being realised. Among those supping happily in the Billericay clubhouse before the game were Chris Clark and Paul Marks, who had made the four-hour drive from Exeter together. "Us being the big guns in any competition feels weird," said Clark. "We're not used to it." His friend added: "It wouldn't surprise me if we got beaten today."

Exeter's performance in avoiding that fate gave heart to the club's director of football, the former Tottenham captain Steve Perryman. "We got away with it today," he said. "At 2-0 down we could have been thinking, 'Oh well, it's United on Wednesday.' But we didn't stop, and that's a great sign."

Perryman acts as a hugely experienced sounding board for Exeter's 33-year-old manager Alex Inglethorpe, and leaves his phone on during games in case his opinions are sought. The practice backfired on Saturday, however, as, with just 10 minutes to go, he fielded a call from the Exeter bowling alley where his daughter was due to hold a party, asking whether there had been 15 or 16 places booked.

Exeter's Brazilian centre-back Santos Gaia, whose header was helped over the line by Edwards to bring the visitors back into the game, is now turning his mind to marking Wayne Rooney. He will be able to draw upon top-class experience, however, having played at the Maracana Stadium as a member of Brazil's Under-17 side, where his team-mates included Juan, now playing for Bayer Leverkusen, and Valencia's Renato.

Inglethorpe, meanwhile, maintained the composure he had shown at Old Trafford as he looked forward to a week which will finish with a vital match against Conference leaders Barnet. Asked who he would prefer to beat, Manchester United or Barnet, he replied: "Barnet of course." Before adding with a grin: "I don't believe that. I didn't even believe it when I said it."

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