When Exeter City began counting their blessings for drawing Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup, they dared to ask for just one more wish: a replay to generate even more money. Yesterday their prayer was answered.
The cash-strapped Conference club, who exist only because their supporters fought to keep them alive when their money problems threatened to swamp them 18 months ago, took with them half of the proceeds from a 67,551 crowd at Old Trafford yesterday and can expect to make further inroads into their £600,000 debt at St James's Park on 18 January when the teams meet again.
It was a reward that the non-League club thoroughly deserved. Rather than be cowed at the prospect of facing the richest club in the world, they matched United all over the pitch. And, by the time the game finished, the Cup holders included Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith. This was a bona fide piece of David matching Goliath.
At the end, the Exeter players were given a standing ovation from Old Trafford and the 10,000 supporters who had made the journey from Devon reacted like they had won the final. In a sense they had.
"The overwhelming emotion I have is pride," Alex Inglethorpe, the Exeter manager, said. "I'm incredibly proud of the team, not just the way they played but the way they have conducted themselves over the last week on and off the pitch. From the first man to the last they were magnificent."
Sir Alex Ferguson, who guided United to a record 11th win in the competition last May, did not mince words. "It was our worst performance in the FA Cup since I have been at the club," he said. "We can only apologise to the fans because they deserved better than that. We worked hard but the quality wasn't there."
When faced with the charge that he had brought the performance on himself by picking an inexperienced team, he replied: "We have used young players in the past in the League Cup and it hasn't affected our performance. I expect better from my young players."
United's team included David Jones, making his debut, and Gerard Pique, who had his first start, and the dangers inherent in fielding players who do not play together regularly became apparent from the fifth minute when Exeter's sole striker, Sean Devine, profited from a moment's hesitation and fired a shot across Tim Howard's goal.
That was encouraging enough for the minnows but after 37 minutes many among their huge travelling support thought they had gone ahead.
Andy Taylor, a former trainee at Old Trafford, curled a free-kick just by the post and as the net billowed, the Exeter fans rose in excited disbelief only to have their joy cut short when they realised that the ball had hit the side-netting.
United's efforts before the interval had been so lacklustre that you suspect the words "urgency" and "tempo" crept into the stream of expletives that was Ferguson's half-time talk. To be fair to his players, both were injected into their performance at the start of the second half.
Eric Djemba-Djemba was just wide with a shot in the 47th minute and Jones, who was described by his manager as the team's best player, had a shot saved off the line by Scott Hiley a minute later.
When the goal did not come, however, and Moxey fired a shot dangerously close to his side's bar, Ferguson's patience came to an end and after 62 minutes he was forced to introduce two of his more celebrated charges, Scholes and Ronaldo.
The result was almost instantaneous as Scholes swept the ball to the right and arrived in the area to receive the cross, teeing up Kieran Richardson. The end result was similar to what had gone before, however: a shot straight at the goalkeeper.
Smith was also introduced in an attempt to grab a goal for the increasingly embarrassed United, but although the home team bombarded the Exeter area, they could not get a goal to spare their blushes.
A 25-yard shot by Ronaldo was superbly saved by Exeter's on-loan goalkeeper Paul Jones, diving to his left after 78 minutes, and in stoppage time Scholes almost nipped in when a tackle broke to him on the edge of the area. The former England international turned, beat Jones with his shot and then watched with frustration as the ball dribbled narrowly wide.
Exeter deserved no less and the result had a precedent. The last time United played a non-League team in the FA Cup, they were held at home by Walthamstow Avenue in the fourth round in 1953. Then they won the replay 5-2; this time you suspect they might find it harder.
"The one compensation is that we are still in the competition," Ferguson said. "We won't make the same mistake for the replay. We'll field a stronger side."
- More about:
- Alan Smithers
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- FA Cup
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