This was a thoroughly convincing and richly merited victory. We were the better side - by far.
Yes, we did look every bit as good as we did through the season's first three and a half months. No, we cannot yet confidently declare that we have banished our bad spell to distant memory. This was one win, and one win only. But it was very encouraging. Johnsson had his best game for months, Greaves his best of the season and Ryan Williams provided the most positive contribution - by far - of his short and so far low-key Tiger career. And so was the midfield won, and the three points duly followed.
Both Jamaican internationals were absent, and Tuesday's tormented twosome, Petty and Matthews, were permitted the chance to spend more time with their families, so we kicked-off attacking Bunkers with a solid-looking 4-4-2:
Which, statto fans, was only one berth shy of a line-up calculated to place righteous smiles on the faces of us old-timers. For numbers 1 - 9, and number 11 are all in that selection; only Rowe (10), yielding to Johnsson (15), prevented a perfect batch.
It was a bright amber-and-black opening as the team got down to business with zeal. And none more so than Mark Greaves. I confess that his form has been so patchy and lack-lustre since he re-emerged after his long spell out through injury that I was beginning to fear that his physical vigour and self-belief had been fatally damaged. Not a bit of it. He was a giant in midfield yesterday. Early on an Exe was trotting along with the ball, thinking himself lucky to be playing football on a bright blustery day in our grand Northern city.
And suddenly - whooosh! THUMP! - a spectacularly perfect tackle dumped him on the seat of his pants and Greavsie was striding away with the ball at his confident feet. The next time the toppled Exe got close to our maestro, a minute or so later, he tried a dose of verbal intimidation. Greaves smiled at him, wolfishly. "Want some more?" The man in red did not. Midfield was ours. Jonsson took a lead from his partner, and he quickly began to command possession and seek out intelligent passes. In no time at all he resembled the firm-but-fair footballer who made such a big impression in the centre of the pitch last Autumn but who has lately gone AWOL. Exeter were second to every ball, and even when they did get possession, we usually promptly took it back off them.
All we now needed was a goal to confirm our ascendancy. Both Dudfield and Alexander looked to have the pace and intelligence to disconcert their markers and both were engaging in some increasingly attractive one-touch fluency. Dudfield raced clear once, twice, three times, only to be halted by an over-eager linesman on the Kempton side. That same liner, too ready to identify offsides, nevertheless had the ideal vantage point for, but failed miserably to spot, a blatantly deliberate smack in the chops administered to Dudfield. A red card was in order here but the Exe thug got clean away with it. It did not deter the mighty Dude. And our pressure mounted. Williams darted forward for a rare shot, and though it was comfortably held by Fraser, the sound visiting keeper (and a Private man, I hope), it was a sign that our whole team was ready to re-visit the Winner's Enclosure.
And we scored, as we damn' well should have. Beresford punted in a long cross which was flicked across the goalmouth by a defender whose mission was to deny Dudfield a free header but who merely succeeded in setting up the unmarked Jonsson for a shot at the back post. The Whaler kept calm and planted a well-executed shot into the back of the Exeter net. Fine finish; compellingly sustained attacking play.
It would be easy to dismiss Exeter as an untidy side showing unacceptably low levels of commitment to a tough match a long way from home. And, true, they were ploddingly poor. Their only serious sight of our goal during the first period was a Tiger gift, as the silent Musselwhite and the hushed Whittle converged on a long bouncing ball, seemingly entirely unaware of each other's plans, a mess that offered Burly Bruiser Flack a glimpse of a chance to poach an equaliser. But Flack is to cunning larceny what Donald Rumsfeld is to global humanitarian concern, and Mike Edwards stepped in clear the danger. But, dismal as Exeter looked, their recent form is excellent. So credit to City for quelling them so utterly.
And so to the second half, which featured more of the same - Tiger superiority, largely unchallenged. And our early threats came from a rather unlikely source. Who is this chiselled-featured hotshot, striding forward in the manner of Franco Baresi and shooting in the style of Roberto Carlos? I give you a Josimar for the new generation, Mr Michael Edwards. A right foot shot from 25 yards whistled six inches wide of Fraser's left-hand post, followed two minutes later by a low left-foot shot which thundered into the Exe netman's gut. Yesterday Edwards was, once again, very good indeed.
And the same must be said of Williams. So THIS is why we bought him! It's taken a while, but this sort of display is a reminder that this lad should be too good for this Division. In the second half in particular, his readiness to take possession, to look for the next pass and to move into space was exemplary. Williams is not quite the equal of another quality wee man, Alain Giresse, but yesterday he was the ideal linking midfield wide man. And a clutch of crowd-pleasing flicks and feints had Kempton wreathed in smiles. It was quality delivery from Williams that earned us the second goal of the afternoon. Hard work in midfield resulted in the ball being transferred via Greaves and Edwards to Williams, wide on the right in front of Kempton, and he stroked a quite gorgeous cross, curving in behind the defence but away from the clutches of the goalkeeper, to Alexander, who had astutely drifted into space at the back post. His header was duly despatched back across the face of the goal and inside the far post, and, at 2-0, the points were safe.
Alexander celebrated extravagantly, and if this strike is enough to tip him back into his most lucrative vein of scoring form, then the season will surely end in glory.
He nearly had another one too, when a through ball arrived at his feet deep inside the box. But he tumbled over the ball and though a defender seemed to have simultaneously tapped his ankles, the referee was not interested in the claim for a penalty. Probably fair enough. The search was now on for a goal for the deserving Dudfield. A low shot was well saved. Then, with the Exeter defence scattered raggedly over the Ark sward, the Dude pounced on a loose ball and crashed a sharp shot straight Fraser. The re-bound fell behind Dudfield, but he turned swiftly and crafted a magnificent chip, high up over the stranded keeper and destined for the gaping net. But it landed on top of the crossbar and fell behind. It was a superb piece of skill and though Dudfield lacks the natural goalscoring instinct of Alexander, he is much the more skilful of the duo. And together they are a joy to watch. As was this game. 2-0 it finished and a brief flurry from Exeter in the final minutes, culminating in a couple of hopeful shots, did not disguise the fact that they had been comprehensively out-swaggered by a resurgent Tiger.
Any reservations? Well, we lost Whittle to a hamstring strain in the second half (Mohan deputised) and Whittle's absence over the coming fixtures would be a blow. Any criticisms? I suppose that, given our domination of possession, we should have created more clear-cut scoring opportunities. And the quality of Beresford's crossing, though improved when compared with the Carlisle match, is still disappointing, and fell far below the standard attained by Williams. And, moreover, at this time of grief for the nation, I have to point the finger of blame at Mr Little for his abject failure to offer any noticeable support or advice to plucky Tim Henman during last night's titanic tussle. Who will defend him now?
And this win proves what, exactly? A week ago I would have said "Nothing". We know that we are a powerful and convincing side on our own turf, and this would simply have provided further confirmation. But even that claim was undermined by the Carlisle debacle, so as a minimum we can cheerfully insist that yesterday's victory restored the belief that when we play properly at home, we win. The big issue now is to inject this type of vigour and aggression into our displays away from home and to construct an unbeaten run - better, a winning run - over the torrent of games that we currently face, Saturday and almost every Tuesday, all the way into early March. I would be greatly discouraged if we did not play 4-4-2 again on Tuesday night, and I hope that, fitness permitting, we start at Southend with the same eleven that flattened Exeter.
Report by: Stephen Weatherill