The Exiles have closed the gap on safety to just three points with a 1-0 away win over Exeter City.
In a game delayed by an accident on the M5, Tom Owen-Evans scored the game’s only goal with a sublime effort in the 53rd minute.
In the battle of the fan-owned clubs, County defended resiliently until the end as they recorded their 2nd straight victory.
Caretaker manager Mike Flynn decided to make two changes to the side that beat Crawley last time out at Rodney Parade. Tom Owen-Evans came back into the side to replace the suspended Joss Labadie, with Mark Randall, starting his first game since January, replacing Sean Rigg.
Grecians manager Paul Tisdale also made two changes to his side that beat Mansfield in their last fixture. Ollie Watkins and Jack Stacey dropped to the bench as Reuben Reid and Jordan Tillson started.
Ahead of the game, Exeter were on one of the best runs in the division with just three defeats in 22 league games. During that period, the club had a spell where they won nine out of 11 as they rose into the play-offs (6th) from 20th position. Grecians top scorer David Wheeler set a new club record in that time, after scoring in seven consecutive matches; the first coming at Rodney Parade on New Year’s Eve.
In their previous two games, the Grecians scored all five of their goals after the 84th minute - something Flynn warned his players to be wary of. That included a heroic comeback against Yeovil Town in their last game at St James Park when they salvaged a draw after being 3-0 down after 88 minutes.
Flynn said in his weekly press conference that his side were “feeling positive and full of belief” ahead of the short trip across the water and that is exactly how they started, as the Exiles’ first chance came within 80 seconds of the start, but Ryan Bird was penalised for a push in the area.
County continued their positive start with another half-chance but Alex Samuel couldn’t quite guide his header towards goal.
That was all either side could muster in the first ten minutes. County looked the better at that stage, having the majority of possession and looking the likelier to do something.
But for all that early County domination, Exeter almost scored against the run of play in the 11th minute. The ball fell kindly to Ryan Harley from a cross, who may have scored had ex-Grecian Scot Bennett not blocked the shot.
County retaliated just seconds later but Christy Pym got down well to deny a Dan Butler volley from a Mitch Rose cross.
Pym would not be required for County’s next chance, as Tom Owen-Evans shot well over the bar from the edge of the area.
David Wheeler should have done better in the 18th minute for the home side after being found by a cross and beating the offside trap, but his header went straight into the arms of a relieved Joe Day.
And he may have been left rueing that miss but Ryan Bird couldn’t give County the lead as his shot was easily saved by Pym.
Wheeler then had another glorious chance to open the lead for the Grecians, but his header from a header was again straight at Day.
The game seemed to be heading into a lull but County responded with Mitch Rose forcing a save from Pym. David Wheeler then had his 3rd headed opportunity in the 34th minute but it was the same scenario as Joe Day made another comfortable save.
Troy Brown then came close to an opener for the home side but he couldn’t divert his header goalward.
The introduction of one additional minute seemed to spark County into creating a final chance of the first-half. And the chance fell to Ryan Bird, but his header went narrowly wide of the far post.
A first half that seemed visibly affected by the delayed kick-off with neither team getting a major foothold in the game. County slightly edging proceedings but both keepers would be very happy if every half was played in that fashion.
Grecians manager Paul Tisdale decided to make one change at half-time to try to spark his side alive, but he would not have been happy that the first chance fell for County, but Owen-Evans couldn’t get his shot on target.
And he would have been even more dismayed at his side’s poor start but Ryan Bird missed a glorious opportunity form 2 yards after the keeper had failed to collect a David Pipe cross.
The goal was coming… and it finally came in the 53rd minute. Owen-Evans picked the ball up about 40 yards out, drifted inside and unleashed a calm finish into the bottom corner from 25 yards. His first senior goal (that counted) was one of pure quality, and second at St James Park after scoring one another superb goal here in his youth days.
Flynn had urged his team to be more “clinical” in front of goal and it was clear that Owen-Evans certainly got the message.
The goal coincided with news that Hartlepool had drew 1-1 with Morecambe and Cheltenham Town had drew 3-3 at Wycombe - and the Amber Army certainly responded in fine voice at those.
Tisdale responded by throwing on 21-year-old Ollie Watkins, who was involved almost immediately but the referee waved play on after appeals form Watkins for a corner.
Two chances then came and went for County with Butler and Samuel firing over in a matter of seconds.
Exeter seemed to respond the better after the goal with lots of possession and numerous crosses, but the County defence held firm to keep them out.
Flynn decided to replace Bird with Aaron Williams to try to regain the initiative, and his first involvement was to give away a free-kick.
Ollie Watkins then tried his luck from 30 yards as the home crowd started to become impatient but again Day was equal to it.
The game’s first yellow card came in the 70th minute and it was awarded to County’s Mark Randall after the midfielder had given away a few free-kicks during the game.
Exeter then created three chances in a matter of moments but both Ollie Watkins, who had two efforts and Reuben Reid were met by a stubborn County defence.
The Grecians didn’t seem to have an answer to the hard-working Exiles with Joe Day barely having a save of note with five minutes to play.
County sub Darren Jones then found himself receiving a yellow card as County fought back every Exeter attack.
And County used that fighting determination to see out the game without any real threat from the five additional minutes.
County had done what Yeovil and Mansfield couldn’t do in the past two weeks and prevent Exeter from scoring in added time. That meant the 300+ Exiles fans went home the happier after being delayed in traffic before the game. The extra time for the journey was well worth the delay as County completed the first of the “six cup finals” with victory as the gap continues to decrease – with even the most pessimistic of County fans surely now believing that the ‘Great Escape’ will happen.
County: Day, Pipe (C), Bennett, Demetriou, O’Brien, Butler, Owen-Evans, Rose, Randall (Jones 74), Samuel (Myrie Williams 90+2), Bird (Williams 64)
Subs not used: Bittner, Gordon, Barnum-Bobb, Nelson
Exeter: Pym, Sweeney, Brown, Moore-Taylor(C) (Stacey 45), Croll, Tillson (Watkins 14), James (Oakley 65), Taylor, Harley, Wheeler, Watkins
Subs not used: Olejnik, Grant, McAlinden, Ampadu
Referee: Eddie Ilderton
Attendance: 4,040 (364 County)